Film as a force for change: Vermont festival focuses on empowerment

Film and video pioneer George Stoney, right, shares a drink with an Aran islander in his film on Robert Flaherty’s classic documentary.

Lauren-Glenn Davitian, director of the CCTV Center for Media Democracy and leader in the development of Vermont’s public access network, credits documentarian George Stoney as an inspiration for her work. Recognizing early that film and video could be tools for change, Stoney produced and directed documentary films that turned his subjects into full participants, and taught a generation of media activists how to help communities to tell their own stories.

Recognizing Stoney’s crucial contributions to socially responsible filmmaking and the public access movement, the Vermont International Film Festival decided to honor his career and legacy with a lively tribute on Wednesday. A panel including Davitian and two of Stoney’s collaborators discussed his life and introduced an impressive collection of scenes from his work.

Stoney died in July after making more than 100 films, and influencing many more. The clips shown ranged from “All My Babies,” an acclaimed 1952 documentary that promoted public health through the story of a black Southern midwife, to “The Uprising of ’34,” a 1995 production that recovered the forgotten history of a massive general strike in the midst of the Great Depression.

After two decades of developing films for government agencies, progressive causes and businesses like Ford and Borden’s Milk, Stoney was recruited by the Canadian Film Board in 1968 to lead the Challenge for Change project, which charted a participatory approach to media production. More than 140 films were produced by the project over the next 14 years.

Several clips shown during the tribute demonstrated how the use of videotape in a poor Montreal neighborhood revealed, as Davitian put it, “the value of getting together and finding common cause.” When people saw footage of themselves or others in similar situations at community meetings, things began to change.

Joining the New York University faculty in 1970, Stoney spent the next four decades as an evangelist for media as a democratic tool and is widely considered the father of public access television. At NYU he helped found the Alternate Media Center and introduced students to video production – a new technology then. He also saw the potential of cable TV to provide a platform for grassroots action and played a key role in the regulatory system that evolved.

In 1984, federal law required cable companies to provide public access to the expanded broadcast spectrum created by cable. This made it possible for average citizens across the country to create programs and have them aired. During a public meeting with Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger on Tuesday to promote the festival and tribute, Davitian noted that Vermont today has “25 community media centers, running 44 channels to every corner of our state. George inspired us – and continues to do so.”

One of Stoney’s own inspirations was Robert Flaherty, who pioneered documentary filmmaking with early features like “Nanook of the North” and “Man of Aran,” a 1934 film that presented the harsh life on Ireland’s isolated Aran Islands. Decades later Stoney examined his idol’s work in “How the Myth Was Made,” which both appreciated the classic film by returning to the same locations and people and, at the same time, exposed how Flaherty had manipulated reality to intensify the images and drama.

Flaherty’s approach was to cast locals in fictional “roles” and stage dramatic recreations. Stoney used similar techniques in his early educational documentaries. But even in “All My Babies” he worked collaboratively with the midwife who became his central character. Later, he brought groups and communities directly into the production process, recognizing the power of self-awareness and inter-communication to spark change.

Stoney certainly valued the importance of professional production and effective storytelling. His own films were elegantly composed and structured. However, his goal was neither ethnographic nor commercial. It was to make media a tool for education and democracy, creating an inclusive media culture in which technology empowers people and helps them to transform their own reality.

Rewriting the Cuba script

Saul Landau has produced more than 50 documentaries since 1966. He has also written more than a dozen books, won an Emmy, appeared on TV, and worked for decades with the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies. Once upon a time he was even in the San Francisco Mime Troupe.

A film poster for Saul Landau’s Cuba film.

Landau’s latest film, “Will the Real Terrorists Please Stand Up,” draws on his firsthand knowledge of U.S.-Cuban relations, his considerable skills as a film editor and narrator, as well as his personal relationship with Fidel Castro, to unravel a half century of international conflict and hostility. Castro and Danny Glover appear in the film, along with many key figures in the history. Landau was on hand to answer questions at a festival screening on Wednesday night.

The film’s starting point is the Cuban Five, intelligence agents from Cuba who were sent to the U.S. to penetrate a group of exiles responsible for bombings and other violence. Instead, they ended up in jail. But most of this fast-paced, sometimes startling 80-minute film is devoted to the decades of policy hypocrisy, harassment and assassination attempts that have characterized U.S. policy toward Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

After the film, Landau was asked what he would like President Obama to say or do about relations with Cuba. “I would have Obama say we pursued a flawed policy and we’re sorry,” Landau replied. “We invested too narrowly in banking and corporate interests, and we’re going to try to alter that.”

Despite persistent U.S. harassment and complicity in terrorism orchestrated by Cuban exiles the revolution has been a success, Landau noted. Although some “civil society” rights have been restricted, the focus on basic human rights like health has benefited the vast majority. And now, Landau added, with Castro officially retired and an unstable economic outlook facing much of the world, Cuba is beginning “to write a new script.”

Coming attractions: Friday-Sunday

Over the weekend more than 24 films from a dozen countries will be screened during the festival’s final three days. The Friday, Oct. 26, program begins at 10 a.m. at Main Street Landing with “I am Eleven,” an award-winning Australian feature in which kids from 15 countries talk about love, war, music, terrorism, the future and much more.

Other screenings at that Burlington waterfront venue include “Step Up to the Plate,” a food series selection about father and son French chefs, at 2 p.m.; “All Together,” a new comedy starring Jane Fonda in her first French-language film since 1972, at 4:15; “Facing Mirrors,” the first Iranian film with a transgender main character, at 6:15; and “Addicted to Fame,” Vermont director David Giancola’s documentary about the making of a low-budget movie with Anna Nicole Smith, at 8:30.

Experimental short films will be shown downtown at Burlington City Arts at noon Friday. From Israel, Canada and the UK, they reveal Israeli mores through a spin on all terrain vehicles (“Kings of the Hill”), an animator developing his character (“The Making of Longbird”), how phenomena are translated into visual artifacts by media (“930”), and a Soviet pianist working on a Rachmaninoff performance (“Master Class”).

At 6 p.m. “Raw and Cooked,” an enticing tour of Taiwan’s coastal cuisine, will be screened at North End Studios, followed at 8 by “California Solo,” a Sundance festival favorite, with Robert Carlyle as a former rock star in a downward spiral.

At the ECHO Center, “Here and There,” a Cannes award winner from Mexico about life in a mountain village – a recommended highlight by festival director Orly Yadin – begins at 6 p.m. It is followed at 8:30 by “Starlet,” director Sean Baker’s poignant, unpredictable film of a young porn star who befriends an elderly widow. “Starlet” will be shown again on Saturday at 2 p.m. at Main Street Landing.

Two films will be shown at the Flynn Space on Main Street: “The Playroom,” a new feature starring John Hawkes, Molly Parker and newcomer Olivia Harris, about a family crackup in 1970s suburbia, at 6:15 p.m., and “In Another Country,” an innovated, largely improvised film with Isabelle Huppert in a key role, directed by Hong Sang-see, one of Korea’s leading directors.

On Saturday the program at Main Street Landing begins at 11 a.m. with a panel discussion, “The Future of Film.” One focus will be the fate of small town theaters. Panelists include Savoy Theater owner Terry Youk and Champlain College teacher Rob Schmidt. Screenings at the same location include “World Before Her,” a critically acclaimed documentary about Indian women caught between tradition and modernity, at 4 p.m; “Salaam Dunk,” about a multi-ethnic women’s basketball team in Kurdistan, at 6; and “Juan of the Dead,” Cuba’s first (and quite stylish) zombie comedy, at 8:30.

“The Other F-Word,” a look at the lives of middle-aged punk rockers, begins at 1 p.m. at North End Studios. At ECHO the Saturday program includes a noon showing of “Rives,” an experimental drama shot in Paris by acclaimed filmmaker Armel Hostiou, followed at 2 p.m. by “October,” an engaging drama from Peru (with a second showing on Sunday); “Mad City Chickens,” a humorous journey into the world of urban poultry, at 4; and Fred Wiseman’s “Crazy Horse,” a dazzling look the legendary Paris cabaret, at 6.

The festival wraps up on Sunday, Oct. 28, beginning with an 11 a.m. panel discussion on “Film as a Collaborative Art Form” at Main Street Landing. The afternoon includes a screening of “Zone of Silence,” a Cuban look at censorship, followed by a discussion with director Karel Ducasses, plus encore showings of “October”and “War Matador,” an Israeli documentary that juxtaposes war and tourism.

The week’s award winning films will be screened starting at 3 p.m., followed by a 5 p.m. Latin American dinner and screening of “Violeta Went to Heaven.”

“Sleepless in Burlington,” the climax of a 24-hour film competition involving teams from four area schools, begins at 6 p.m. After the “American Idol” showcase and screening of competing films, a jury will select the best film, actor, and actress. Those attending will pick a winner for the audience choice award.

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