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Opinion: Festival films can change our conversations

I’ve attended four recent social gatherings in fabulous local settings, hosted by generous people interested in our plans for the upcoming Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival that unfolds Aug. 27 through 30. Festival producer Lloyd Komesar has joined me at each of these and, together, we’ve worked to start discussions about our planned festival.
I sometimes like to ask people at these events about their most memorable experiences of cinema. It doesn’t take long for folks to remember movies that distinctly affected them. At a recent event in Lincoln, people volunteered the names of especially memorable films — titles like Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” and Federico Fellini’s “La Strada” and “Satyricon.”
I’ll bet you can guess the age of these partygoers by the films they remember. For those of us who came of age during the 1960s and early ’70s, film culture was rich and exciting — it informed our conversations and contributed substantially to our sense of the arts and ideas. We sought out movies and took chances on unfamiliar directors.
I’ve been pleased, as a film teacher, to see that young enthusiasts also respond to these earlier pictures, for the fresh perspectives they still offer. And, of course, young viewers tell of their own discoveries of new and exciting cinema, albeit privately, in many cases, or in the company of a handful of friends. One advantage we had during the explosion of ’60s cinema is how these films affected our whole generation, simultaneously. We experienced them together.
One person in Lincoln named a film that astonished me when I saw it: Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up.” The film is set in swinging ’60s London and it tells the story of a hip photographer (David Hemmings) who believes he may have photographed evidence related to a murder. The mystery is never solved but it didn’t matter — the film was overflowing with visual invention, oblique narrative, sex appeal and style.
I saw the film at a drive-in when I was just 16 and I’d never seen anything like it. “Blow-Up” changed the way I saw movies and convinced me that I wanted to make films.
Film festivals revive this vivid experience of film that I remember — the sense of discovery that is possible through films that introduce us to compelling characters and transport us to visual worlds that envelop us and inhabit our imaginations. And, for the fleeting moment of the festival itself, we experience this immersion into cinema culture — together.
After seeing more than 150 films submitted to our festival, I’m excited to share my discoveries with audience members. And I’m especially pleased to note that these are first and second films by their creators. The entire festival is predicated on the exciting idea that we’re able to identify and discover new voices and visions.
So, please join us for this weekend of discovery — and note just a few of the films I think you’ll find illuminating and worth your time. Here are just a fraction of our festival documentaries. Go online to middfilmfest.org to read about others. Next week, I’ll take a look at some of our narrative films.
•  “Approaching the Elephant.” Our opening night film shows a start-up “free school” in suburban New Jersey, where kids aged six-to-12, decide what they want to learn and make up the rules as they go along. Amanda Wilder’s poetic camerawork and closely observed filmmaking takes us inside the world of these children in fresh and unexpected ways.
•  “The Wolfpack.” Crystal Mozelle’s penetrating documentary won this year’s Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. It tells the story of the Angelo brothers who, locked away in a Lower East Side Manhattan apartment, learn about the outside world through the films they watch — and reenact what they’ve seen, using elaborate props and costumes.
•  “Sabra.” Veteran Hanover, N.H., screenwriter Bill Phillips has delved deep into the world of Vermont artist and printmaker Sabra Field, who will attend the festival screening with Phillips.
•  “Landfill Harmonic.” Profiled by Time magazine and the BBC, amongst others, this documentary takes viewers to the poorest slums in South America, where the Paraguayan Recycled Orchestra of Catuera has literally turned trash into kids’ musical instruments.
•  “Among the Believers.” Emmy- and Academy Award-winning film editor Hemal Trivedi and her co-director Mo Naqvi offer a chilling look inside the notorious Red Mosques, Pakistani schools that prepare children for jihad or holy war.
•  “Project: ICE.” This feature documentary provides an intimate and visually stunning look at the Great Lakes — and explores the lake effects of global warming. Prize winner for “Excellence in Filmmaking” at Canada International Film Festival.
•  “John the Baptist.” This poignant and ultimately funny portrait of a working man in Brazil gives weight to the proposition that a picture is worth a thousand words. The filmmaker will make his maiden voyage to America to represent and speak about his film.
Jay Craven, the artistic director for the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, is an award-winning director, writer and producer whose narrative films include “A Stranger in the Kingdom” (1997) and “Peter and John” (2015). He also created several documentaries and an Emmy Award-winning television comedy series. He also teaches film and video studies at Marlboro College.

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