Mass MoCA documentary to premiere at South by Southwest Film Festival

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One of the largest annual gatherings of creative types in the country will feature a film that examines a Berkshire County arts hub and touts Meryl Streep's voice.

On Wednesday, South by Southwest Conference & Festivals announced that its annual SXSW Film Festival in March will include "Museum Town," a character-driven portrait of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and North Adams that arrives 20 years after the museum's opening. Narrated by Streep, the documentary was one of 10 films selected to premiere in the Austin, Texas, festival's documentary feature competition.

Hancock Shaker Village President and CEO Jennifer Trainer Thompson, who was part of a small group involved with Mass MoCA from its earliest days, directed.

"The film is not just a history of Mass MoCA. It's really a portrait of Mass MoCA," said Thompson, who helped plan and develop the museum for 28 years.

That picture must include what Thompson called a "rocky road" to the museum's opening, involving "a knotted confluence of politics and a post-industrial city in decline and the art world."

"In many ways, it was a preposterous idea," Thompson said.

But after opening in 1999, the museum soon established itself as a major player in the contemporary arts and North Adams. The film reflects this duality by focusing, for example, on artist Nick Cave and his 2016-installed exhibition, "Until," as well as Mass MoCA staff members with deep ties to the city.

"It's really a beautiful story," Thompson said.

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For Mass MoCA Director Joseph Thompson, the film offers an opportunity for people unfamiliar with the museum to engage with that narrative.

"We hope 'Museum Town' brings the magic of Mass MoCA and North Adams to a wider audience," Thompson wrote in a statement.

Jennifer Trainer Thompson began working on the film about three years ago following her departure from the museum. It was her first time directing.

"I've never done anything like it," Thompson said.

She had some significant help. Streep, who holds the record for Oscar acting nominations, offered to do the narration; her husband, sculptor Don Gummer, has had work shown both at Mass MoCA and Hancock Shaker Village, so Thompson has known Streep for years.

"I certainly couldn't turn her down," Thompson said.

Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson ("Citizenfour") is also attached to the project, while Paul Pilot and Wilco bassist John Stirratt handled the film's music. Rachel Chanoff, Mass MoCA's curator of performing arts and film, executive produced. (Noah Bashevkin, Ivy Meeropol and Thompson co-produced.) The film's run time is 74 minutes.

Founded in 1987, South by Southwest includes acclaimed film, music, comedy and gaming festivals, in addition to its robust conference slate; the 2018 edition hosted 455 film screenings and 2,739 musical performances. The 2019 film festival will likely feature between 320 and 340 films picked from 8,490 submissions (2,351 were feature-length), according to its website. The date that "Museum Town" will be screened at the film festival, which runs from March 8 to March 16, has yet to be announced.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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