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Screening Skirmishes

Flick Chick

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Many Vermonters think of Canada as a more peaceful nation than the U.S., but a celluloid war has recently broken out in la belle Quebec. Both the late summer Montreal World Film Festival and its mid-autumn counterpart, the Montreal Festival of Nouveau Cinema, have been battling a festival-come-lately. For one thing, the fledgling event will receive money that normally goes to the WFF.

The hostilities began last year. Two government funding agencies withdrew an estimated $1 million in support from the WFF, which has been around for almost three decades, reportedly because founder Serge Losique refuses to allow budget transparency. The grant was given instead to L'Equipe Spectra. This company, responsible for Montreal's annual jazz fest, is now creating a new entity called the Montreal International Film Festival.

Outraged about Spectra's plans to use a name so similar to that of the WFF, Losique has launched a lawsuit to reclaim the lost funding. Meanwhile, he vows to keep going; his 2005 dates are August 27 through September 4.

But the plot thickens: Spectra initially wanted to debut the IFF from October 13 through 23. This would have coincided with the 34-year-old Nouveau, whose director accused Spectra of acting like Wal-Mart. Last week, Spectra changed the dates to September 18-25. That still leaves the city with three festivals in three months.

Some American filmgoers express loyalty for the endangered WFF. "Of all the major international festivals, it is the most haphazardly programmed and eccentric, [but] not without its rewards," says Richard Porton, an editor at the New York-based Cineaste magazine. "Montreal routinely features both important films and forgettable duds."

Chris Booth, a Vermont resident for 11 years before returning to his native England in 2002, once made the trek north every August to the WFF. "The festival doesn't desperately try to get Hollywood blockbusters and trumpet the first showing of a mediocre American film as its great programming triumph," he writes in an email. "It finds undiscovered gems. I wouldn't want to work for Serge Losique or socialize with him, but I would be sorry to see him ousted from the Montreal scene. I owe him too huge a debt of pleasure."

Nonetheless, the WFF's bilingual program guides have always amused Booth: "Then there was the extraordinary film precis, gnomically written in broken English. I remember one that started something like: 'Life was getting difficult in 11th-century Iceland.' What, as opposed to the happy days Icelanders enjoyed in the 10th century?"

Rick Winston, owner of the Savoy Theater in Montpelier, is a long-time fan of the WFF. "If you take a chance there, you'll see a few good things," he suggests. "If you do your homework, you'll see many good things. You come away feeling so enriched."

The Losique operation, in fact, "is an inspiration for the Green Mountain Film Festival," explains Winston, who helps organize that annual March gathering in Vermont's capital city. "What audiences say about us is what our programming committee always says about the experience in Montreal: 'I feel like I've been around the world.'"

Host Ken Peck screens local films on "Reel Independents," a Vermont Public Television program returning to the airwaves this weekend after a seven-month hiatus. The April 15 selection is Beyond 88 Keys: The Music of Michael Arnowitt, a profile of the Montpelier concert pianist by Susan Bettmann of North Middlesex.

Each Friday night at 10 p.m., Peck broadcasts cinematic work and interviews the filmmakers involved. The coming season, which runs through June, will include about 10 episodes.

"I am amazed at how popular the show has become," says Peck, who lives in Charlotte. "People stop me everywhere: at the Weston general store, the Putney co-op, even on top of Mount Abe. But, of all my friends, I only know one couple who actually watch the darn thing. I can't even get it here because the reception is so bad."

Speaking of VPT, the station's woodsy "Outdoor Journal" and 2004 comedy series "Windy Acres" -- directed by Jay Craven of Peacham -- have been nominated for several regional Emmys. Winners will be announced May 7 in Boston.

When I briefly mentioned the Lake Placid Film Festival last week, could it have been the kiss of death? The next day, a press release announced the Adirondack event has succumbed to financial woes. Showcasing movies is indeed a risky endeavor -- though probably not quite as difficult as life in 11th-century Iceland.

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