Documentaries to shine at Middlebury film festival

MIDDLEBURY — It must be August, since my pulse is quickening with thoughts of the upcoming Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival that will take place Aug. 25-28.  Festival producer Lloyd Komesar was committed to the long haul for our festival, but last year’s popular and well-received first edition insured that we’d do it again. The 2015 event was lots of fun, with a spontaneous air of discovery, as audiences moved around town, taking chances on unknown “first and second films” that provided fresh opportunities for discovery. 
This year’s festival will again screen potent and affecting documentaries.  Opening night tickets are going fast for Jesse Nesser’s film, “Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon Keith,” that tells the remarkable story of 94-year-old still-practicing Federal judge Damon Keith, who presided over some of the most important civil rights cases of the last century. Judge Keith will travel to Middlebury and appear on-stage afterwards for discussion.
And we’ll have two-time Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple here as a special guest. 
We’ll show three of Barbara’s films, starting with a 40th anniversary screening of her 1976 Oscar-winner, “Harlan County, USA,” that follows the tense and escalating coal miners’ strike at the Brookside Mine in rural Kentucky, where workers toiling in unsafe conditions were making as little as $17 dollars-a-day.  As leading film critic Peter Biskind wrote, “Its strength lies not in its beauty, nor even its politics, but in the moral authority that is inscribed in every frame.”
Kopple will also present two new films: “Miss Sharon Jones” about the irrepressible funk/soul diva, Sharon Jones and her “Dap Kings;” and “Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation,” which goes inside the venerable progressive weekly magazine that has attracted celebrated writers ranging from Toni Morrison, Henry James, Sinclair Lewis and E. L. Doctorow, to W.E.B. Dubois, Albert Einstein, Jean-Paul Sartre and Eleanor Roosevelt.  The Sunday, Aug. 28 screening will include post-film discussion with Kopple and national affairs correspondent for The Nation, John Nichols.
Other festival documentaries will include: 
• Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams’ film, “Life, Animated,” that tells a winning story of how Disney movies like “Bambi,” “The Little Mermaid” and “The Lion King” helped Owen Suskind, a young man living with autism, develop reading, writing and communication skills. It’s a poignant and often humorous picture.
• Tony Stone’s visually stunning “Peter and the Farm” renders a richly detailed portrait of troubled, fiercely committed and charismatic southern Vermont farmer Peter Dunning as he works alone on his organic farm while battling personal demons and fighting back lingering regrets. The picture was featured at this year’s prestigious New Directors/New Films series at New York’s Lincoln Center and Museum of Modern Art. 
• Todd and Jedd Wider’s “God Knows Where I Am” tells a similarly haunting and elegiac tale of New Hampshire’s Linda Bishop, who became a prisoner of her own mind as she walked out of a state hospital and holed up, alone, in an abandoned farmhouse. Toronto’s influential Hot Docs festival awarded the film its Special Jury Prize, calling it “A film of great beauty and tenderness that gradually reveals a confounding mental illness. Ultimately, it illuminates a hidden problem of vast proportion with an epic, yet intimate, cinematic vision.”  
• Director Brant Backland takes viewers to the farthest reaches of northern Canada, in “Huntwatch,” that chronicles the 38-year quest by activist Brian Davies to stop seal hunting.  
• And, on the light side, “The Daily Show” producer Juliet Werner will show her film, “The Laughter Life” about a young Mormon sketch comedy troupe; while, in “Legs: A Big Issue in a Small Town,” Beatrice Alda and Jennifer Brooke visit Sag Harbor, Me., where heated controversy erupts over the public display of artist Larry Rivers’ larger-than-life sculpture of a woman’s legs.
The entire line-up of festival films can be viewed at www.middfilmfest.org.  Passes and opening night tickets are also on sale at the website, and they provide easy access and the best seats to all events. Single tickets will be available for all screenings, the day of the show, at each screening venue. 
Editor’s Note: Jay Craven is the artistic director of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival and an award-winning filmmaker at Kingdom County Productions.

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