||Issue Date: 11 / 2012
Woodstock Film Festival: Eye of the World
More than entertainment, the medium of film is a persuasive means of communication: sending messages, encouraging reflections, and acting as a catalyst for discussions among viewers. Whether movies are “signposts and markers in people’s lives,” as director Steven Spielberg has said or transformative, personal experiences, films tell stories, sometimes transporting us to new worlds.
© Jon Davis
Click image to enlarge.
“Film festivals are vitally important; they keep alive the twin ideas of viewing movies as an art-form, and the concept of audiences gathering together for the purpose of communal film watching. Film festivals are always hoping to present something bold and new to festival-goers, and they are geared to providing open doors to exciting young filmmakers with something fresh to say, as well as to grizzled older filmmakers like me, who are still trying out new things,” says veteran director Jonathan Demme.
Described as "fiercely independent," the annual Woodstock Film Festival, now in its 13th year, did just that, offering an impressive array of thought-provoking movies, which stimulated dialogue and in some cases, a possible positive resolution. On October 10-14 it presented 130 events: narrative and documentary films (some of which were premieres) along with panels and performances in an historic New York arts colony associated with alternative lifestyles.
Unknown filmmakers, high profile celebrities, industry executives, and the local community came together in theaters scattered through the appealing village associated with unfettered creativity as well as in satellite locations in neighboring towns of Rhinebeck, Rosendale, Saugerties, and Kingston.
Woodstock, in the Catskill Mountains–two hours north of New York City–is a town where art galleries, antique shops, yoga centers, and psychic readers dot the streets along with tie-dye shirts, photos of rock n’ roll icons, and banners calling for world peace. It is a perfect environment to host the Woodstock Film Festival, where music and film buffs gathered for a range of innovative programs, some focused on music, social, spiritual, political, and environmental issues.
Inventive and hard-working twin brothers Facundo and Martin Lombard (dancers, actors, and filmmakers, dubbed “The Soul Boys” by James Brown) believe “the whole world needs free expression.” Present for their short but powerful dance film, Free Expression (http://vimeo.com/331286) they felt arriving at the Woodstock Film Festival was like “coming home,” since they both enjoyed walking through the welcoming town, a community which reminds them of their childhood neighborhood in Buenos Aires.
On the street you might meet the Maverick Award winner, filmmaker Jonathan Demme (director of The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia, The Agronomist etc.) among local Woodstockians, who he defines as a “tolerant, welcoming, vibrant, eclectic tribe of humanoids who know how to grow and eat delicious food.” Or you might bump into (as I did) the subject of the short documentary, The Bronzer, directed by Peyton Wilson, telling the story of the single-purposed traveling salesman Stue Larkin, who sells bronze baby shoes. Larkin felt the film about him showed a “multi-dimensional character” while he said the other short profiles (about a guitar maker, ice merchant, environmental activist, rambunctious boy, and eccentric artist) “were rather one-dimensional.”
But the audience felt otherwise, awarding the deserving and beautifully shot, The Last Ice Merchant¬–a short film by director Sandy Patch about a dying tradition of harvesting glacial ice in the Andes–the audience award for best short documentary. While I enjoyed watching these short profiles, each about a different man who was passionately focused on his craft, I couldn’t help but wonder about the curatorial choice with an all male focus. Surely, there are interesting documentaries about women, which could add to a more balanced program selection.
On the other hand, there were interesting programming choices involving music. The Woodstock Film Festival has the life force of music running through its veins. The town’s long association with music dates back to the iconic, counter-cultural 1969 Woodstock Music Festival (also known as Three Days of Peace and Music). Although named after Woodstock, due to legal issues the actual concerts took place on a dairy farm in the town of Bethel. But Woodstock and music are still two peas in a pod and many films in this year’s fest had a musical theme, some featuring a live concert component as well.
Music was at the core from short films like David Aldrich’s well-crafted Randy Parsons: American Luthier, an 8-minute documentary about a former guitar player who found his way and passion as a guitar builder, to full-length features like the opening-night documentary, Dave Bromberg Unsung Treasure, about this 70s genre-bending music legend (who has performed with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Jerry Garcia). The Bromberg film by director Beth Toni Kruvant, as well as One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das and Dear Governor Cuomo . . . , all featured a live concert performance in conjunction with the screening, which might be considered a signature of the Woodstock Film Festival.
There was also a photo exhibition of iconic rock n’ roll musicians by Elliott Landy in the foyer gallery of the Woodstock Playhouse, one of the venues for the screenings. Titled “Woodstock Vision, The Spirit of A Generation,” the visual voice of Landy captures images of the 60s generation of musicians (Dylan, Hendrix, Joplin, The Band) associated with seeking spiritual and artistic freedom with messages of hope, freedom and change, clearly an apt embodiment of what Woodstock still represents today.
Particularly impressive at the film festival was the award-winning documentary, One Track Heart: The Story of Krishna Das, mixing the music of this American man, dubbed “Chant Master of American Yoga” by the New York Times, with his quest to find himself and a more purposeful life. Along the way in his personal journey, his resonant voice lets loose with Indian devotional music known as kirtan, an ancient Hindu tradition of chanting the Sanskrit names of God, connecting with a growing international audience who identifies with his search for a more meaningful and harmonious life.
The transformation of troubled, ex-rocker Jeff Kagel (Blue Oyster Cult) on a path to becoming Krishna Das, a spiritual singer practicing Bhakti yoga spiced with an American musical sensibility, is a ride worth taking/watching as he mixes personal magnetism and a “tell it like it is” demeanor, opening hearts with his call-and-response chants, while appealing to larger and larger audiences around the world. This documented journey also involves encounters with Ram Dass, (formerly Dr. Richard Alpert, a psychology professor at Harvard) author of the seminal works, Be Here Now and Be Love Now, who introduced Krishna Das to Eastern philosophy in the 60s and remains important as they continue to offer retreats together.
First-time documentary feature filmmaker Jeremy Frindel, a self-described “fan” of Krishna Das did an excellent job shooting (over a three year period) and editing this film that seamlessly intertwines the man and the music along with archival footage going back to the musician’s early sojourns to the foothills of the Himalayas in India during the 70s to meet with his spiritual guru, Neem Karoli Baba, who taught him to: “love everyone, serve everyone.” Appropriately, the film was preceded by a short, live chant session with Krishna Das playing the harmonium accompanied by his regular drummer, Arjun on tabla. The expectant audience echoed back the refrains in what felt like an appetizer to a gourmet meal, which finished up with a Q & A session.
Frindel described attending the kirtans of Krishna Das as “powerful and a felt-experience.” He is not alone. After seeing this film, some members of the audience decided not to go to other movies because they wanted to stay with the nourished feeling they were left with after this viewing.
For those who stayed on, there were other significant films with a strong musical component. Dear Governor Cuomo . . . documents a concert in Albany, New York in an attempt to persuade New York Governor Cuomo to ban hydraulic-fracturing (more commonly known as “fracking”) throughout the state. Fracking–linked to water and air pollution with long-term toxic effects and proven health risks –is a method of extracting natural gas with deep well drilling where millions of gallons of fluid (a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals) are injected to fracture the shale rock around the oil or gas wells.
In this documentary–which had its world premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival–song is an effective tool for the environmental movement (featuring many artists such as Natalie Merchant, Joan Osborne, and Medeski, Martin and Wood) with a coalition of musicians, scientists, actors, and filmmakers teaming up with environmental activists to make a strong case for New Yorkers against fracking.
While the power of music to change politics is in evidence here, the quality of the footage was not shot with the same caliber as director Jon Bowermaster’s other works for National Geographic (Terra Antarctica, What Would Darwin Think? and SoLa: Louisiana Water Stories). The film Dear Governor Cuomo . . . was still compelling, carrying a strong message, including the phone number for viewers to call in and lend their support, telling the Governor to ban fracking in New York. (1-866-584-6799)
The post-screening concert was a feel-good moment with a variety of special guests joining singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant (known for her work with 10,000 Maniacs and a solo career) on stage including versatile percussionist Jerry Marotta (who has worked with Peter Gabriel and the Indigo Girls), emotive songstress Simi Stone, and Congressman Maurice Hinchey, who supported the concepts in the movie and shared with me that the film was “very accurate.”
But not all the films were documentaries. And among the narrative pieces, some dealt with music. Quartet, the directorial debut of Academy Award-winner Dustin Hoffman, tells the poignant story of elderly opera singers dealing with issues of aging as they live together in an English Manor house for retired musicians. In a cast starring Maggie Smith and Michael Gambon, the actors make us laugh and tug at our heartstrings in unexpected ways while reminding me that good stories told in a cinematically compelling way are essential elements for creating good films.
© Jon Davis
Click image to enlarge.
For those interested in learning more about the business of filmmaking, there were a series of panels. While “Facebook for Filmmakers and Artists” was disappointing and far from the interactive approach that the lecturer Reid Rosefelt was promoting, others panels were worthwhile. “Raising Funds” and “Producing In A Multi-Screen World” both offered a lively flow with knowledgeable panelists, a good moderator, and opportunities for those attending to interact and question seasoned professionals.
Showcasing high-caliber social, cultural, political, and spiritual films, The Woodstock Film Festival is set in a small town with big ideas amidst a creative landscape celebrating the art of filmmaking. It’s an opportunity to watch films that reverberate long after the festival is over. Co-founder and executive director of the festival, Meira Blaustein reminds us: ”Here at the Woodstock Film Festival, we welcome the voices of change; those who dare to explore and challenge with films . . .”
Maverick award-winner, Jonathan Demme–who was honored as a director addressing controversial and challenging subjects throughout his four-decade career–was pleased to be back at this festival. He summed it up, saying: ”I love the Woodstock Film Festival. It is the only festival I know of that has the peace sign as a key visual element of their logo, and that is a window onto what makes Woodstock fiercely special, because the emphasis on what we see there is heavily skewed to daring humanistic visions and social justice concerns as well as cutting-edge filmmaking and 21st century entertainment for audiences with brains and hearts still intact.”
WOODSTOCK FILM FESTIVAL:
The Woodstock Film Festival is a fiercely independent, annual event offering short and full-length documentaries, narrative films, concerts, panels, parties, and networking opportunities in a town known for its unfettered creativity. www.woodstockfilmfestival.com
WHERE TO STAY:
EMERSON INN & SPA is a refined, one-stop destination before, during, and after festival activities. Located in Mount Tremper, about a 15- minute scenic drive outside of Woodstock, it offers more than quiet and comfort with in-room gas fireplaces, oversized-jet tubs, and an inviting décor in spacious rooms. The spa is ideal for post-festival rejuvenation, offering global healing treatments such as invigorating Ayurvedic Indian head rubs and lemongrass body wraps as well as classic Swedish massage laced with ginger oil. Don’t miss the multi-media show with the largest kaleidoscope in America located in the adjoining silo of this former dairy farm, which is currently a collection of interesting, eclectic shops in their country store. www.emersonresort.com
WHERE TO DINE:
The PHOENIX RESTARANT, overlooking the Esopus Creek is open daily for breakfast (with everything from seasonal fruit and house-made granola to classic eggs Benedict) and for dinner on Thursday through Saturday with a diverse menu (goat cheese tarts, chicken with horseradish mashed potatoes, etc.), which changes seasonally, featuring fresh, local Hudson Valley ingredients as well as innovative tasting menus centered around a selected ingredient (i.e. ginger, salt, vanilla, or cheese). Culinary Institute of America grad Mike Brothers is the new executive chef with a passion for all things culinary since his first foray into cooking lollipops when he was in the fourth grade.
Iris Brooks is a widely published cultural writer and
filmmaker. Her film, Languages Lost and Found: Speaking &
Whistling the Mamma Tongue (with co-director Jon H. Davis
and narrator William Hurt) was shown twice at the United
Nations this year. Learn more at the Northern Lights Studio web