The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival has exceeded all expectations, including the variety and quality of films, the sometimes quirky venues, the artful design of its advertising and merchandise (bought the mug), the Saturday night dance party, even the roving vans that are ferrying pass holders from the town’s center to Middlebury College’s Dana Hall. The only regret: I’m unable to clone myself to be in all venues all of the time. This is a slice of Saturday.
Films are shown in four venues in three-hour blocks, four times a day. There is an “anchor film” along with two or three short(er)s. Whether the films are chosen and grouped randomly or with a purpose is unclear, so I will make my own juxtapositions. The first full-length film I saw had the festival’s longest title: The Incredible Adventures Of Jojo (& His Annoying Little Sister Avila). “Not for overprotective parents” warns the voiceover by directors/producers Ann-Marie and Brian Schmidt, and “no children were harmed in the making of this movie.” Jojo and toddler Avila become separated from their mother and must use their wits and a pocketknife to survive in the woods and make their way back to Grandma’s house. Hilarity, as they say, ensues. The audience gasps, guffaws, and nervously titters its way through scene after scene of every imaginable classic movie danger (surely there has got to be an unexpected and deadly waterfall at some point). There is anxiety in watching a naked baby clamber over a set steel trap, so much so that I could only describe it as “danger porn.” The theme is a little bit Wizard of Oz-like, as we all wonder whether Jojo and Avila will ever get to safety and say “There’s no place like (Grandma’s) home.” Jojo–his real name and nephew of the producers–was among the best of the film’s actors. Avila, then less than a year old, now maybe 6 or 7, made a surprise live appearance at the end of the film.
Jojo–highly fictionalized–pairs well with The Land, a short documentary about an active playground in the extreme. Based on the work of Marjorie Allen, these playgrounds exist in the hundreds in Great Britain and throughout Europe, with only 5 in the United States. From the opening scene of Ethan, 11, inexpertly using a saw too near his fingers to fashion a homemade bat, to another child climbing a tree, to several more building a fire that I was certain would kill them from smoke inhalation, these “playgrounds” are not the manicured swing and monkey bar version. Rather, they resemble a cross between your hoarder neighbor’s really ill-kempt backyard and the edges of the town dump. Children are free, and play–creatively if muddily–under the watchful eyes of an adult or two who remain unobtrusive and who interfere almost never. The point: children must, and can, learn to identify and manage risk; play is the perfect vehicle. It is an unsettling film, with the audience at once cheering the courage and smarts of the kids even as we gnawed our fingernails.
The Festival continues today, Sunday, with many more films to see. Check out the Festival’s website by clicking on the link above or going to middfilmfest.org. A final blog piece from the Festival about the recent documentary on Vermont artist Sabra Field will be posted soon.