The best of the 25th NE Film Fest
by Peter Keough
THE 25TH ANNUAL NEW ENGLAND FILM AND VIDEO FESTIVAL, At the Coolidge Corner Theatre March 27 through 30 and the Museum of Fine Arts
March 31 through April 2.
Now in its 25th year, the New England Film and Video Festival, sponsored by the
Boston Film/Video Foundation, is a well-entrenched local tradition. What
actually constitutes New England filmmaking, however, remains unclear. All
those receiving awards this year have local ties, but in terms of subject
matter, styles, genres, and locales the films are all over the map. Perhaps the
unifying element is eclecticism, and a certain flinty, regional
resourcefulness, curiosity, and dedication to excellence.
If any cinematic school can be deemed native to England, perhaps it's "direct
cinema," the documentary realism pioneered and still practiced by such artists
with local roots as Frederick Wiseman, Albert Maysles, and D.A. Pennebaker.
Pennebaker's milestone documentary of Bob Dylan's British tour, Don't Look
Back (1965), is the preoccupation of the endearing and ingenious Look
Back, Don't Look Back (April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the MFA) from Harvard's
Randy Bell and Justin Rice, a deserving Best of Fest winner. Shooting in grainy
black-and-white with handheld cameras in the manner of the Pennebaker original,
the two filmmakers journey to New York City in search of Bob Dylan and instead
bump up against the brick wall of his intransigent publicist. Mixing a little
of Michael Moore's irony (though none of his egotism) with their
cinéma-vérité, Bell and Rice are both ingenuous and savvy
in their quest for an idol and an ideal.
A more conventional approach is taken in Best Documentary winner
Moonshine (March 27 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner). This
effort from Rhode Island School of Design's Kelly Riley is a wry portrait of a
North Carolina backwoodsman who loves his work -- distilling illegal 140-proof
hootch. Riley is bemused and non-judgmental, and when contrasted with the
equally intoxicating down-home religion also on exhibit, the moonshine seems
the more genuine article.
More inspiring, though less entertaining, is the documentary from Lincoln
resident Wendy Snyder MacNeil and Alice Wingwall, Miss Blindsight: The
Wingwall Audition (April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the MFA), which won for Best
Independent film. A profile of Wingwall, a photographer afflicted with
congenital blindness who nonetheless continues to practice her art, the film
percolates with ebullience but might have benefitted by a touch more
At the other extreme of the form/content continuum is the self-reflexive
Edgeways (April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the MFA), from Sandra Gibson of
the Rhode Island School of Design, and winner of the Best Animation Award. It's
about the medium of film, a whirling dance of strips of celluloid, single-frame
images, and other cinematic detritus. Not exactly an original idea, but
executed with wit and polish and visually beautiful, ranging in imagery from
the whimsy of pop art to the sensuality of abstract expressionism.
No festival would be complete without that fusion of form and content known as
the narrative film, and those represented here dwell on the common theme of the
family. The utopian ideal is explored in the Merit Award winner
Fruitlands 1843 (April 1 at 2 p.m. at the MFA), from Boston
University's Vasiliki Katsoarou. Beautifully photographed, if occasionally
stilted, it relates with Bergmanesque imagery the breakdown of a tiny
experimental community founded in the 19th century by social reformer Bronson
Alcott, father of Louisa May of Little Women fame.
More up-to-date is Best Student Entry Night on the Town ( March
27 at 7 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner), from RISD's John Holland. Mom and dad
decide to take the night off and let their preteen kids learn some
responsibility by taking care of themselves; what results is an incisive study
of the dynamics of sibling relationships (the kid actors are great) and the
basic twist ending. But no more twisted than Most Promising Filmmaker Ellie
Lee's Dog Days (March 31 at 8 p.m. at the MFA). Here a suburban
family struggle to survive in a dystopic future in which America is besieged by
unknown invaders, and they learn how little distinguishes human beings from
man's best friend. Evocative of the '60s sci-fi TV series The Twilight Zone
and Thriller, Dog Days suggests that though America's future
may be dim, that of New England filmmakers like Lee looks bright.