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Filmmakers flock to The Berkshires

GREAT BARRINGTON – The best films are said to be acts of love, and the passion for cinema felt by both moviegoers and filmmakers at this year’s Berkshire International Film Festival amounted to a weekend-long cinematic dream.

“I am always trying to bring this community what it deserves: the best in independent film,” BIFF Founder Kelley R. Vickery said on the festival’s opening night.

With more than 70 movies – narrative features, documentaries and short films – the eighth annual event was highlighted by three sold-out screenings at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington.

Opening night (May 30) at the Mahaiwe featured the short film Food for Thought and the documentary feature Twenty Feet from Stardom.

To introduce the short, made through the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, director Joe Caraci and stars Tony Shaloub and Meegan Holoway were in attendance. Mr. Shaloub joked about the process of making Food for Thought.

“I’m shocked to hear it’s a short,” he jested. “It sure felt like we shot for a long, long time.”

Following Twenty Feet from Stardom, which documents the work of back-up singers from the 1960s through today who have worked with internationally-renowned acts such as The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen and Sting, one of the film’s stars, Darlene Love, hit the Mahaiwe stage to belt out her rendition of “Lean on Me.”

After seeing Twenty Feet from Stardom, those in attendance were curious to know what was next for the featured performers.

“We might be touring with the girls from this film,” Ms. Love told the audience, which answered with applause.

The second sold-out screening at the Mahaiwe, of the documentary Girl Rising, came on June 1. The film tells the story of nine girls in different parts of the world (including India, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Haiti and Egypt) and their struggles to get a good education.

A panel discussion with Girl Rising producer Tom Yellin; two of the film’s writers, Maaza Mengiste and Shabana Basij-Rasikh; and American feminist Carol Gilligan, moderated by author Benjamin Barber, followed the screening.

“Girls’ education is the most inclusive cause you can embrace,” Ms. Basij-Rasikh, who wrote the Afghanistan segment, said.

Mr. Yellin compared the lives of his own four daughters, one of whom introduced the film, to the girls in the documentary.

“The outcomes of [my daughters’] lives are uncertain, but they don’t face the same difficulties these girls face,” he said.

Closing night

In what might have been the biggest event of the festival, the coming-of-age tale Frances Ha was featured as the closing night film and a discussion led by Berkshire-based photographer Gregory Crewdson with the film’s director, Noah Baumbach, and star, Greta Gerwig, followed the screening.

The film follows a modern dancer (Ms. Gerwig) in her late 20s in New York City as she struggles through career and relationship issues.

Mr. Baumbach and Ms. Gerwig also co-wrote the film and discussed their writing process, along with other topics.

“Noah asked me to collaborate on something,” Ms. Gerwig said, noting their previous experience working together as a director and actress on Greenberg. “We mostly wrote separately. … We would email scenes back and forth to each other. It was really effortless.”

She later said she was particularly proud of her screenwriting work on this film.

“This is the first movie that I felt like was interpretation of my writing,” she said. “We very much draw from life [in writing].”

Frances Ha‘s black and white cinematography was also a major topic of discussion.

“I wanted to make a black and white movie that was contemporary,” Mr. Baumbach said. “It’s immediately nostalgic when you see something in black and white. It was a way to see New York City in a fresh way.”

They also discussed their (clear) influences in making Frances Ha: Woody Allen (most notably his Manhattan) and the French New Wave (especially filmmaker François Truffaut).

“Woody Allen, in different ways for both of us, is so influential it’s hard to tell where it starts and where it stops,” Ms. Gerwig said.

“The Woody Allen thing is in the air,” Mr. Baumbach added.

He went on to discuss the French New Wave influences, including Mr. Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses and Bed and Board and the use of Georges Delerue’s music from that period in Frances Ha.

In general, the use of music was a departure from some of Mr. Baumbach’s other films, which include Kicking and Screaming and The Squid and the Whale.

“It was a way to celebrate New York City and the character and the movie,” he said. “It couldn’t be romantic enough. It was great to discover that.”

For more on Frances Ha, read Bera Dunau’s review of it in next week’s issue of The Beacon.

In the same coming-of-age vein, only this time set amongst high school seniors, the Pittsfield opening night at The Beacon Cinema on May 31 featured The Spectacular Now, with one of the screenwriters and producers, Michael Weber (of 500 Days of Summer fame) in attendance for a question and answer session following the movie.

Mr. Weber spoke of the five-year process to get The Spectacular Now made, chronicling its initial start as a studio movie and the change to an independent film after Fox Searchlight lost interest.

“If we just added one werewolf, we’d get it made so much faster,” he joked.

Award winners

The Pittsfield opening night event included the announcement of the BIFF/Berkshire Bank “Next Great Filmmaker Award,” which went to Suha Araj, director of the short film The Cup Reader. It was also shown immediately before The Spectacular Now.

“This is really cool,” Ms. Araj said in accepting the award. “It’s my first award ever.”

The juried awards went to Valentine Road (dir. Marta Cunningham) and GMO OMG (dir. Jeremy Seifert) in the documentary category and Die Welt (dir. Alex Pitstra) in the narrative feature category.

The BIFF Jury consisted of actors Karen Allen, Mary Kay Place and Peter Riegert; producer and distributor Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment; directors Karen Goodman and Matthew Penn; screenwriter Sam Harper; and film critic and New York Film Festival Director of Programming Kent Jones.

The audience awards went to Crash Reel (dir. Lucy Walker) in the documentary category and Suskind (dir. Rudolph van den Berg) in the narrative feature category.

Preparations for the ninth annual BIFF have already begun; the dates are set for May 29-June 1, 2014. The festival will open for submissions on Oct. 1.

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