Vanessa Redgrave can't make the 16th Vermont International Film Festival, but it features a lineup of powerful motion pictures on topics that are no doubt close to her heart. The annual Burlington event, which opens this Thursday, October 13, will give its Socially Conscious Achievement Award to the venerable British actress in absentia. She's had to substitute her planned live appearance here with a videotaped message due to a scheduling conflict and health problems, according to fest executive director Mira Niagalova.
Redgrave is represented by a documentary, Russia/Chechnya: Voices of Dissent, that she produced and her son directed. A Chechnyan human-rights activist, trauma surgeon Dr. Kassan Baiev, will accept the award on her behalf during the Saturday screening at City Hall Auditorium.
Redgrave will miss a festival with 110 films of varying lengths, both nonfiction and narrative, from such far-flung places as Costa Rica, Argentina, India, South Korea and Kyrgystan by way of Canada. Out of about 300 potential entries, 60 were chosen for the three competition categories: Environment, Justice & Human Rights, and War & Peace. The last theme drew the most submissions, thanks to the increasingly grim conflict in Iraq. "It's on everybody's mind," Niagalova suggests.
The Peace Patriots, narrated by Air America Radio host Janeane Garofalo, profiles New Englanders protesting the Iraqi invasion and occupation. It's got music by the likes of Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg and Ani DiFranco.
"Accidental Activist" is Kathryn Blume's spirited monologue about her experience coordinating more than 1000 performances in 59 countries of Lysistrata, the ancient Greek pacifist play, on the same day in early March 2003. The Charlotte thespian's endeavor took place three weeks before "Operation Shock and Awe" was launched.
Peacham director Jay Craven's After the Fog centers on interviews with combat veterans who have served during the last six decades. Sir! No Sir!, with some footage provided by Richmond archivist Roz Payne, is an opening-night selection that looks back at the 1960s movement of soldiers disillusioned by the Vietnam War.
This cinematic gathering boasts the mantra "Images and Issues of Global Concern," and on any given day is likely to encompass an exploration of worldly woes. On Friday, for example, State of Fear traces Peru's descent from democracy to dictatorship. Born into Struggle tackles the battle against apartheid in South Africa. Homeland: Four Portraits of Native Action zeroes in on indigenous people threatened by energy companies and pollution.
Although rare, uplifting material is in evidence. Monumental depicts the late David Brower's often-successful campaign to protect America's national parks. "Oscar" takes a light-hearted approach to the true story of a Buenos Aires cab driver who adds his aesthetic commentaries to public advertising.
Film subjects can be wide-ranging, yet strangely compatible: "No Place Like Home," Hardwick resident Meredith Holch's animation about refugees and asylum-seekers, seems to have a sort of cross-species kinship with "Ride of the Mergansers," an account of ducklings that must adapt to the wild only 24 hours after they hatch. Similarly, "Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story" recalls a California Mexican-American village uprooted by the federal government in the 1950s to make way for Dodger Stadium. Cheech Marin delivers the narration and Ry Cooder's songs grace the soundtrack.
Niagalova's personal favorite, The 3 Rooms of Melancholia, also focuses on Chechnya. "This is an observation of orphans done in a very unorthodox style," she says. "But it complements Vanessa Redgrave's film, which is a more traditional, talking-heads documentary."
Slated for Saturday evening at the Roxy, Melancholia is in the Displaced Persons showcase, which also incorporates Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, a saga of teenagers forced to live in a remote mountain region during the Cultural Revolution. This charming autobiographical tale -- as much about the clash between backwardness and modernity as it is about political convictions -- will close the fest on Sunday night.
Vermont auteurs from the community at large and from local colleges are being spotlighted. Two dozen shorts by the latter demographic will unspool Thursday at Higher Ground in South Burlington. "The homegrown films are stronger, in general, than they were last year," Niagalova notes.
She's surprised that as many as 20 out-of-state filmmakers will be in town for the autumn extravaganza. "There's one guy coming all the way from Australia," Niagalova says. "It's an unusually large number for us. We must be doing something right."