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White River Indie Film Fest Tackles Social Issues

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Charlotte Rankin in It's Criminal
  • Charlotte Rankin in It's Criminal

White River Junction will serve as the hub of the Vermont film world this week, when moviegoers and local filmmakers converge in the Upper Valley for the 13th annual White River Indie Festival. The 2017 edition of WRIF comprises 20 feature films and 15 shorts, with themes of cultural identity, labor exploitation and the injustices of the criminal justice system forming the core of the four-day program.

The fest begins on Thursday, June 1, with a pair of midcentury American classics. Salt of the Earth (1954), a drama surreptitiously edited during the McCarthy era by a group of blacklisted Hollywood pariahs, chronicles a strike led by Mexican American workers at a New Mexico mining company. It's followed by Border Incident, a film noir from 1949 that tackles illegal immigration and migrant labor issues in a taut thriller format.

"What I find fascinating is the tie-ins to contemporary issues of human trafficking and the U.S.-Mexican border," says WRIF board president Michael Beahan. "It turns out that a lot of things have not changed in a long time, and issues that were critical in the early '50s, with migrant workers being exploited and trafficked back and forth across the border, [are] all still happening today."

First-year WRIF board member Gerd Gemünden, a Dartmouth College professor, says he selected Border Incident for both its aesthetic audacity and its political relevance during the early innings of the Trump administration, which has prioritized the fortification of the United States' border with its southern neighbor.

"I think it's a topical film in many ways, but I think it's also — just on a filmmaking level — it's really an interesting film, especially the cinematography by John Alton," Gemünden says. "It's just really stunning."

The marquee Friday and Saturday evening festival slots are occupied by movies from two Norwich-based filmmakers.

The Hanji Box, written and directed by Nora Jacobson, is about a mother who experiences a cultural awakening during a trip to New York City's Koreatown, following an argument with her adopted Korean daughter. It premiered last fall at the Vermont International Film Festival in Burlington.

Jacobson, who serves as vice president of the WRIF board of directors, is currently writing a sequel to the film. The follow-up focuses on the adopted daughter's journey to her birth country, and her relationship with a fellow expatriate adoptee. Jacobson notes in an email to Seven Days that if she's able to secure financing, she'll shoot the film in South Korea, with actress Natalie Kim likely reprising the daughter role.

The Saturday night WRIF spotlight is It's Criminal + Broken, a documentary about a Dartmouth College course called "Inside Out: Prison, Women and Performance." Created by professors Pati Hernandez and Ivy Schweitzer, the class brings together students and female prisoners for a theatrical collaboration that dramatizes the inmates' experiences. Hernandez and Schweitzer will join director Signe Taylor for a post-screening discussion that will also include a current Dartmouth student and two former inmates featured in the film.

"I think a lot of times incarcerated women are pretty powerless, and they're pretty silenced," Taylor observes. "I think the camera was really an important part of giving them voice and validity."

Taylor will be part of a Saturday afternoon panel discussion called "How Do You Fund Your Film?" Funding her $100,000 documentary wasn't easy, she says. Taylor finished shooting It's Criminal in 2010, but it took another six years of sporadic fundraising — relying mostly on small grants from local foundations — for her to complete postproduction.

The finished film delves into the socioeconomic disparity between students at a prestigious Ivy League college and prisoners at a rural jail in Unity, N.H. The majority of the inmates are addicts who were jailed for minor drug-related offenses. Many were victims of abuse. Most couldn't afford bail, so they pleaded guilty just to expedite their time behind bars. One young woman hasn't even been sentenced yet finds herself waiting months in jail for her court date.

After witnessing firsthand the therapeutic effects of the theater collaboration, Taylor believes that the U.S. prison system doesn't do nearly enough to incorporate arts and education into the rehabilitation process. It's a sentiment she shares with Schweitzer.

"Prisons could become educational institutions, because education is the strongest hedge against crime and poverty," the professor states in the film. "Send them back into the communities a better person than [when] they left — that would be the ideal prison."

Formerly held in April, WRIF moved into the warm-weather months as the result of a partnership with Northern Stage, whose Barrette Center for the Arts now accommodates screenings after the theater company finishes its season. Beahan hopes the success of the annual festival can be parlayed into year-round programming through an initiative called WRIF 365. Although no specific events have been penciled in for the fall, Beahan says he's had discussions with Jay Craven about a potential event highlighting the filmmaker's adaptations of the stories of Howard Frank Mosher, the acclaimed Northeast Kingdom author who died on January 29.

"The festival's great ... but people [have] only heard about us for four days out of the year," Beahan says. "A lot of times, films come up that are timely, and you don't want to wait until June and the festival to show them."


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