Arriving in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the fifth annual Jackson Hole Film Festival is an experience in itself. The plane delicately carves its way between the snow-capped Teton mountain range and touches down in the only U.S. airport housed in a National Park. The enchanting scenery has doubtlessly worked its way on the townspeople, the festival, and its staff. The five-day festival showcased 100 films, representing 30 countries. These selections included 12 world premieres and 80 regional ones.
Beyond the traditional categories of narrative, documentary, and short, the festival offered prominent sidebars focusing on Latin American cinema, sports action, student work, and–in tandem with the United Nations — a Global Insight program, which tackled issues including the plight of child soldiers, women’s liberation in the Middle East and Africa, sex trafficking abuses, and the pandemic of HIV/AIDS. The festival’s commitment to the lofty ideal of actively and tangibly bettering the world is the linchpin of its success.
The opening night feature, the North American premiere of Luigi Falorni‘s “Heart of Fire” proved a bold, if controversial example. The fictional, yet devastating, tale follows a young Eritrean girl as she is reluctantly conscripted into a militia of freedom fighters. As she struggles to comprehend the destruction around her and maintain her moral bearings, her options dwindle, but her resolve to break away from the violence hardens. The film’s sensitive subject matter caused an uproar at the Berlin International Film Festival, and its JHFF screening brought a formal complaint from the Organization of Eritrean Americans, who claim that there never were child soldiers in Eritrea. Director of programming Cevin Cathell reveled in the festival’s US premiere, “having the chance to be the first festival in the country to show ‘Heart of Fire’ is a real sign that the festival is coming into its own, that we are being taken seriously…I feel incredibly blessed that we are in a place where filmmakers around the world of unparalleled quality are excited to show their work here.”
One of “Heart of Fire”‘s supporters is the charismatic child-soldier turned international rap-star Emmanuel Jal, who was the subject of another festival standout. Karim Chrobog‘s “War Child” traces Jal’s extraordinary journey from a southern Sudanese villager to a more-than-willing SPLA combatant, to a hip-hop activist who preaches peace and builds schools in his homeland. The persistent spirit of hope in spite of horrific circumstances and seemingly unbeatable odds was an oft-mined theme throughout the festival. “Where the Water Meets the Sky,” “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” and “Frontrunner” all powerfully depict the ability of women to improve their countries, despite overwhelmingly prevalent sexism in their societies. “Frontrunner” recounts Dr. Massouda Jalal’s improbable, twisting, bid for the presidential election of Afghanistan; “Where the Water Meets the Sky” poignantly depicts a rare challenge to Zambian social norms by a group of twenty-three intrepid women who shot the film; and “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” reflects on the quiet strength of a women’s cadre responsible for bringing an end to war in Liberia.
The fifth JHFF ushered in the first ever Global Insight Summit, a major new initiative furthering the push toward global awareness and action. The summit began with a keynote address from the United Nation’s Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. Mr. Ban delivered a surprisingly vivacious speech, employing equal parts humor, passion, and outrage to prod the entertainment industry into enhancing their coverage of major global issues ranging from world hunger and genocide to access to basic health services and education. His impassioned remarks opened a two-part series of panel discussions, linked by the theme of “Children without Childhoods.” The first, moderated by Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, focused on the myriad challenges faced by an estimated 300,000 child soldiers worldwide. Bestselling author and former child-soldier Ishmael Beah and Mariatu Kamara, a survivor of a brutal kidnapping at the hands of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, gave harrowing first-hand accounts of their stolen childhoods. Radhika Coomaraswamy and Pernille Ironside, a pair of U.N. workers focusing on the issue of children in armed conflicts, spoke of the international community’s effort to confront the issue and appealed to filmmakers and the public alike to engage in developing a sustainable solution.
The second panel dealt with children and AIDS/HIV. In addition to hearing from several high-end UNAIDS staffers, the audience was treated to the heroic tale of Keren Gonzales, a 12 year old activist living in Honduras. The courage she displays in traveling the world and sharing tales of her persecution as child diagnosed with HIV is as phenomenal as it is heartbreaking.
Despite displaying an impressive breadth of serious and sobering films, JHFF is by no means humorless. Fitting in neatly with its prime skiing and sporting location, the festival hosts a series of daring, fun loving, sports films each year. These ran the gamut from soccer and basketball films to extreme sports, surfing, and even a prison rodeo flick. While somewhat dubiously left out of this section, “Fun for Hire,” a fan film reveling in the real life wacky world of mascots, was a surprise revelation full of zaniness and spirit.
The entire Shorts slate (including 20 student works and 25 out-of-school entries) was another major area of triumph. Filmmakers repeatedly marveled at the strength of their competition, with several (award-winners, no less) so genuinely awed that they came to the conclusion that they had to “step up their games” simply to stay afloat. Particularly memorable were “Validation,” a musical comedy starring a parking attendant, “Centigrade,” a psychological horror movie set inside a rolling trailer, “Parachute,” the charmingly offbeat and stunningly honest portrayal of a child’s encounter with infidelity, and what was perhaps the best film of the entire festival, the super-short “Pinata’s Revenge,” a gleefully imaginative take on a set of carnal pinatas that have finally had it with being knocked about.
Full length narratives and documentaries included some gems as well. The festival roster of keenly talented programmers should be commended for including choices such as “The Secrets,” an orthodox Jewish lesbian drama that is inconceivably most heated during scenes of Talmudic study and Kabbalistic practice, and following them up with the no-budget (the filmmaker purchased a camera at Wal-Mart and single-handedly completed the work in his trailer) wonder-film “Everyone But You.” Find something higher quality and more indie, and you will have discovered a new breed of cinema. Enthusiastic nods also go to Sundance favorite “Good Dick,” “California Dreamin’” and “Man on Wire.”
Fifteen juried Cowboy Awards and an additional three audience picks were honored. The winners were: “The Butcher’s Daughter” (Best Editor), “Everyone But You” (Best Composer), “Das Gerfrorene Meer” (The Frozen Sea) (Best Cinematographer), “The Flyboys” (Audience Choice Award – Narrative Feature), “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” (Audience Choice Award – Best Documentary), “Perro Come Perro” (Best Feature Director), “Dark Yellow” (Best Short), “Clear Cut, Simple” (Best Student Voices), “Cute Couple” (Audience Choice Award – Best Short), “Pariah” (Best Short Director), “Class C” (Best Sports Action), “Please Vote for Me” (Best Documentary), “Where the Water Meets the Sky” (Best Global Insight), “Ano Una” (Best World Program Spotlight: Latin America), “The Secrets” (Best Feature and Best Screenwriters).
Besides its stunning location, two main factors set JHFF apart from its peers: its earnest dedication to using film as an agent of positive global change, and its relaxed, yet professional, atmosphere. An undeniably placid charm courses through the event as attendees casually mingle with filmmakers, industry press, U.N representatives and a cheery corps of volunteers. The parties are well-attended but not stuffy, the films are enthusiastically received, and the panels teem with an engaged energy. JHFF caters fare well beyond the tempting “regional” fest label, offering a strong selection of narrative and documentary features, a knockout shorts program, and an impressive array of world cinema at its best. With only five years under its belt, the Jackson Hole Film Festival has taken impressive strides toward becoming a unique haven for both the activist and the cinephile.