The first month of 2005 promises to be an exceedingly busy time for one particular cinematic couple in Vermont. Claudia Becker is executive director of the MountainTop Film Festival, which unfolds from January 7 through 16 at the Eclipse Theater in Waitsfield. And a new documentary by her husband, Eugene Jarecki, has been selected for the Sundance Film Festival, a prestigious event that begins on the 20th in some equally lovely ski towns of Utah.
Becker is now finalizing the schedule for her second annual human rights-themed extravaganza, which is expanding from seven to 10 days in order to build on the success of 2003. "I decided to just give it a shot and used my own money last year," she says. "We got a great community response. More than 1000 tickets were sold."
That windfall allowed Becker to recoup her investment and provided seed funding for 2004. The opening-night selection is Baadasssss, just nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards. Director Mario Van Peebles will be on hand for the screening of this biopic about his filmmaker dad, Melvin, who happens to be Jarecki's godfather. The movie depicts the older man's struggle to shoot Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, a landmark 1971 indie that tackled the issue of racism.
For what Becker jokingly calls her "deja vu all over again" segment, she has added The Battle of Algiers to the lineup of 25 or so mostly new films. The 1966 drama by Gillo Pontecorvo traces the guerrilla struggle a decade earlier that pitted Algerian partisans against the French occupation.
Another oldie on tap for Mount-ainTop is the 30-year-old nonfiction film by Peter Davis that helped set the standard for all others to come. Hearts and Minds, which won an Academy Award in 1974, is an unflinching examination of the war in Vietnam. The picture played last month at Manhattan's Film Forum. "But for a few particulars, [it's] as much a prosecution of the present as it is of the recent past," critic Michael Atkinson wrote in The Village Voice. "Only the names and geographies have been changed."
That comparison should resonate with Jarecki, whose Trials of Henry Kissinger received rave reviews in 202. He is currently ensconced in his New York City office polishing Why We Fight. That title is borrowed from a seven-installment, Army-commissioned series of short propaganda pieces by the legendary director Frank Capra. Between 1943 and 1945, his patriotic purpose was to rally troops for World War II.
"Back then, the reasons were a lot clearer," Jarecki suggests. "It was a time of real idealism and hope for democracy on a grand scale. The waters have been muddied since then. America as a beacon may have been eclipsed by our role as an empire. Capra would be concerned."
Jarecki and his team -- some of whom are fluent in Arabic -- spent three months in Baghdad last year. They also shot in London. The 90-minute effort employs archival footage as well as interviews with military officials "in and out of the Pentagon," scholars, peace advocates and ordinary people. The viewpoints are mixed.
"I was inspired by Dwight Eisenhower's 11th-hour warning about the military-industrial complex," Jarecki explains. "The film looks at Iraq in a historical context. What is it about the Bush administration that's a natural extension of what went before? Is it business as usual in some way? We trample everything in our path. So I ask why we're fighting, what we're doing to others and what that's doing to us."
He financed Why We Fight largely with advance sales to 15 other countries, predominantly in Europe. The picture is slated for a March release there. It's among 16 docs in competition at Sundance, which will give Jarecki the perfect showcase for attracting stateside distributors and exhibitors.
With Eugene Jarecki exposing a 21st-century attempt to influence hearts and minds, his brother Andrew is best known for directing a more personal profile: Capturing the Friedmans screens for free at 3 and 8 p.m. on January 8 in Middlebury College's Dana Auditorium. The 2003 Oscar-nominated documentary chronicles a sex-abuse scandal that leads to the disintegration of a Long Island family.
This Middlebury date is merely a coincidence. The Becker-Jarecki clan does not intend to take over the world, just improve it.