Discover something new at the film festival

Festivals provide us with the equivalent of extra holidays.  They allow us to suspend business as usual and take time off from work or our daily routine to discover the unexpected. We get to see friends in a new setting or catch up with people we haven’t seen for a while. Maybe we punctuate our comings and goings with a shared meal or hot fudge sundae.
The first festival I remember was the annual Strawberry Festival at my Quaker elementary school.  In first grade, my classmates and I played sunbeams in the festival pageant.  There wasn’t much to do except wear homemade yellow cardboard sunrays and bend our knees and open our arms to the sky.  The following year, we performed a Mexican hat dance.  Lucky for me, my grandmother grew up in Texas.  She dug her father’s old Mexican rug out of mothballs and cut slits for my arms and head. No other kid had anything as authentic, so I was placed in the front row for the dance. 
Film festivals provide us with a rare opportunity — the chance to see multiple films we’d never encounter anywhere else. All of this exposure can produce a tonic effect — we can feel stimulated, restored, and refreshed afterwards. Not a bad idea for a late summer weekend.
Our 3rd annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival opens today (Thursday) and although we don’t have any strawberry shortcake or pageants planned, we will stage an all-original move-themed edition of the Queen City Radio Hour at American Flatbread, 9:30 p.m. Saturday night. The show will include radio comedy sketches written and performed by a young troupe whose credits include The Onion, Adult Swim and The Upright Citizens Brigade. The musical Hokum Brothers will play afterwards.
We’ve got 94 films slated this year — and at least 35 filmmakers will join us in Middlebury.  And we’ll offer a retrospective tribute to independent maverick filmmaker Robert Altman.  His longtime collaborators, actor Michael Murphy and assistant director/actor/musician Allan Nicholls will join our conversation after a screening of Altman’s tour de force, “Nashville.” 
I’ve written here about Pulitzer Prize finalist/investigative writer Dick Lehr, who will join us for a Friday conversation and screening of “Black Mass,” about notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger.  I didn’t mention Dick’s most recent book, “Birth of a Movement,” that digs deep into the national revival of the Ku Klux Klan that was triggered by D.W. Griffith’s 1915 controversial epic film drama, “Birth of a Nation.” Recent events in Charlottesville will likely prompt discussion about Lehr’s deep research.
We’re thrilled with this year’s selection of films.  Among our documentaries, “The Peacemaker” provides an intimate portrait of Padraig O’Malley, an international mediator who helps make peace for others but struggles to find it for himself. “Dina” renders a sometimes startling and intimate portrait of a 49-year-old woman struggling to overcome mental disability and past trauma to embark on a new romance. “Death by a Thousand Cuts” reveals growing tension between island neighbors Haiti and the Domincan Republic, played out through illegal charcoal production by Haitians on the Dominican side of the border.
“Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators” shows what the title suggests — an exploration of the extraordinary lives of Hans and Margret Rey, the creators of the popular children’s books.  “Untouchable” goes behind-the-scenes to show people struggling in the challenging aftermaths of their convictions as sex offenders. Our closing night film, “Swim Team,” shows what happens when parents of a boy on the autism spectrum form a competitive swim team, recruiting other teens on the spectrum and training them with high expectations and zero pity.
Dramatic Festival films will include the comedy, “Fun, Mom, Dinner” which I just think is funny.  It charts the course of an evening when four moms, whose only connection is their kids’ preschool class, decide to get together for a harmless “fun mom dinner.”
“Abundant Acreage Available” showcases what I wrote about last week — fabulous character acting by Amy Ryan and Terry Kinney. After their characters’ father dies, a middle-aged brother and sister wrestle with legacy and ownership when three brothers, whose family farmed the land for earlier generations, return after 50 years.
I wish I had room to write more — but we’ve got special guests, tributes and films galore.  Check us out.
Editor’s Note: Jay Craven is artistic director of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, which takes place this weekend (Aug. 24-27) at five in-town venues. Daily schedules, film descriptions, and festival passes, including day passes, are available at middfilmfest.org. Individual film tickets will be available the day of the show.

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