Outdoors and Online, the White River Indie Films Fest Holds a Lens to a Shifting World | Film | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Outdoors and Online, the White River Indie Films Fest Holds a Lens to a Shifting World

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Still from Dramarama - COURTESY OF WRIF
  • Courtesy Of Wrif
  • Still from Dramarama

In the Upper Valley, movies are back. After COVID-19 forced a hiatus last year, the White River Indie Films fest returns May 21 through 30 with movies in the park and ample offerings online. The new hybrid model allows WRIF to showcase 10 feature films and three programs of shorts, along with filmmaker Q&As and panel discussions.

This year's collection of global and local cinema is audacious: The majority were directed by female and BIPOC filmmakers, each offering a unique perspective on the trials of our time. 

Though the programming committee did not embark on its selections with a particular theme in mind, WRIF board member Samantha Davidson Green said the pressing issues of the day have a way of coming to the fore.

"We all sat back and said, 'What do these films all say to us at this moment in time?' Well, we're bewildered by what just happened this year," she said. "All these paradigms are falling and shifting around us, and we want to show films that are helping us make sense of the world we're living in and who we are in this changing world — and to foster that dialogue between our community and the greater world."

WRIF's opening film puts a lens on this sense of bewilderment and reorientation. Jennifer Maytorena Taylor's new documentary, For the Love of Rutland, shows how worldwide concerns have taken root in small-town dynamics. Her penetrating exploration follows local Stacie Griffin over three years as she navigates a hotbed of ideological and cultural divisions in her hometown.

Taylor is the recipient of WRIF's first annual Nora Jacobson Award. The Norwich-based filmmaker and festival cofounder has a penchant for personal stories with broad appeal, and this new award honors her long career of civic engagement and compassionate, intimate storytelling.

According to WRIF's press release, "The award recognizes excellence in filmmaking by a female-identifying filmmaker who embodies the spirit of artistic integrity, mentorship to young filmmakers, community collaboration, and commitment to social justice that have defined Vermont filmmaker Nora Jacobson's career." 

In an email to Seven Days, Jacobson addressed what attracts her to Taylor's work specifically: "I have always had an affinity for films that delve into the intricacies, emotions and politics of 'place.' My first film was about Hoboken, New Jersey, Delivered Vacant, and it looked at the struggles and heartbreaks of housing loss at a time when gentrification was running rampant due to Hoboken's proximity to Manhattan. Jennifer's film looks at class and race and heartbreak in Rutland at a time when Rutland — and our whole country — is dealing with immigration and how to welcome newcomers to our communities."

Sensitive filmmakers such as Jacobson and Taylor have always been drawn to perennial issues of traditions tested, communities changing, loss and acceptance. WRIF appears to take pride in showcasing those kinds of films, as well as serving as a resource for the artists.

For the Love of Rutland will screen on Friday, May 21, in White River Junction's Lyman Point Park. It will be the first of WRIF's three open-air screenings. After more than a year of pandemic-related restrictions, festival staff want to offer accessible, safe opportunities for cinephiles to gather. Green said the free outdoor screenings are "really kind of a public service. We exist to bring people together through film."

The May 22 film in Lyman Point Park, Dramarama, directed by Jonathan Wysocki, is also about shifting identities — how a change in costume can sometimes liberate expression of the person within.

Based on the filmmaker's own experiences, Dramarama follows a group of mid-'90s high school friends, all burgeoning thespians, on the cusp of heading off to college. Their final costumed get-together is an occasion to confront their fears of what's to come and of who they will become.

Wysocki's film is a love letter to LGBTQ+ teens on the verge of owning their identities. It's infused with all the anxiety of teenage years and all the fun of theater. Festive attire is encouraged.

The third and final outdoor screening, on May 29, is a film you may want to share with your furry friends. Stray, the lauded Turkish documentary directed by Elizabeth Lo, follows the lives of three charming canines among the hundreds of thousands that roam the streets of Istanbul.

Through the daily adventures of these resilient animals, Lo's innovative documentary discovers the often-overlooked bonds and relationships that exist at the subsistence level of Istanbul's urban ecosystem.

Between screenings in the park, WRIF also has offerings galore to watch online. Attendees can participate in writing workshops and coaching from showbiz professionals. There will be artist Q&As with filmmakers including Taylor, as well as panel discussions on such diverse topics as filmmaking in the Green Mountain State, the emerging global visibility of African cinema, and tourism's impact on local economies and real estate. 

The online programming can be streamed from May 21 through May 30. On offer are three masterful international feature films, from the UK, Nigeria and Sudan; all of their filmmakers will participate in panel discussions throughout the week.

Four probing feature-length documentaries — two from the U.S., one from Brazil and one from Argentina — are also on tap. Rounding out the festival is an assortment of shorts: narratives, docs, emerging local filmmakers ages 18 to 30, and a 2020 redux of films that couldn't be shown last year but are just too good to let slip away.

Special celebration of Nora Jacobson and Jennifer Maytorena Taylor on opening night, Friday, May 21, 7:30 p.m., at Lyman Point Park in White River Junction. Find a full festival schedule and tickets at wrif.org.

WRIF is also collaborating on Light River Junction, which offers outdoor movies on the first Fridays in June, July and August in the Hotel Coolidge parking lot.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Making Sense | Outdoors and online, WRIF holds a lens to a shifting world"