Film fest, part 3: Northampton

Friday, November 02
NORTHAMPTON — Die-hard movie fans are filing into this quaint and picturesque little city on the Connecticut River as round three of the annual fall festival circuit begins here tonight and continues throughout this weekend and next.

With FilmColumbia's 2007 season now history and Williamstown's festival moving into its second weekend, the Northampton Independent Film Festival is ready for its close-up.

In its 13th edition, NIFF is the oldest of the festivals in this region. Like all the more than 1,000 film festivals throughout the world, typically NIFF has its eye focused on the future of the industry. This year Northampton has embraced that hopeful vision in its theme, "The Future We Will Create," which happens to be part of the title of this evening's opening film and gala.

The party comes first this year, and following that gala, which begins at 5:30 p.m. with food and drinks at the Northampton Center for the Arts, the crowd will walk en masse across the street to the venerable Academy of Music. There, the handsome red velvet curtain will part to make way for the evening's big attraction, the first of some 120 films.

"The Future We Create: Inside the World of TED" is a documentary by Steven Latham and his producing partner, Daphne Zuniga. Latham, a former resident of Florence, is the creator of the PBS series "The Living Century." Zuniga, the film's narrator, is the well-known actress who includes among her credits the role of Jo Reynolds on the television soap opera, "Melrose Place."

The film goes behind the scenes of the annual Technology, Entertainment, Design conference in Monterey, Calif. and offers the wisdom and ideas of some of the world's most fascinating thinkers and achievers, according to Jeffrey Dreisbach, the festival's new director.

Among the film's participants are the Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore, Peter Gabriel, the musician, the environmentalist Majora Carter and a number of comedians, authors and innovators from around the globe. The film will be repeated sans the gala trappings Nov. 9 at 4 p.m. in the Academy.

"Although it is somewhat unusual to show a documentary for a festival opening, the message is one of hope and awe, and one that resonated so profoundly that we received permission to use the title for our theme this year," Dreisbach said in an early announcement.

Interviewed by phone this past week, Dreisbach said the screening will be attended by both Latham and Zuniga.

"In fact, more than 30 filmmakers are coming, more than any time ever in festival history. It's almost as though the festival has gotten new buzz," said Dreisbach with obvious enthusiasm, noting that more than 500 films had been submitted for the festival by their makers, another record for NIFF.

In a major change, Dreisbach, with the support of his board, has altered the NIFF schedule from four or five days of continuous events to two weekends, running from tonight through Sunday, then resuming next Friday and concluding Nov. 10.

Aside from the festival's wide range of dramatic features, comedies, documentaries, animation films and shorts, Dreisbach has scheduled a live performance for the first time. John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful will perform in a concert Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy. Sebastian's appearance, made possible by the Reel Blues Festival, will be preceded by an opening act, Ernie and the Automatics.

"I thought it would be really fun to have a kick-butt event to end the festival," Dreisbach declared.

The festival also has added another important venue: Weinstein Auditorium, on the adjacent Smith College campus, formerly known as Wright Hall. According to Dreisbach, the hall has been refurbished into a comfortable, carpeted 400-seat theater that will be ideal for some major events not being presented in the 800-seat Academy.

As expected, the war in Iraq is a hot topic for independent filmmakers, and the festival offers several examples.

"War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death" is Alex Peterson's widely-discussed documentary about government propaganda, with Sean Penn as its narrator.

Patrick Donnelly's "Divergence" relates the intersecting tales of a helicopter pilot wounded in Iraq, seeking peace in quiet community while dreading a return to war, and a young woman whose husband and child were victims of a drunk driver.

Andy Blood posits that his documentary, "My War, My Story," is not anti-military. Rather than profiling the anger of civilian protestors, it visits Iraq war vets across the nation who oppose the conflict and presents their reasons in their own words.

Reaching back to the Vietnam War in "No Unwounded Soldiers," Rebecca Abbott explores how participation in the arts — music, dance and theater — can help heal the emotional and psychological scars of war.

Jeremy Earp's documentary, "Reel Bad Arabs," touches Mid-East problems as well, basing his film on Jack Shaheen's best-seller, "Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People."

Through its camera techniques, deft acting and bizarre turns-of- plot Kerry Douglas Dye's "Body/Antibody," a dark comedy involving a man suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder, activates any latent OCD tendencies in the viewer. Greg Chwerchak's "Greetings From the Shore," a summertime, coming-of-age tale and an ideal date-night flick, involves a college-bound teenager and an aggregation of Russian sailors meeting at a Jersey beach resort. It has charm, romance and a touch of evil, but good inevitably triumphs. A promising newcomer, Kim Shaw, is a knockout in the "Doris Day" role. Paul Sorvino, David Fumero and Jay O. Sanders are the other leads.

Other notable first-weekend films mentioned by Dreisbach include "War Eagle Arkansas," Robert Milazzo's character-driven drama about a young man's dilemma of whether to pursue a career in professional baseball or remain to redeem his struggling community, and the Israeli film, "Pickles" by Dalit Kimor, exploring the hurdles faced by a group of Arab widows in establishing a pickle factory in their tiny village to support themselves and their children. This screening is co-sponsored by the Pioneer Valley Jewish Film Festival.

"A Book of Truth, A Book of Lies," Mikhail Dvortsov's film about two Russian immigrants and intellectual dreamers in pre-9/11 New York explores the men's reasons for their atheism and belief in poly-amorous relationships; and "Dhamma Brothers," a documentary by Andrew Kukura, Anne-Marie Stein and Jenny Phillips set in Alabama's correctional system, offers challenging assumptions about prisons as places of punishment rather than rehabilitation.

John Sayles' new comedy /drama "Honeydripper," depicting a Saturday night in the deep South in the cotton picking days, will be given an advanced screening at the festival Nov. 9, at 9 p.m. at the Academy. Set for release in New York and Los Angeles in December to qualify for possible Oscar nominations and general release next February, the film stars Danny Glover, Charles Dutton, Stacy Keach and Mary Steenburgen, along with Keb' Mo, Mable John and Gary Clark Jr., as a guitarist with some new ideas on music.

Other films during the second weekend include "Stay Away ... a little closer," R. E. Rodgers' documentary about the problems of playwright John Ford Noonan, shown last weekend at Williamstown; "The Chosen One," Berkshire filmmaker Theodore Collatos' twisted fairy tale with a breakout performance by Arthur Collins, seen last May at the Berkshire International Film Festival; and "Brothel," Amy Waddell's ghost story about a woman, mourning a death, who sets about to convert an abandoned brothel into a hotel.

NIFF traditionally has offered films of gay and lesbian themes, and this year's entries include Cynthia Wade's "Freeheld," concerning inheritance rights of same-sex couples; Lisa Ades' and Leslie Klainberg's "Fabulous: The History of Queer Cinema"; and Jane Clark's short film, "The Touch," recounting the romance between Renee Vivien, the poet, and an Islamic woman married to a Turkish diplomat, scheduled to be shown prior to "Brothel."

Short subjects will be in abundance, Dreisbach said, in a variety of all-shorts programs.

An actor, artist, teacher and author, Dreisbach lives in Worthington with his wife, the noted casting director Patricia McCorkle, and has attended festivals here in the past.

"I've always thought it would be great to do this," he said. Surprisingly, Dreisbach, as some 50 other festival workers, is a volunteer. "None of these are salaried positions — and it's 80 hours a week. It's an amazing journey that people are excited to be part of."

Among Dreisbach's ambitions is to develop relationships with the other regional festivals — Williamstown, FilmColumbia and the Berkshire International Film Festival.

"We could support each other by being a presence, and send films back and forth," he suggested. "I don't ever want us to be in a bubble. I just would love the idea of making this more encompassing for all the festivals."


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