Berkshire International Film Festival: 80 films over one weekend

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The rural Berkshires may not appear to be the most likely location for a thriving film festival — until you peer a little deeper into the hills and valleys of the county and those in neighboring Connecticut and New York. There, you will find directors and editors, scriptwriters and producers, as well as actors and actresses, some of them of world-wide renown.

The Berkshire International Film Festival has both benefited from and helped build this Berkshire connection to the film community over the past 12 years. The 13th edition, which begins Thursday in Great Barrington, Friday in Pittsfield, and concludes Sunday in both communities, brings together many of those Berkshire-connected artists along with film-makers from around the globe. (Films will be shown at the Mahaiwe Theater and the Triplex in Great Barrington, and the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield. For more information on the film schedule, tickets and special events, go to biffma.org.)

BIFF founder and artistic director Kelley Vickery calls upon these connections in choosing the festival's annual achievement in film honoree. This year's honoree, Academy Award-winning actress Rachel Weisz ("The Constant Gardener") has a home across the border in New York State with her husband, actor Daniel Craig, best known as the most recent Agent 007, James Bond. Vickery reports that they are seen dining in area restaurants and enjoying Berkshire cultural attractions.

Indeed, The Berkshire Eagle reported in 2013 that Weisz and Craig were granted a tour of the Shakespeare & Company grounds in Lenox by company founder Tina Packer. The paper noted that Weisz made the connection by introducing herself to Packer after a performance by the latter in the well-received off-Broadway production of "Women of Will." Completing the circle, Craig's daughter, Ella, appeared in "The Tempest" last season at Shakespeare & Company and will be seen again this year in "As You Like It."

The versatile Weisz, who has moved among genres in film and television and on stage, will share a conversation with film critic David Edelstein Friday at 7 p.m. at the Mahaiwe, with a screening of her latest film, "Disobedience," to follow at 8. The critically acclaimed film features Weisz as a photographer who shakes up her former Ultra-Orthodox community and re-ignites a relationship with an old flame when she comes home following the death of her estranged father.

"Disobedience" is one of the buzz-worthy films that will kick off or conclude the festival. The opening night film Thursday at 6 at the Mahaiwe is "American Animals," a heist film based on the true story of four college friends who decide to steal valuable books from a college library. Vickery saw the film at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was a hit with audiences.

"I love this genre, and it is done as well as I've ever seen it," said Vickery in a phone interview. A combination of fiction and documentary, Vickery said the film breaks the fourth wall at one point by introducing the four apprentice thieves whose adventures the movie chronicles.

"It's hard to find a narrative film that's strong enough for opening night," said Vickery, who usually opens the festival with a documentary. "But this movie is funny, poignant, original, and a really fun way to start the festival.'

The bookend to "American Animals" is the documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor," which closes the festival Sunday at 7 at the Mahaiwe. Academy Award-winning documentarian Morgan Neville tells the story of the PBS children's show host Fred Rogers, who advocated for such concepts as kindness, understanding and good manners that are in short supply today. The film celebrating the 50th anniversary of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" is "very timely," said Vickery

"[Rogers] tackled social issues like war, gun violence, homosexuality and divorce 50 years ago," continued Vickery in appreciation, "and he did it on a kid's show."

Director Morgan will be on hand for the screening, along with the film's producer Nicholas Ma, son of famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, whose Berkshire roots run deep. Yo-Yo Ma and his young son played a duet on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and Vickery noted that Rogers was a mentor to the senior Ma, advising him that "you can use your name and fame for good, which Ma has done."

The Pittsfield wing of the BIFF kicks off in high gear Friday at 6:30 at the Beacon Cinema with "Bad Reputation," a documentary about pioneering rock legend Joan Jett. Vickery says the film is not only " a rocker," it chronicles the struggles the tough-as-nails Jett confronted in reaching stardom in an industry that has not been friendly to women performers.

The 2010 introduction of Pittsfield as a festival site was, said Vickery, a "slow burn" that eventually opened up not only a new city, but a northern demographic that extends into Vermont. She added that film-makers in attendance at Beacon screenings rave to her about "the compelling and engaging audiences," whose reactions and questions are often different than those of viewers in Great Barrington.

BIFF's varied Berkshire links will be uniquely evident on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Mahaiwe when a scripted reading of the upcoming film "Mumbet" will be staged. Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman was a slave in Sheffield who successfully sued for her freedom shortly after the Revolutionary War, leading to what is regarded as the first anti-slavery document of the Colonial era. The screenplay, written by Stephen Glantz from the book "A Free Woman on God's Earth" by local authors Jana Laiz and Ann Elizabeth-Barnes, will be read by a cast of about 20 actors (it will be edited somewhat for length.) Filming is expected to start in the Berkshires this year.

"We've always wanted to do a scripted reading," says Vickery. "We couldn't be prouder to do a true Berkshire story as our first one ."

Documentarian Cynthia Wade of South Egremont, who won an Academy Award for "Mondays at Racine," will be in attendance for a screening of her latest documentary, "Grit," on Saturday at 1:30 at the Mahaiwe. The film chronicles an environmental disaster and its horrific aftermath in Indonesia. Another Berkshire link can be seen in the collaborative BIFF-Jacob's Pillow presentation of "Moving Stories," Sunday at 1:30 at the Mahaiwe. The six dancers whose work around the world helping young refugees deal with their horrific experiences is chronicled in the film will be on hand for the movie, along with the film-makers.

According to Vickery, more film-makers who will be attendance this year than at any prior BIFF. Eighty films, from features, to documentaries, to shorts, will be shown, including 28 from foreign countries, as BIFF opens a Berkshire window on the world.


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