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Vermont International Film Fest Screens the World

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A still from Border
  • A still from Border

On the path to getting her green card, a young Romanian mother finds her resilience tested when an immigration officer shows less than professional intentions. That's the timely premise of Lemonade, the first feature from Middlebury College assistant professor Ioana Uricaru, who shot much of the film in Québec.

Produced by leading Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, Uricaru's slice-of-life drama had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, where the Hollywood Reporter called it a "standout." This Thursday, October 18, Vermonters can see it as part of the Vermont International Film Festival, followed by a Q&A with Uricaru and lead actress Malina Manovici (Graduation).

That's just one of 42 feature offerings and 41 shorts at the 33rd annual VTIFF, running October 18 through 28 in Burlington under the auspices of the Vermont International Film Foundation. Lemonade is among 22 films screening as part of the NEQ Regional Film Showcase, a new competitive event for filmmakers from the Northeast and Québec that replaces the Vermont Filmmakers' Showcase.

"Vermont is so small, both in terms of geographical area but also population," says VTIFF executive director Orly Yadin. A lineup limited to in-state filmmakers "almost felt incestuous," she says. "I feel like it's more productive for filmmakers to meet other filmmakers from other regions in the Northeast, especially Québec."

The new showcase could also make artists working in Québec's thriving film industry "more aware of their neighbors to the south," Yadin suggests. A Thursday opening reception, cosponsored by the Québec Government Office in Boston, will give regional filmmakers a chance to mingle with one another and the public.

Like its predecessor, the NEQ Showcase will award several prizes, including the $1,000 James Goldstone Award (for an emerging regional filmmaker) and the $500 Vermont PBS Made Here Award (for a documentary). This year, most submissions to the showcase still came from Vermont, Yadin says. But she adds, "My hope is, if this is a success, we can look at it next year and expand it and make it more meaningful."

What else is new this year? A bigger programming committee — of eight — and a record number of filmmakers in attendance, says Yadin. Among the more than 30 visiting creators is Hollywood actress Ashley Bell, star of The Last Exorcism. While not busy being demonically possessed on film, she's been working to save Asian elephants, an effort depicted in her documentary Love & Bananas.

Huntington filmmaker Rick Moulton says he hopes to catch Bell's film "for the relief and hope it seems to offer." Moulton's own feature documentary, Lowell Thomas: Voice of America, will screen on Thursday as part of the NEQ Showcase. It profiles a pioneering, adventure-loving broadcast journalist who helped shape America's public image in the first half of the 20th century.

In an email, Moulton suggests that Thomas' story is particularly pertinent "[a]s the profusion of alternative sources is changing the network-dominated universe and the air rings with charges of 'fake news.'" Among the other films he hopes to see at VTIFF is Crime + Punishment, a doc about New York City cops blowing the whistle on police abuses, "because I think it will be a reality check."

While some docs stay close to home, Winooski filmmaker Nilima Abrams traveled back and forth to India over a decade to shoot Kali Yuga Chants, screening in the NEQ Showcase on Friday, October 19. The film profiles a mixed-race couple and their family of 35 foster kids, former street beggars whom they teach to meditate and chant the Vedic mantras, a role traditionally reserved for high-caste men.

Abrams first met the family during her undergrad years at the University of Vermont; a camera that she left behind in India accidentally became a recording tool. On subsequent trips, she taught the kids filmmaking and chronicled their growth, ending up with a film that "covers 10 years and various interlocking story lines, so finding structure in the editing was really hard," she writes in an email.

The doc's tone also changed from cut to cut; the final result represents a "more balanced approach," says Abrams, who will attend the screening. Among the films she wants to see at VTIFF is fellow NEQ Showcase entry Life After Life, a doc by Vermont College of Fine Arts student Tamara Perkins, who followed convicts after their release from San Quentin State Prison. Abrams is "intrigued by how this film seems to show a rarely seen and humanizing side of ex-cons," she says.

And Yadin's picks for the fest? On the documentary side, she points to a new Environmental Justice strand composed of eight films, "two related to water issues." On the fiction side, the disturbingly prescient The City Without Jews is a restored 1924 Expressionist silent film that imagines what would happen if the chancellor of Austria expelled Jews from the country. Released the same year Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, though carrying a quite different message, "it's very apropos today," Yadin says.

While films on heavy subjects abound at VTIFF, there's comic relief, too. Yadin points to the "really fun" Support the Girls, a feminist comedy directed by Andrew Bujalski and set in a Hooters-like bar. She also loves the thrash-metal love story Fake Tattoos, from Québec, because "It's so unsentimental. It just feels very, very contemporary; it's just charming."

As for fans of the strange, they may want to check out the Swedish film Border, which VTIFF is screening late-ish on Saturday, October 20, for content reasons (i.e., don't bring the kids). It's about a lonely border guard who literally sniffs out security breaches, and what happens when she meets a man who shares her peculiarities. IndieWire called the film "a kind of gothic romance that wouldn't look out of place in Guillermo del Toro's oeuvre."

"It's amazing. Very unusual," says Yadin of Border. If the range of choices is any indication, VTIFF attendees are in for some rich and strange experiences this year.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The 33rd Annual Vermont International Film Festival Crosses Borders"

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