This article originally appeared in The Addison Independent on August 17, 2017 as the cover story of the paper’s Arts & Leisure supplement.
Now in its third year, the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival has served as a venue for first and second time filmmakers from all over the world.
At this year’s showcase, 16 of the more than 90 feature and short films slated to be screened were submitted by international filmmakers, who come from places like France, India, Lebanon and the United Kingdom.
The festival will take place Aug. 24-27, at three local venues: Middlebury’s Town Hall Theatre, the Marquis Theatre on Main Street, and Dana Auditorium at Middlebury College. More information can be found at middfilmfest.org.
In an anticipation of this year’s festival, the Independent spoke with several international filmmakers about their work, their inspiration, and what they learned throughout the process of making their films.
“Sisak” — INDIA
Writer-director Faraz Ansari was sitting at a cafe in Nainital, a hill-station in the Himalayas, when the idea for “Sisak” was unexpectedly born. He was working on the screenplay for what was supposed to be his first feature film when a news bulletin caught his eye: The Supreme Court of India has decided to uphold Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, criminalizing homosexuality.
“As I helplessly sat in the corner of the cafe, watching the news, I went numb. I was scared for myself, my friends who had courageously come out of the closet, some of them had even gone public with their relationships. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream, I wanted to hide, I wanted to run. But I was unable to do anything. I felt helpless,” Ansari said. “And in that state of helplessness, I opened up a draft on my laptop and started to write a story.”
That story became “Sisak,” India’s first silent movie about LGBTQ love. The short film follows two men as they fall in love while riding a Mumbai train at the end of a long day. The silence and quiet discomforts of their journey serve as an allegory for Section 377.
“Love, as we all know, develops in silences that we share. How could I let words ruin these silences? What brilliant dialogues would I write that would bring about a change of heart in the audiences? How would I make them see the longing of two men who are falling in love but won’t even touch or speak to one another because of the constantly enveloping fear of society and the law,” he said.
Ansari said the film was a challenge to make because producers in India are not interested in LGBT films. He also had actors back out five days before they were scheduled to begin shooting. He had to sell his car, rent out his house, move in with his parents, and sell many of his belongings to make it all happen.
“If you truly believe in something with all your heart and soul, you have to take a risk and follow your calling,” he said.
Since he first screened the film earlier this year, Ansari said he has received hundreds of messages from folks around the world, asking for advice and sharing their stories about coming out.
“All of this is really humbling, but at the same time it makes me realize the power of cinema,” he said. “While a president or prime minister is consciously working to bring changes, a filmmaker is subconsciously bringing change.”
“I Shot Einstein” — United Kingdom
Marilyn Stafford is one of the most experienced shooters in history. She shot Richard Attenborough, Indira Gandhi, Italo Calvino, even Albert Einstein.
You see, Strafford is a seasoned photojournalist, who used her camera to capture some of the 20th century’s greatest figures. Her life and legacy is captured by directors Dan Evans and Merass Sedek, in a seven minute documentary appropriately titled, “I Shot Einstein.”
In 1948, a group of Stafford’s friends were making a film about Albert Einstein. One day, they were going to shoot at the scientist’s home and asked her to tag along. On the way there, they handed her a camera, taught her how to use it, and asked her to be their still photographer. The rest is history.
“I had never taken pictures before, but (Einstein) was very, very kind, very humble, very simple,” Stafford says in the film. “He took us into his sitting room and that was my introduction to photography.”
Stafford, now 92, became a trailblazer for female photographers, capturing poverty in France, life in pre-war Lebanon, and the flight of Algerian refugees. For Evans, the most rewarding part of making the film was, simply, meeting and chatting with Stafford.
“(She has) amazing anecdotes about famous people from a bygone era — so many anecdotes that in the film she says ‘who else did I photograph?’ and forgets to mention Pablo Picasso,” he said.
“Marilyn was so charismatic that you could listen to her stories for hours. Hence we ended up with hours of footage and it was painful to decide what to feature and what to cut.”
Evans said he hopes that audiences will appreciate Stafford’s legacy and dedication to making sure those of us in the present have a chance to peer into the past.
“I would like them to feel inspired by Marilyn’s pioneering spirit and enduring optimism,” he said. “I would like them to feel that she has opened up a small window on a world that has almost vanished in time.”
“8 Borders, 8 Days” — Lebanon
Directed by Amanda Bailly, “8 Borders, 8 Days” is a documentary feature that follows Sham, a Syrian refugee and single mother of two as she seeks asylum in the United States.
“I was looking for a way to talk about US immigration policies toward Syrian refugees. I was living in Lebanon, a small country hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees and the US had resettled less than 2,000 Syrians,” Bailly said. “I knew that the US had the capacity to resettle so many more people in need of a safe home, and I was hearing this as I was speaking to resettlement agencies.”
It was at those agencies where Bailly met Sham, who had been waiting more than a year for a response from the US Embassy. Even though she and her two kids, Yaman and Eylan, are deemed to be amongst the most vulnerable of refugees, the embassy told them to keep waiting for an answer.
“When I met Sham, I was blown away by her spirit and her fierceness as a woman and a mother,” Bailly said. “She was someone I respected immediately and I knew an American audience could relate to her determination to provide a future for her children.”
The 61-minute film follows Sham as she makes away across Europe. “When you start the journey, you can’t plan the path you’ll take,” Sham says in the film. “The journey controls you.”
Bailly emphasized that her film is an attempt, in part, to remind viewers how easy it is to ignore individual stories in the midst of a worldwide crisis. “These are mothers and fathers wanting what’s best for their children in incredibly difficult circumstances,” she said. “It could be any one of us.”
According to Bailly, “8 Borders, 8 Days” has resonated with audiences. After seeing the film, audience have offered jobs, rent support and tutoring services to refugees, many of whom have been in the audience when the film is screened.
“There is so much positive momentum in the US right now as a response to President Trump’s hate that this film has been a really effective way to engage communities around supporting refugees locally,” Bailly said. “It made the long, challenging process of making a film so worth it.”
“Unnatural Selection” — France
As she makes her way to work, Julie, the protagonist of “Unnatural Selection,” is harassed in the street by Karim, a French man of foreign descent. Shortly after arriving at the office Julie is confronted by her boss Bruno, who berates her with sexist remarks.
After this exchange, Julie heads to a meeting room where she is scheduled to interview a job candidate. When she arrives, that candidate turns out to be Karim. Then, quite naturally, an argument begins. The film then uses this confrontation to explore sexual harassment in the workplace and nativism in the hiring process.
“We chose to give this confrontation the form of a job interview, because it’s an event whose rules are often biased (due to) a (gender) or origin,” said Geneviè Deloche, the film’s director.
The 15-minute short film uses comedy as a mechanism to explore these issues and how the hiring process is based on unnatural selection. Deloche said the comedy is derived from her personal taste.
“I am convinced that behind the apparent lightness of that genre, we, as authors, can challenge the viewers and feed a thinking process on complex social issues,” she said.
For Deloche, comedy allows for a deeper and more lasting exploration of the gender issues in the workplaces. She said she hopes viewers will appreciate the film’s sarcastic tone, and will use it to reflect on their own lives and behavior.
“It could be a bit harsh sometimes, but we mainly exaggerated (the film) in order to make it funnier,” she said “By exposing strong prejudices and stereotypes this way, we wanted to denounce their absurdity and show that if everyone (does their) best, we can transform our differences and change mentalities.”
“The Sun at Midnight” — Canada
At the outset of “The Sun at Midnight,” teenage Lisa is forced to spend the summer with her grandmother in the wake of her mother’s death. Her grandmother is Gwich’in — an Alaskan native people who live in the subarctic region of Canada.
Shortly after arriving, Lisa, longing to return to the city, decides to steal a boat and flee to the nearest town. She soon gets lost and is discovered by Alfred, a Gwich’in hunter who is searching for a horde of missing caribou. The two develop a friendship as they attempt to find what they have lost.
“I wanted to explore a storyline that would focus on a young woman’s exploration of self, where she would discover strength and healing from an immersive experience in nature,” said director Kirsten Carthew. “For me one of the core themes of the film speaks to how the environment supports well-being and self growth.”
The 93-minute narrative was filmed throughout the Northwest Territories of Canada, near the Arctic Circle and Gwich’in traditional lands. It is the first time a feature film has been produced in this area of the world.
“I love the land in the Northwest Territories — it is so beautiful and cinematic — and I have always wanted to showcase it on-screen to share both with those who are familiar with it and with those for whom it is new,” Carthew said. “Over 90 percent of the film was shot outdoors, which is a huge challenge because regardless of budget or location, you operate at the whim of the weather.”
Carthew and her team hope that the film’s story and aesthetic quality will make audiences feel as though they have traveled to Canada’s Northwest Territories and, perhaps, will make them want to visit.
“I hope audiences connect with the journey of the characters and leave the theater feeling better for having seen the film,” she said. “It also brings attention to a part of the world that is often forgot about. Someone gifted me the expression, ‘We protect what we fall in love with.’ I hope too, that by showcasing this special part of the world to Middlebury audiences that they might also start to fall in love with the North.”
“The Intentions of F. Scott Fitzgerald” — Australia
Shaun Perry was working at a local cinema, slowly adapting to adulthood and the nine-to-five grind, when he picked up a copy of “The Great Gatsby.”
“While it wasn’t your down-and-dirty blue collar job — I found with routine and repetition, selling tickets, ripping stubs and shaking my fists at popcorn fights, there was still a monotony to it,” he said.
As he read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, he became enthralled with the author’s exploration of the American dream, and how it related his newfound stage in his life, where day after day he sold movie ticket after movie ticket just to pay rent. And so, Perry began to write.
“With my writing I’ve always tried to explore ideas and themes that have bewildered me in one way or another — where I have to chew on them for a while, usually on a long drive when the sun is down,” Perry said. “I guess, some of my ideas, like most young minds, spring from the transition to adulthood from adolescence. Trying to understand the world we live in, the way we are meant to live our lives and why.”
The byproduct of that contemplation was “The Intentions of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” a 17-minute short film that follows two Australian hitmen “on a routine ‘clean up’ job.” While working, they strike up a conversation about “The Great Gatsby” until their victim, sensing they are distracted, makes a run for it.
“I thought it would be interesting/funny to see a day in the life of these guys and attempt to intertwine not only the themes of ‘The Great Gatsby’ but the theme of routine and repetition,” Shaun Perry said.
The exploration of those themes is done, in part, through comedy that is aimed to resonate with audiences, said Jay Perry, the film’s co-director and Shaun’s brother.
“We feel comedies with depth are always so much more memorable. All our favorite comedies seem to have strong themes on the human condition,” Jay said. “We also hope the theme is clear — to remember to stay in the present. To enjoy the moment, the journey of life and not to get lost chasing what’s over the horizon, so to speak.”
For Jay, this year’s festival marks the second time that one of his film’s has been showcased at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival. In 2015, his first film, “Obsolete,” was screened. The Perry brothers even made the trip from Australia to Middlebury for the first festival.
“We absolutely loved our time at (the festival) in 2015. It was an awesome experience, such friendly and inviting organizers,” Jay said. “We stayed with two lovely people who volunteered to let us stay in their home, so nice and welcoming. They also treated us to a traditional Vermont breakfast, which was amazing.”
Unfortunately, the brothers are not able to make the trip this year.
“We sadly spent all our money making the film and have left none to enjoy its reception,” Perry said. “We give the festival organizers our best wishes and our thanks for another opportunity to share our film through their guests.”