It’s a rare and gratifying experience to watch a documentary and then shake hands with the film’s subject. It’s an even rarer and more gratifying experience to watch a documentary about a man who was wrongly accused of a crime, scapegoated by a negligent, racist judicial system, and imprisoned for twenty years for a gruesome crime he didn’t commit, and then get to dance with that man–to “Brick House.” That was just one of the many joys of the Newport International Film Festival, which ran from June 6-11 in the picturesque Rhode Island town.
And “The Trials of Darryl Hunt,” Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg‘s Special Jury Prize and Audience Award-winning film–about a black man from North Carolina who was wrongly convicted of raping and murdering a white woman and spent twenty years in prison trying to prove his innocence–is just one of the many extraordinary documentaries that formed the heart of an impressive film program.
Newport is definitely not one of those regional festivals trying to pass off second rate indies as great cinema. “Since we’re a festival that doesn’t really have to worry about premiere status, I thought I would just try to get the best films that were out there,” said programming director David Nugent. “Whether or not they premiered at Toronto or Berlin, I didn’t think that really mattered to the community here. I think they just want to see the best films possible.”
Narrative films were sprinkled throughout the program, and there were some great ones: Gela Babluani‘s chilling thriller “13 Tzameti;” Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland‘s Audience Award- winning “Quinceanera;” Oren Rudavsky‘s “The Treatment,” a romantic comedy about a man stuck between his love life and his shrink; Andy Robin and Gregg Kavet‘s hilariously understated “Live Free or Die,” which features fantastic performances by Aaron Stanford as a small-town swindler and Paul Schneider as his dimwitted pal; Kelly Reichardt‘s Best Director Award-winning “Old Joy;” and Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross‘s much esteemed, Best Narrative Feature Award-winning “The Road to Guantanamo.”
It was the docs, however, that formed the program’s core. With so many that simply knock it out of the field, it’s hard to cover them all, but here are a few standouts: Lauren Greenfield‘s “Thin,” which also won a Special Jury Prize, profiles a group of girls battling eating disorders in a Florida clinic. Cinema verite-style, the director and her crew became flies on a wall for six months in order to gain the trust of both the patients and the staff. Another intimate doc that required extraordinary access is Andrew Walton‘s beautiful slice-of-life, “Arctic Son,” about Stan Jr., a suburban slacker who visits his estranged dad in the tiny Arctic village of Old Crow, where he is forced to help with such basic functions as fixing the snowmobile and catching their dinner and in spite of himself slowly develops a sense of purpose. John Hyams‘ boot-stomping, fist-pumping, and strangely sweet “Rank” introduces us to the three highest ranked bull riders in the country as they compete for the world championship.
Gary Tarn‘s Best Documentary-winning “Black Sun” is a wholly original cinematic experience based on the life of painter and filmmaker Hugues de Montalembert, who was blinded during a mugging many years ago. With narration by de Montalembert, the film is a poetic collage, a tapestry of thoughts and images that together create a stunning commentary on the ways that we–and this thoughtful, blind artist–see. If there were an award for most charming doc, it would go to Kristi Jacobson‘s “Toots,” about the rise and fall of the director’s grandfather, legendary New York saloon keeper Toots Shor, a guy who called DeMaggio and Sinatra friends, who consorted with presidents and believed profoundly in the two-martini lunch in an era when as he says in the film, “People lived short, happy lives.”
Of the more politically charged documentaries on display, some highlights included a sneak peek at Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady‘s “Jesus Camp,” a terrifying look at a training ground for evangelical youngsters who live to bring the light of the Lord into the heart of every American. The most infuriating doc award could go to Chris Paine‘s “Who Killed the Electric Car?” an investigation into the reasons behind the annihilation of the EV1, a fast, sexy, 100% pollution-free vehicle that lived a depressingly short life in the 1990s. Amidst the current global warming hysteria surrounding “An Inconvenient Truth,” environmentally-conscious audiences will cheer when Tom Hanks tells Dave Letterman, “I’m saving America, Dave, that’s what I’m doing by driving an electric car.” And they will hold their heads in despair as each one of those potentially planet-saving vehicles is ripped out of their proud owners’ hands and turned into scrap metal.
Newport is a quaint coastal town that boasts colonial houses, ancient taverns where people like George Washington once drank, and vast beachside mansions owned by the Vanderbilts and friends. Shindigs took place in bars along the harbor and private homes with stunning ocean views, and the closing night party was held in a haunted castle. Late nights found the more tenacious guests drinking poolside at the sprawling homes of generous locals.
Every afternoon, there were panel discussions, one of which, The Vixen and the Mother (a euphemism for virgin and whore), I had the good fortune to moderate. The awesome panelists, “Arctic Son” producer Dallas Brennan Rexer, “Chutney Popcorn” director and juror Nisha Ganatra, “My Father, the Genius” director and juror Lucia Small, and “Inventing the Abbotts” star Joanna Going, discussed the inroads women are making in the film industry, despite surprisingly low numbers working behind the cameras in top-grossing films. The atmosphere heated up when “The Sopranos” star Joe Pantoliano (or Joey Pants, a.k.a. Guido the Killer Pimp), who was in the audience, began criticizing the panelists for looking on the dark side. With panelists on the defensive, teenaged girls in the audience launching pertinent statistics and concerns, and another male viewer wielding accusations of anti-male-ism, the debate got so heated it might have wound up in fisticuffs had the panelists been men. Then again, there probably wouldn’t be a panel discussion on why guys never get a break in the business.
At an intimate festival like Newport, everybody heads to the same party after the evening’s final screening, which brings us back to “Brick House.” After the screening of “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” and a booming standing ovation, Hunt and his attorney, Mark Rabil, who fought for Hunt’s freedom over a period of twenty years, joined the filmmakers for a Q&A. It was impossible not to choke on tears after watching their often excruciating and ultimately triumphant story on screen. At one point, someone asked Hunt what he did when he got home after finally getting out of prison. “I watched the sun go down,” he said. “Me and my wife sat on the porch and watched the sun go down. I always wanted to do that in prison–be free and watch the sun go down.”
After the screening, there was a cocktail reception for the film, where I got to shake Rabil’s hand. Later, we all watched “Saturday Night Live“‘s Rachel Dratch and friends from the Upright Citizens’ Brigade perform improv at a local bar and I met the rest of the film’s team, including the remarkable, soft-spoken Hunt, before heading over to that night’s party. As tequila flowed, we all chatted about movies and boogied to those ’70s disco tunes that seem to lure everyone out on the dance floor.