The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: March 23 - 30, 2000

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Regional high

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 darkness.

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.

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