The lights dim, a reel of celluloid spins on the projector, sound pierces the quiet and imaginations take flight. The movie-going experience is never more intoxicating than at a film festival, where the exploration of other worlds can be like the grooviest high.
For a solid cinematic fix, the Green Mountain Film Festival arrives every March to push the art that Vermonters crave. The Montpelier event -- which runs from March 21 to 30 -- offers 27 motion pictures this year. Discussions with directors allow audiences to feel even more connected to what they've witnessed at the Savoy Theater and nearby City Hall Arts Center. Above all, expect eclecticism.
Opening night features three selections: Nosey Parker, a Tunbridge comedy by John O'Brien in which city folks are introduced to small-town ways; Blue Vinyl, Judith Helfand's documentary about her own family's environmental nightmare; and Waiting for Happiness, a non-linear meditation on African life by Abderrahmane Sissako of Mauritania.
Set in his homeland, Happiness unfolds at a pace that could alienate the restless. Then again, an impatient American might well be seduced by the timelessness of Nouadhiboua. In this coastal village surrounded by desert, both sand and sea control destiny.
The elliptical plot centers on 17-year-old Abdallah, who returns home to visit his mother before emigrating to Europe. The educated young man has been gone so long -- in some unspecified part of the country -- that he's unable or unwilling to readjust to Nouadhiboua's traditional rhythms.
Abdallah has even forgotten the local dialect, but receives instruction from a small boy named Khatra. The child is an apprentice to an elderly electrician who tries to bring some measure of progress to the isolated hamlet and wistfully remembers the days when he relied on the ocean's bounty. Meanwhile, a girl is learning ancient, doleful songs from the Koran.
The movie's mysteries never quite unravel. As Sissako conveys a sense of cultural dislocation, his narrative reaches for a minimalist perfection that's possible in the medium: showing rather than telling.
Filmmaker Yesim Ustaoglu also realizes that subtlety carries more punch than overstated morals or messages. And yet, in Journey to the Sun, his message seems clear: Intolerance is intolerable. Berzan, a Kurd from a region near the Iraqi border, works as an Istanbul street vendor selling music tapes. His friend Mehmet, whose job involves detecting leaks in the city's subterranean water pipes, is a dark-skinned Turk arrested and beaten when police mistake him for a Kurd.
This 1999 release takes on new meaning as Turkey, Iraq and their Kurdish populations have suddenly moved to center stage. Journey -- which first unspools at the festival on Sunday, March 23 -- considers the anguish of ethnic repression and the liberation inherent in any search for identity.
The search for salvation is depicted in Hell House, George Ratliff's cinema verite look at evangelical Christians organizing an annual Halloween fright night to scare nonbelievers into submission. The doc starts at the festival on Tuesday. These devout Texans build an ambitious "haunted house," where they perform graphic skits about the consequences of sin, with abortion and homosexuality at the top of the list. Thousands of spectators show up, and many of them are so shocked by the horror scenarios that they agree to be "saved" on the spot.
Religion also figures in Amen, by Constantin Costa-Gavras. This fact-based drama -- first screening on Saturday, March 22 -- traces the efforts of a disaffected SS officer and a Jesuit priest who try to persuade Pope Pius XII to speak out against the Holocaust. The Holy See refuses to see the writing on the wall for Jews.
Another type of atrocity is addressed in Strange Fruit, also this weekend. The Joel Katz documentary examines the similarly titled song made famous in the 1930s by Billie Holiday. It was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx. His powerful lyrics target the lynching of black people, which was then a common occurrence in the South.
Meeropol went on to play a significant role in a second questionable chapter of American history: He adopted the orphaned sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were executed as spies during the McCarthy Era. The continuity of injustice presented in Strange Fruit is bitter indeed. m
For more festival info, call 279-7788 or visit www.savoytheater.com/gmff .