Editor’s note: The second annual Brattleboro Film Festival runs Nov. 1-14 and features more than 30 films, with something for every taste and all ages. "View from the Fest" is a series of articles previewing some of the festival’s film selections. For more information, visit www.brattleborofilmfestival.org.
Back in 2007 Kim Mordaunt directed the documentary "Bomb Harvest," following teams from Australia working in Laos to clear bombs left over from the Vietnam War era, ubiquitous in the landscape as nowhere else on earth. The bomb specialists do their work, incredibly, among children collecting the bombs for scrap metal.
This landscape of danger and survival is the backdrop for "he Rocket," Mordaunt’s latest film that has propelled her into the spotlight on the film festival circuit and generated Oscar buzz.
Shot in the mountainous region of Northern Laos, "The Rocket" tells the story of Ahlo, a boy who, as a twin, is suspected of being "cursed." Superstition grips the grandmother, Taikok, at his birth, who hovers over Ahlo’s childhood, ready to point an accusative finger when tragedy enters their lives.
The young boy is determined to redeem himself in the eyes of his family and village. It comes down to a rocket competition ... ironically, so evocative of the bombs that continue to kill and maim, and the whole affair feels quite fraught.
The story builds to an emotional and suspenseful finale at the rocket competition, which organizers and the competitors hope will bring rain, one of numerous instances of the clash of the modern and traditional in these mountain villages.
Clearly the director knows and loves this country and its people and tells her story with sure, broad strokes. Mordaunt is also the writer, and she has crafted a story with heart, but which also reflects on Laos’ recent history and its current political/social realities.
In "The Rocket," we get to know villagers on their own terms, in their own language -- it is a loving tribute to a culture that was thrown into the turmoil of the 20th century by its unfortunate proximity to Vietnam. There are some surprising results of this clash of cultures: old patched-together trucks rumble out regularly on dusty roads filled with children and their load of big bombs, "Sleeping Tigers" as they are called. Tribal superstition lives alongside American slang and James Brown.
The photography is superlative -- the camera embraces the lined and expressive faces of village elders, the lush green jungle. It might be paradise but reality rudely intrudes: enormous dam projects which flood whole villages and force their inhabitants to leave en masse; grenades left by the American military that lie nuzzled on the jungle floor alongside fallen fruit.
But it is the acting that is perhaps the best thing about "The Rocket." Almost all parts are played by non-professional actors and all are excellent. The two leads -- Ahlo, the "cursed" boy and the little girl who becomes his close friend and ally, Kia -- are wonderfully, sensitively played with both the aplomb and guilessness that only untrained actors could bring to their roles. Their interactions felt at times quite spontaneous and delightful.
Sitthiphon Disamore, who plays Ahlo, won the best acting award at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
I especially loved Kia’s uncle, a wonderful character nicknamed Purple, whose "unconventional" ways considerably enliven the proceedings in the Nam Dee relocation village.
I didn’t expect to be drawn into the documentary, "Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters." After all, in the term "movie," the operative word is "move." What could be compelling about a film that is built around still images? And yet -- "Gregory Crewdson" is entirely engrossing -- insightful, astute, and inspiring.
I was not familiar with this artist, though he apparently is quite "hot" right now, showing in museums and galleries around the world.
While exploring the modus operandi of Crewdson, many areas are touched on that give the film a generous and broad context: what it means to be a dedicated artist; a psychological portrait of Crewdson; a brief history of modern day photography. I felt appreciative of this "inside look" at modern masters such as Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, both influences on the artist.
From a boyhood interest in psychology (his father was a therapist) to a camera class taken because of a teenage crush where he fell in love with the medium, to his discovering an almost obsessive need to tell a story, we get an appreciation of who the artist is. "l’ve always had images in my head I want to get out into the world," he says at one point. Those images aim for a kind of shorthand "psychological drama." He accomplishes this by choosing locations with the right mood, by using actors whom he micro-directs down to the finest detail -- the tilt of a head, angle of an arm, drape of a skirt. The lengths Crewdson goes to to make sure everything in the photograph contributes to telling the story is extraordinary.
The documentary was made during Crewdson’s shooting of a series of photographs he calls "Beneath the Roses": a suite of 11 large-scale photographs that took over eight years to finish. "Brief Encounters" takes us on the set of several of these shoots, from scouting locations to the finished product -- a process every bit as arduous as a film production. In fact the artist calls the locations once they are set up with lights and the necessary accoutrements, "sound stages."
Crewdson is a script writer of silence; he is director, set designer, and cameraman too ... though someone else actually snaps the picture. Crewdson mentions an affinity with the paintings of Hopper, and indeed this painter of loneliness and silence came to mind more than once.
Crewdson the person is, in this film, almost completely subsumed in the work, but the photographer is generous in the sharing of his thoughts about his life and work as they arise which often prove to be insightful and astute.
For local film-goers there is an extra "relatable" piece in watching "Brief Encounters" -- many of the shooting locations are western Massachusetts, particularly Pittsfield and Lee. Old mill towns with their "haunted" quality (commented on by Russell Banks) proves to be an irresistible backdrop for Crewdson, with their melancholic air of abandonment.
The film ends with Crewdson’s next project, again an abandoned location, but this time, after spending some months in Rome, the backlot of famed film studio of Fellini and other Italian filmmakers, Cinecitta. We get some brief views of the location and a peek at a photograph or two from this new series, and they are stunning, the melancholy an esthetic in itself.
It’s Such A Beautiful Day," an hour-long animated feature created by Don Hertzfeldt, tops off the evening in a special 10 p.m. screening. Though I haven’t seen this film there has been much buzz about it from Film Selection. According to the web blurb, it is "an epic existential tale, told with humor, horror and humanity." Better get plenty of rest the night before -- this could be a long one!