What do you do when the script that you’ve written for your life suddenly changes? How do you graciously go to plan B? That’s the question Phil Wall’s documentary “The Book Keepers” asks, sharing a very personal but universal and accessible truth, regardless of context.
“The Book Keepers” is one of the films you can see in the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival 2023 Vermont Tour March 23 to 26 and April 1, with four top films from its 2022 festival traveling to seven towns across the state.
After producing the festivals for almost 10 years now, MNFF Producer Lloyd Komesar says that quality is a common thread in the films chosen for the festival.
“I believe that the thread is the universality of the message in the films,” Komesar said in a FaceTime interview recently. “Do these films say something, do they resonate?”
Wall, 39, is originally from Roanoke, Virginia, where his parents grew up together and married young. His mother Carol was a writer with a lifelong dream of publishing a book. When her dream finally came true, Phil started filming short videos for marketing material while she was still alive. When she sadly got sick and passed away, Phil and his father, Dick Wall, became “The Book Keepers,” taking her book on tour shortly after her passing and finding something unexpected — people in the audience wanting to share their stories of personal loss, too.
“It totally surprised me how much that helped me with what I was going through in losing my mom,” Phil Wall said by phone from Paris last week. “Something greater was happening and at that point I wasn’t quite sure what it was but was willing to capture it as best I could.”
Vermont-based director Nora Jacobson’s depiction of Vermont poet Ruth Stone happened similarly, unplanned.
“I didn’t know who she was at first,” Jacobson said by phone recently. But in 2009 she was invited to Stone’s home in Goshen. “I went up there and interviewed her for a day and by the end of the day I was so taken by her presence that I asked her and her family if I could make a whole feature-length documentary,” Jacobson recalled. “She was very candid and answered questions right from the heart. When I interview people I’m always looking for people who don’t hold back their emotions, whose faces reflect what they’re talking about rather than a mask.”
Stone’s first book of poetry published in 1959 received a lot of acclaim. “She was compared to Sylvia Plath,” Jacobson said. But then Stone’s family life took precedence and her work life receded from the public eye until she won the National Book Award when she was in her 80s.
Jacobson’s film, “Ruth Stone’s Vast Library of the Female Mind,” tells the fascinating account of Stone’s life through a mix of new and old footage, interviews, and animation created by the poet’s granddaughter Bianca.
“I wanted animation to tell its own story about parts of Ruth’s life that I didn’t have footage (for),” said Jacobson. “And then I got some wonderful footage from this Hollywood editor who had been her student in the late ’60s, Sidney Wolinsky, who cut ‘The Sopranos’ and some other high-profile movies, and he gave me all this footage that he had shot of Ruth in the ’70s when he was making this short documentary about her.”
“I was able to complement my footage with his old footage, with Bianca’s animation, with a bunch of stills that I collected from family members, and I interviewed poets who had known her or her work, and I wove all of this different type of material together,” she explained about the film’s unique look.
The other two films on tour are “Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest,” directed by Nancy Svendsen, the inspirational true story of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, who battled racism, gender discrimination and political opposition to become the first Nepali woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest.
“The Automat,” directed by Lisa Hurwitz, was the popular opening night film at the festival this past August. It recounts the history of the beloved iconic former restaurant chain Horn & Hardart, which welcomed minority populations who were often unwelcome in other restaurants. Founded in 1888, it revolutionized restaurants with comfortable interiors, quality food and state of the art technology. Featuring Mel Brooks and other familiar faces, it combines archival material with personal interviews in a warm nostalgia.
“Some of our older audiences will remember the Automats that existed in New York and Philadelphia,” Komesar said. “Mel Brooks (has) very poignant memories and wrote an original theme song for it.”
The tour is a chance to see the movies you may have missed during the festival last August, and to connect with the filmmakers in person. All four documentaries have won awards or acclaim and will be represented by either their director or producer at each screening.
“We have stories that are compelling and accessible and that resonate with the audience because they recognize something in the story that is of value to them personally,” Komesar said. “These films represent the best of MNFF.”
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