Woodstock Fest Provokes and Entertains Again In Year Four
by Brian Brooks
Film festival or not, Woodstock itself is a trip for the imagination and a unique cultural experience. During the Saturday and Sunday of the five-day Woodstock Film Festival (which ran from September 17-21, 2003) the famous small town nestled in the Catskill Mountains was crowded with tourists, many from Europe, looking to capture an essence of the legendary concert that took place back in 1969. One Danish couple walking just outside the main center of Woodstock asked me in broken English, "Where is the peace festival, where they had the concert?" I was a bit perplexed by their question, but replied, "Go to the town square, there's all the peace and love you'll ever want to see." Never mind that the Woodstock Festival and Concert actually took place in nearby Bethel, NY. The spirit and, perhaps, more importantly -- at least economically for the town of Woodstock -- the aesthetic of 1969 permeates the picturesque village.
The small town square teems with activity with kids drumming or playing guitar, women clad in tie-die holding a tie-die banner proclaiming, "Families for Peace." And, there's Grandpa Woodstock, who looks like a 'hippified' version of Merlin, perched on his throne -- what looks like a bucket -- gesturing a "peace" sign with his hands to passers-by who snap photos. Candle stores, merchants selling New Age paraphernalia, street vendors pushing their wide array of bongs and pipes, locals in the square engaged in spirited conversation about politics in general and how much they hate Bush in particular or varying aspects of Transcendentalism, Woodstock is a sanctuary for all that is quirky and a haven for the eccentric and yet, surprisingly upscale.
So, it's probably no surprise that the 4th annual Woodstock Film Festival line-up included a healthy dose of films tinged with themes of political progressivism, and Woodstock audiences were consistently inquisitive and probing during Q & A sessions after screenings.
"We have an incredibly intelligent audience, and we put the program together to challenge, provoke and entertain them," commented Ryan Werner, head programmer at the festival. Werner, head of distribution at Palm Pictures, plans the annual line-up with festival co-founder Meira Blaustein.
"It's an engaged intellectual town," said filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who co-directed documentary, "A Normal Life" with Hugo Berkeley, which screened in the festival. "They had genuine questions. They asked about the future of Kosovo, not just [standard questions] like what was going to happen to the movie." "A Normal Life" follows seven young ethnic Albanian Kosovars who return home from refugee camps struggling to find their personal identities amidst the chaos of a country in shambles.
Vasarhelyi also said that she appreciated the presence of the film industry at the festival and the informal atmosphere that allowed for conversation. Reps from United Artists, THINKFilm, Miramax, Zeitgeist, Wellspring, Cowboy, Samuel Goldwyn, Palm Pictures, Magnolia, IFC Films and Lions Gate made the trek upstate to attend the festival.
Along with "A Normal Life," another powerful doc that wowed audiences with its gripping true story of a hostage crisis on a Rio de Janeiro bus was Jose Padilha's "Bus 174." The doc, from THINKFilm interweaves the particulars of the crisis itself with the broader social crisis of poverty and neglect. Toronto 2003's "The Revolutions Will Not Be Televised" by Kim Bartley and Donnacha O' Briain captured the April 2002 coup d' etat of President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. The powerful film won an honorable mention from the festival.
Elliot Greenebaum's debut feature, "Assisted Living" won the festival's best feature prize. The movie, which debuted earlier this year at Slamdance, chronicles a day in the life of Todd (Michael Bonsignore), a janitor in an assisted living facility who spends his days smoking pot and interacting with the resident. Cowboy Pictures recently acquired the film. A special mention was given to Emile Hirsch for his performance in Michael Burke's "The Mudge Boy" on awards night. The film was also well received at the festival.
Rory Kennedy's "A Boy's Life" won the best documentary prize. The film examines poverty through the lives of a rural family living in Mississippi.
Actor/activist Woody Harrelson was on hand to receive the festival's annual Honorary Maverick award. Harrelson gave a short acceptance speech in which he took swipes at the Bush Administration's policies in Iraq and the environment, which the audience received with a mix of laughter and applause. The festival also screened his film "Go Further" by Ron Mann, which follows the actor's 'bio-fueled' journey down the Pacific Coast Highway promoting sustainable development. Harrelson exalted the use of hemp and its historical place in agriculture, while blasting the current restrictions on its growth. "There should be no restrictions on what farmers grow in a country we call free," said Harrelson.
Earlier in the day, at one of the two screenings of "Go Further," brouhaha broke out when some ticket holders were not given seats for the screening of the film at the small Tinker Street Cinema in town. One disgruntled man even started yelling that he was going to sue the festival, according to one witness. At the very least, empty theaters did not seem to be a problem at Woodstock. Still, there were some organizational challenges. As mentioned in last year's wrap up of Woodstock, though, transportation remains a challenge. With screenings of some films only taking place in towns that are many miles away from Woodstock and many guests often situated in private homes, probably the best bet for this fest is to bring a car.
In other prizes, the festival gave "Love Object" composer Nicholas Pike its annual Elmer Bernstein award while cinematographer Peter Robertson won the Haskell Wexler Award for his work on "Song For A Raggy Boy." Also taking home statuettes were Mark Waites for his short "Seventy Two Faced Liar," and Emily and Sarah Kuntsler for their film "Tulia, Texas: Scenes from the Drug War" (best short documentary). The best student film prize went to "The Show" by Cruz Angeles and special mention went to Sergio Umansky for "Aqui Iba El Himino" (Here was the Anthem).
This year's festival offered the U.S. premiere of Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions" at a crowded Saturday night screening and closed on Sunday, September 21st with "Shattered Glass," a compelling look at the deceptive journalism of writer Stephen Glass starring Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard.