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Festival Watch: Vermont International Film Festival

By Gerald Peary

Kids on a bus hold up peace signs and chant 'Bush! Bush! Hear our words!' From Signe Taylor's 'Greetings from Iraq.'

For film and video documentarians, what's the best-kept secret film festival in America? Here's my candidate: the Vermont International Film Festival, a sterling one-week event held each November in scenic Burlington, two hours south of Montreal.  

The Vermont fest is as political and socially concerned as one gets in the meonly 1990s, passionately committed to combating America's surly isolationism. "Images and Issues of Global Concern" is the festival's official mandate. What that means, in addition to a dozen progressive fiction feature films, is a feast of documentaries from around the world and about the world. I counted more than 100 documentaries—on video or film, made for TV or independently, long or short—shown at the 1994 fest, which took place November 3 to10. The topics: ecology, racism, poverty, the Third World, ethnic wars. Many of the films were U.S. and even world premieres.

"Our festival is unique in that our mission is to demonstrate the interconnection of environmental issues, human rights issues, and war and peace issues," explains Lorraine Good, the knowledgeable and energetic artistic director. "We're having this showcase for filmmakers who are risking their lives taking their stands, mortgaging their houses, suffering economically because nobody wants to pay for these films. We're trying to attract buyers for film libraries and alternative TV stations and to create a market for these films. And we want to give our audience a chance to be better citizens."

The last is not hard in Burlington, which has a famous tradition of a citizenry taking political and ecological issues extremely seriously. The '60s still live and breathe in this hospitable town, the home of Ben and Jerry's politically correct ice cream, myriad "ban the bomb" activists, several socialist mayors, and a world-class ecology program at the downtown University of Vermont. All of this works for the fest, which, while simultaneously showing films in a downtown theater and on the Vermont campus, attracts a devoted audience of fervent, left-of-center peaceniks and politicos. An audience who—what could be better?—responds with amazing enthusiasm to documentaries.

"I spend all year going to 'important' festivals, trying to get the right person for a project, chasing people for money, trying not to waste a moment ," says producer Gil Rossellini, the New York­ and Rome-based son of director Roberto and brother of Isabella. "So it's so nice to be at the Vermont fest in an atmosphere that's relaxed, where you can talk to people about important things, not business."

If there was a main event at the 1994 festival, it was the unveiling of Rossellini's extraordinary and ambitious six­ part series, Enemy Mine, produced in six countries—Italy, Germany, Albania, Hungary, Cyprus, Northern Ireland­—for European television. These subtle, incisive 16mm and 35mm documentaries are unsentimental looks at Europe in conflict after the fall of Communism and stumbling toward the year 2000. But each film is precisely focused on small events in everyday life: the settling of an ancient feud in Albania, the foiled attempt to solve the murder of a Gypsy in rural Hungary, et cetera.

Enemy Mine was much appreciated at Vermont, and many in the audience returned for all six episodes. A wise choice: these brilliant, important films analyzing the mechanisms of power and the vagaries of justice would have made the great Roberto Rossellini's (Open City, The Rise of Power of Louis XIV) proud of his son.

Other documentaries of monument at the 1994 Vermont fest included Struggle and Success: The African-American Experience in Japan, in which director Reggie Life interviews a group of fellow African-Americans about their extended stays in Japan, finding that they were taken at first by Japanese friendliness and politeness, later angered by Japanese racism and the "glass ceiling" that keeps foreigners from climbing the business ladder; The Death of Ales Martinu, the world premiere of a made-in-Czechoslovakia investigation by American director Gary Griffin of a notorious Prague case in which a Czech painter who intervened in a 1990 mugging by skinheads was charged with manslaughter after he stabbed to death a young neo-Nazi in seeming self-defense; and The Body Parts Business, the U.S. premiere of a fearsome, paranoia producing BBC-National Film Board coproduction showing the illicit trafficking around the world of body parts—corneas, kidneys, even testicles—that, horribly, often come from disappeared children or from poor patients in hospitals.

Chelyabinsk: The Most Contaminated Spot on the Planet was a world-premiere video documentary by Slawomir Grun­berg about the little-known Russian city far north of Moscow that has been the site of three massive nuclear disasters, as a result of which the populace—especially the children—is now dying. On a similar note, Cambridge, Massachusetts, filmmaker Signe Taylor went with a video camera to Baghdad after the Desert Storm bombing, found a civilian population in dire need of medical supplies, and made Greetings from Iraq, an impassioned documentary plea to lift part of the still-operative international embargo.

Also worth noting was the world premiere of Journey Home: Accompaniment in Guatemala, that 1990s rarity: a hopeful, almost optimistic video documentary. Ten years after a forced exile by the military, a group of Mayan refugees return by bus to their Guatemalan villages. To ensure their safety, they are accompanied by a group of concerned Americans. Among them: videomaker Robin Lloyd,who, not surprisingly, is a Vermont International Film Festival local, from Burlington.

Gerald Peary teaches film in Boston at Boston University and Suffolk University.