Vermont International Film Festival opens with awards and romantic comedy

 From "Valley of Saints," a lyrical Kashmiri feature about finding the way home.
From “Valley of Saints,” a lyrical Kashmiri feature about finding the way home.

Almost 20 years ago a leading journal on documentary film called the Vermont International Film Festival the “best kept secret in America.” In some ways it still is.

For followers of world cinema, especially anyone not content with the few independent films, foreign features and documentaries that make it into local theaters, it is also a 10-day audio visual buffet with a distinctly iconoclastic slant and long-term focus on socially conscious movie-making.

This year’s festival, which opened on Friday with a downtown party, several awards, and a new romantic comedy from Argentina, features recent work from Latin America and Iran like “This Is Not a Film,” a clandestine Iranian documentary smuggled to the Cannes film festival in a cake; film showcases on the environment, food, gender and music; Vermont short films and documentaries on hunger, immigration and war; plus numerous opportunities to talk with filmmakers during post-screening discussions and special focus panels.

The festival will run through Sunday, Oct. 28, with screenings at Main Street Landing on the Burlington waterfront, North End Studios, the ECHO Center, Flynn Space, Burlington City Arts and Essex Cinema.

In addition to spotlighting Iran and Latin America, the schedule includes short films for the first time in years, and award-winning movies from other festivals “that may never make it to your local theater.”

As VTIFF Executive Director Orly Yadin puts it in the festival guide: “The role of a film festival is to make connections – stylistic, geographic and thematic.”

Launched at Marlboro College in 1985, the event settled in Burlington with a focus that has expanded over the years from war and peace to incorporate environmental issues and human rights. It has become the longest running human rights film festival in the world and a leading regional documentary event.

The competition, awards and eclectic selection of films this year are signs that the 27-year-old festival continues to evolve. The original idea was a Vermont film gathering that would focus on “images and issues of global concern,” sparked by a 1981 Vermont documentary, “From Washington to Moscow,” by George and Sonia Cullinen. After the film won a UNESCO prize, the Cullinens founded and helped fund a festival that would support filmmaking that motivates people to local and global action.

By those standards, the opening night feature, while charming and even revealing at times about life in contemporary Argentina, felt soft at first. “All In” is a quirky modern romance that follows the arrested development of Uriel, a divorced dad who wants to rekindle an old love but cannot manage to tell the truth, or give up his attraction to gambling and room service. Songwriter Jorge Drexler, whose music for a previous Burman film, “The Motorcycle Diaries,” won an Oscar, is natural and amusing in his acting debut.

“All In” is often funny, well paced, eye catching and peppered with up-to-date references. There’s also the obligatory sexual humor, in this case mainly involving a vasectomy. You can almost visualize an American remake, with Jason Bateman in the lead and Jennifer Biehl as Gloria, the tough-minded ex-girlfriend, played here with earthy seductiveness by Valeria Bertuccelli. The screenplay, which won at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, strikes an easy balance between quick, clever dialogue and emotional moments, building ultimately to a poker showdown and an odd, yet predictable rock concert climax.

“If Larry David were Argentinian, you could imagine him making this film,” suggests the program blurb. The tone of “All In” is really not so misanthropic or edgy. A better comparison might be recent Woody Allen, especially when it comes to Drexler’s self-deprecating delivery and the cameo moments provided by the script’s ensemble approach. There are, of course, also rabbis and no lack of Jewish humor.

In VTIFF’s early days, a polished commercial production like “All In” would probably not have opened the festival. Traditionally, the preference was for “message” films. But times change, and not every film screened at this annual Vermont event needs to beat a political drum anymore. Initial reactions to “All In” at the opening night party after the screening were mixed. Some people were engaged by the performances, style and upbeat story. Others wondered about the choice.

That said, there is considerable excitement about this year’s “more inclusive selection” and other facets of the 10-day festival. Not only will VTIFF bring great world cinema to Burlington, it will offer Vermont filmmakers and those who attend screenings or panels the chance to discuss how films are made, and how they reach the public, with industry professionals.

Six awards were announced at the opening night party, held at Maglianero, a coffeehouse and eatery near Perkins Pier that is serving as the “official Festival café.” Matt Day won the $500 James Goldstone Award for “Shape of Things to Come,” a short documentary on musician Nick Zammuto. The prize, named for the commercial director who founded the Vermont Film Commission, recognizes an emerging Vermont filmmaker.

Alison Segar won the Footage Farm USA Documentary Award, a credit for $600 in stock footage, for “We Have to Talk About Hunger,” her look at the real impacts of hunger in Vermont. “Welcome to Vermont,” a 70-minute film about new Vermonters making the transition from Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq and Rwanda by former festival director Mira Niagolova, won the $250 Ben & Jerry’s prize, which goes to a filmmaker who has “raised awareness of an important social or environmental issues with verve and ingenuity.”

The festival board also decided to honor acting, cinematography and screen writing with three new awards this year. Best Acting honors went to Dan Butler, a veteran TV and film performer who appears in “Steel Rendezvous,” a narrative short about a private detective. The film also won for best screenplay by John Milton Oliver. The cinematography prize was awarded to Michael Fisher for “Stations,” his narrative short about a suspicious returning soldier.

The schedule for Monday begins with a noon showing of four shorts at Burlington City Arts. Four films will be screened in the evening. “Valley of the Saints,” a feature-length drama from Kashmir that wowed Sundance festival audiences, will be shown at 6 p.m. in the ECHO Center, followed by a discussion. “The World Before Her,” a much-discussed documentary on modern vs. traditional India, will begin at 6:15 in the Flynn Space. “Now Forager,” a drama about a couple hunting mushrooms, is scheduled for 6:30 at North End Studios. And finally, “The Turin Horse,” a Hungarian film sensation by Bela Tarr that captures the struggle of existence with vivid visuals, a memorable musical score and a “radically humanist” perspective, begins at 7 p.m. in Main Street Landing.

The award-winning films will be shown a second time at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 30, as part of the festival finale. Those screenings will be followed by a Latin American dinner at North End Studios, combined with a screening on “Violeta Went to Heaven,” the Chilean bio-picture about the beloved singer Violeta Parra.

The festival winds up with a 5:30 showing of “Pink Ribbons,” a feature-length wake-up call on breast cancer, at ECHO, and a 6 p.m. event, nearby at Main Street Landing, called Sleepless in Burlington. The latter is an “American Idol”-style showcase for competitors in a 24-hour filmmaking competition between student teams from four area schools.

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Greg Guma

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