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Vermont International Film Festival Returns With Both Live and Virtual Showings

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Ruth Stone in 1977 - COURTESY OF DAVID CARLSON
  • Courtesy Of David Carlson
  • Ruth Stone in 1977

As she put the finishing touches on her documentary Ruth Stone's Vast Library of the Female Mind, filmmaker Nora Jacobson sent Seven Days some thoughts on the former Vermont poet laureate's body of work.

"I believe that making art or being creative is a way to alchemically transform our experiences, even the tragic ones, into something life affirming," the Vermont-based director wrote in an email. "That is what Ruth did with her writing."

Through a combination of family interviews, archival footage and material that Jacobson shot before Stone's death in 2011, the film explores the inner workings and legacy of one of the state's most renowned creative minds. The documentary has its world premiere on Saturday, October 16, at the Vermont International Film Festival.

"Stone's poetry is accessible, funny, tragic, startling ... I love the empathy she conveys toward the disenfranchised," Jacobson continued.

Of the 39 feature films screening at this year's festival, Jacobson's is one of two local entries. The others come from France, India, Hong Kong, Brazil, Ethiopia, Denmark and throughout North America. Two countries never before represented at VTIFF, Malta and Myanmar, join the fold with the familial drama Luzzu and the controversial satire Money Has Four Legs, respectively.

This year's VTIFF, which runs from Friday, October 8, through Sunday, October 17, is in some ways a return to normalcy, albeit with new precautions.

In 2020, the festival shifted to virtual screenings due to the unprecedented restrictions on gatherings at the height of the pandemic. This year, online viewing is back. But so are live screenings, including three days of showings at a venue new to VTIFF, the Savoy Theater in Montpelier. A Vermont institution, the art house is known for catering to lovers of independent cinema.

"It feels new," VTIFF executive director Orly Yadin said of in-person events. In a phone call with Seven Days, she stressed that the festival is taking "big safety precautions," including reduced capacities, strict masking requirements and proof of vaccination for entry.

"We want to make sure the audience feels as safe as possible," Yadin said.

Some films will be screened both in-person and virtually. Others will be strictly live. The nine-person programming committee started reviewing submissions in March, Yadin said, "gradually winnowing them down to what we felt were the best."

Yadin pointed out a unique aspect of this year's program: Because of pandemic-era postponements, films from 2021 appear alongside delayed 2020 releases. While each festival usually includes a classic film or two, most selections have premiered this year.

Yadin said the Maltese and Burmese selections are not to be missed.

Still from Luzzu - COURTESY OF KINO LORBER
  • Courtesy Of Kino Lorber
  • Still from Luzzu

Luzzu, winner of a Dramatic Special Jury Award in the 2021 Sundance Film Festival's World Cinema competition, screens in Montpelier on day one of the fest. It also hits Main Street Landing Film House in Burlington, the festival's epicenter, on Thursday, October 14.

Written, directed and edited by Maltese American filmmaker Alex Camilleri, the debut feature centers on a Mediterranean fisherman struggling to maintain his family-run operation. In a Variety review, Guy Lodge describes a character "increasingly driven from the trade he loves by mounting economic strain — atop an unenviable pile-up of personal crises."

Money Has Four Legs, which debuted at the Busan International Film Festival in 2020, stands out not only because it's the first Burmese film at VTIFF but also because of the drama behind the scenes. Director Maung Sun reveals his country's strict censorship laws through the portrayal of the protagonist, also a film director, who is trying to make a debut feature. The movie screens on Thursday, October 14, at Main Street Landing and online on Saturday, October 16.

In an ironic real-life twist, the movie's cowriter and producer, Ma Aeint, was arrested and imprisoned in June for allegedly violating section 505a of Myanmar's penal code, which, according to Human Rights Watch, criminalizes "comments that 'cause fear,' spread 'false news, [or] agitates [sic] directly or indirectly a criminal offense against a Government employee.'" Maung Sun told Variety in August that he didn't know why his collaborator was being charged.

The other Vermont filmmaker on this year's roster is A. Madsen Minax. The University of Vermont associate professor of time-based media directed the deeply personal documentary North by Current, which has already appeared at the Berlin International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival and elsewhere. At VTIFF, it screens on Tuesday, October 12, at Main Street Landing. It will also air as part of PBS' "POV" series on Monday, November 1.

In the film, Minax travels to his family's home in Michigan after the unexplained death of his young niece, which led local authorities to investigate his sister and her husband. James Kleinman writes in the Queer Review that "Minax addresses faith, mental health, addiction, grief, and domestic violence ... while at the heart of the film there's a rarely seen, rich, layered portrait of trans identity."

"This film is hard to get a feel for through text because it's an experiential and cumulative film," Minax wrote by email. "It's really a film about affect, not the events that happen."

Of the filmmaking process, he wrote, "A film tells you what it wants to be, so I just listened."

With so many works on the schedule, it's an impossible task for Yadin to pick a favorite.

"They're all my children," she said with a chuckle.

But she did point out another noteworthy film that screens on opening night: Sweet Thing, written and directed by Alexandre Rockwell, who'll join VTIFF via Zoom. Shot in New Bedford, Mass., the black-and-white narrative stars Rockwell's daughters.

"It's about adolescence," Yadin said. "We see everything they go through, both good and bad ... [Rockwell] managed to convey a world in a simple way."

Yadin added that "simple films are actually more difficult to make than big films in some ways." VTIFF has a rich selection of small, independent films that could pack a big punch.

Vermont International Film Festival, Friday, October 8, through Sunday, October 17, at various locations in Burlington, the Savoy Theater in Montpelier and online. $10-30 for individual tickets; $150 for an individual pass; $250 for a dual pass.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Screen Time"