Woodstock Film Festival Turns Sweet 16

In my absence, singer/songwriter (and ex-music critic) Charles Lyonhart covered this year's Woodstock Film Festival. Here's his report:

The Woodstock Film Festival wrapped Oct. 4 and the five-day event once again showcased a roster of international features, documentaries and shorts. Meira Blaustein, the festival's Executive Director and Co-Founder, continues to put her heart and soul into the event each year; it's no secret that her passion for film and the community is an ongoing commitment. This year the selection included films from the Netherlands, Bhutan, Israel, Australia, Columbia, Nepal and the U.S. The Poet of Havana, a documentary about musician/poet Carlos Varela, kicked off the festival Sept. 30. Directed by Ron Chapman, the film was followed by a live performance by Varela and his band with special guest, Jackson Browne. The film, shot exclusively in Havana, reveals Varela, who has often been called "the Cuban Bob Dylan" by journalists, against a backdrop of the Cuban capital. Along with stunning concert footage, the film includes interviews with Browne, singer Diana Fuentes and actor Benicio Del Toro.

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Cuban troubadour Carlos Varela
photo: Simon Russell

This year's festival boasted 17 world premieres covering everything from music to suicide, Cuba to Chernobyl, the homeless to the wealthy, dreams to reality and everything in between. Atom Egoyan's Remember and Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room bookended the festival. Remember, starring two Academy Award winners, Christopher Plummer and, in one of his last roles, Martin Landau, is about two old men, both prisoners in Auschwitz during World War II, who many years later set out on a cross-country journey to find the sadistic guard who was responsible for the death of both their families. The dialogue between Plummer and Landau is acting at its highest form; it doesn't get better than this.

The Forbidden Room, directed by Maddin (Evan Johnson has a "co-director" credit) was the gem of the festival. An epic and phantasmagoric tale, this is Maddin's ode to lost cinema about the crew of a doomed submarine forced to explore its darkest fears. Maddin won this year's Fiercely Independent Award, given to a director who refuses to abide by the dictates of the group, while Egoyan was the recipient of the Honorary Maverick Award. At the festival's Maverick Awards Ceremony both men praised each other's work.

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Guy Maddin, festival executive director Meira Blaustein and Atom Egoyan
photo: Anjali Bermain

Some of the more memorable films of 2015 were The Babushkas of Chernobyl (a documentary about a group of elderly women who refused to leave their homes in Chernobyl), Lamb (based on Bonnie Nadzam's novel of self discovery), Mavis (a bio-pic about the life of gospel/rock singer Mavis Staples), The Adderall Diaries (a crime drama with Ed Harris and James Franco) and Homeless (filmed in a real homeless shelter.) The centerpiece of the festival was Robert Zemeckis's The Walk, now in theaters, about Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

One film in particular stood out for me: Left On Purpose, directed by Justin Schein, about aging anti-war peace activist and Yippie through and through, Mayer Vishner. Vishner was a "behind the scenes" kind of guy who lived for the moment and was friends with and collaborated with Abbie Hoffman, Phil Ochs, Paul Krassner, Ed Sanders and Michael Ventura, among others. Even though Vishner remained politically engaged up through Occupy Wall Street, he felt he had lived out his existence. This, and the great pain caused by his loneliness, led Vishner to follow through on his "existential project," as he called it, and take his life at 64.

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Justin Schein filming Mayer Visher for his doc Left On Purpose
photo: Justin Schein

"For Mayer everything was political," director Schein told me. "If you told him he couldn't do something, it became attractive to him to challenge the system. Mayer had dedicated himself to the movement and just felt he didn't have a place anymore in it." Schein seemed genuine in his statement that the film did not exploit Vishner, nor sensationalize his suicide and, after watching the film, I think Schein, who refused to film the actual suicide, clearly would have preferred a different ending for his subject. Left On Purpose tied for first place with She's The Best Thing In It for the Audience Award for Best Documentary.

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Melissa Leo attends the festival every year
photo: John Mazlish

Attendees at the annual Maverick Awards Ceremony included local gal and Academy Award winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Steven Lang (Avatar), Maddin and Egoyan. Oliver's Deal won Best Narrative Feature with It Had To Be You getting the honorable mention. Best Documentary Feature went to Incorruptible with The Babushkas of Chernobyl securing the honorable mention.

"A huge success," declared Town Supervisor, Jeremy Wilber. "Not only were the films this year over the top, the festival itself was. This festival means so much to our community."

--- Charles Lyonhart, Phoenicia, New York