The Vermont International Film Festival this weekend in Burlington has its share of foreign accents. At long last, the event's new executive director has one, too.
Born in Bulgaria, Mira Niagolova learned about the Green Mountain State because Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent most of his 20-year exile in rural Cavendish after being expelled from the Soviet Union. The forces of history that allowed the Nobel Prize-winning author to return home in 1994 also facilitated Niagolova's exodus to the West during the same period. The fall of the Berlin Wall -- and the subsequent shredding of the Iron Curtain -- opened the door. "That allowed us to travel," she recalls.
When her husband was offered a position as microelectronic researcher in Montreal, "I didn't want to leave Bulgaria," she says, "but he had this good job opportunity." In Quebec, Niagolova was anxious to find work that suited her experience. "I was an anchor in the cinema department of Bulgarian National TV for more than eight years," she says of her career in Sofia, the capital city. "We had a program showcasing films."
Niagolova first earned a graduate degree in communications at Montreal's Concordia University, then found contractual work for the National Film Board of Canada in 1995 as the coordinator of entries for festivals overseas. She had enough free time to shoot two of her own documentaries: Trafficking Cinderella, a 1998 project, is about involuntary prostitution. A Parallel World, which explores life in a Macedonian camp for refugees from Kosovo, wrapped in 2001.
Niagolova was in the midst of editing footage in 2000 when her husband accepted yet another job, as an engineer at IBM in Essex Junction. "I came here thinking there would be no film activity," she acknowledges. "That first year I was traveling to Montreal all the time. But I saw some posters for the festival here and made a Canadian connection."
That connection was the late Lorraine Good, a Canadian ex-pat who once ran the annual Vermont extravaganza. Niagolova agreed to join the festival board a year and a half ago, and was tapped for the top spot this summer.
"I always loved the idea of small fests in small cities with a lot of atmosphere," says Niagolova, now 48. "I observed that there is an audience here and I'd just finished my own film, so there was sort of a vacuum for me."
She was sucked in by the hectic pace of organizing a nonprofit. "It's been a good way for me personally to get to know the community," Niagolova explains. "This festival has a great future, even though it's out of the mainstream. Right now, with all that's going on in the news, people don't necessarily know the real stories. We show the global perspective of filmmakers."
With 53 selections from seven countries, the 2002 VIFF -- this Thursday through Monday in several downtown Burlington venues -- underscores its mission of "images and issues for social change." Most entries examine concerns about the environment, justice and human rights, war and peace. In the last category, Niagolova's A Parallel World unspools on Saturday night.
Documentary subject matter at Burlington City Hall Auditorium ranges from Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip to the AIDS pandemic in Africa to a dispute over traditional fishing grounds off the coast of Nova Scotia. The same Queen City location hosts Friday night films -- about the plight of girls in Iran and about Russia's struggle with Chechnya, for example -- that come by way of the One World International Film Festival in Prague.
A Thursday gay and lesbian showcase in City Hall includes a look at the homophobia of many right-wing Christians, and at same-sex couples trying to raise children. Ten Vermont filmmakers, covering a plethora of interests from clay animation to traveling in the Himalayas, are being celebrated on Friday.
The Nickelodeon is the site for Vermont premieres of 35mm American independents and off-beat Hollywood fare, as well as foreign-language releases such as A Time for Drunken Horses from Kurdistan and Water Under a Red Bridge from Japan. Koyaanisqatsi, an Earth-friendly cult hit in 1983, shows Monday at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts with composer Phillip Glass on hand to render his original score.
"This is a festival that makes us more passionate about each other," Niagolova suggests. "It presents a statement of solidarity and mutual understanding."