Marc Estrin watched 32 films in five days last week during the course of Burlington's Vermont International Film Festival. "That includes shorts; I counted them up," admits the local author and activist. He got "Gold Pass" access to the event in exchange for hosting two visiting filmmakers: Libyan-born Sufyan Omeish, co-director of a documentary about Israel-Palestine and Zoltan Istvan, creator of Pawns of Paradise: Inside the Brutal Kashmir Conflict.
The annual festival is a cinematic window on the world, and its views are mostly tragic - of genocidal Darfur, war-ravaged Iraq, Indian poverty, Chinese sweatshops. Closer to home? VIFF screens eye-opening films on death-row inmates, Anglo-Indian relations and the beef industry. The cumulative effect can be devastating. "You go from problem area to problem area, and some of them are verging on intractable," Estrin observes. "You can leave a film festival like this pretty depressed."
Or, in Estrin's case, well informed. For him, the most "horrifying" film of all was Uganda Rising, which exposes a little-known, ongoing, human-rights nightmare in East Africa: 25,000 children in northern Uganda have been abducted by a rebel army that "turns them into sadists," Estrin says. "I was ready to resign from the human race after seeing that film."
But from the same continent also came the festival's most hopeful vision, in Estrin's estimation: Sisters in Law follows the trials of female lawyers and judges winning spousal and child-abuse convictions among Muslims in Cameroon.
Audience reaction is what made a Thursday showing of China Blue VIFF's "most spectacular event," according to Estrin. The film exposes the conditions of Chinese garment workers via the lives of two young girls. Estrin saw the movie along with a contingent of blue-jean-wearing high school students who were "getting the whole thing," he suggests. "When they're talking about the pants you're sitting in, it's such a wonderful interaction in time between subject matter and relevance . . . It's political education up the gazoo - where you're sitting on the gazoo."
For Estrin, the biggest disappointment of the festival was The Great Warming, narrated by Keanu Reeves and Alanis Morissette. "The film had very high production values, but its politics were problematical . . . there was little mention of resource reduction and a curious emphasis on religious fundamentalism," he notes. The most satisfying sleeper? Three Comrades, about three guys in Grozny who experience the Chechen wars together.
The liveliest Q&A - and there were lots of them - came after Occupation 101, described as "a comprehensive analysis of the facts and hidden truths surrounding the Iraeli-Palestinian conflict." The post-film discussion lasted "20 minutes in the theater," Estrin recalls. "Then we went downstairs and had another 40 minutes."
Space for spontaneous breakout sessions is one advantage of the new digs at Lake and College. Not to mention two state-of-the-art theaters. The black box could use some lighting on the stairs, and it would be nice to have more than one unisex bathroom on the theater-level floor, but the new building is a vast improvement over past fest venues.
"I always had a secret hatred of watching films in the Firehouse," Estrin confesses. His sole regret from this year: "I feel bad I skipped some."
What makes people flock to a film festival instead of ordering up indies on the Internet? "There's no substitute for seeing a film with a bunch of other people," suggests Donald Rae, the newly appointed director of Montpelier's Green Mountain Film Festival. "That's why cinema survived the invention of television."
And, presumably, why the 10-day, Savoy-centered, March movie marathon grows larger every year. In the past four years, admissions have doubled, from 4500 to nearly 9000. Rae's job is now a full-time, eight-month position. He comes to the post from the Vermont Film Commission, where he was a deputy director, and replaces Carlos Haase, who is now at the Flynn.
The GMFF, which runs from March 16 to 25 next year, is wildly different from the Vermont International Film Festival. For one thing, it's "curated"; there are no "entries," per se. "We go out and get the films we want to see," says Rae, a Scot who for 20 years attended the longest-running film festival in the world - in Edinburgh.
And there's no official mission, such as exploring "human rights and justice" or "war and peace." Says Rae, "Different themes emerge for different people. That's one of the joys of this festival." That said, look for a concentration of South and Central American films next year, including Cuba's Suite Habana, Colombia's El Carro and, from Argentina, El Perro and Family Law.
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