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Woodstock Lives

Posted October 06, 2008

A Chaos of Friends

A Chaos of Friends

In Woodstock, NY, the town credited with, but not actually the host of, the famed 1969 Woodstock Festival, hosted its 9th annual Woodstock Film Festival last weekend. Across the Hudson River in Columbia County, Focus Features is recreating the world of Bethel, NY, the actual host town of that festival of love and rock and roll called Woodstock in and around another New York town, New Lebanon. Confused yet? All those worlds collided Saturday night as the Focus Features CEO (and the screenwriter of the upcoming Taking Woodstock) James Schamus was joined by Taking Woodstock director Ang Lee and the original founder of Woodstock music festival Michael Lang at the Woodstock Festival to honor James Schamus with the annual Trailblazar Award––although the Woodstock Film Festival Maverick Award ceremony was also not held in Woodstock, but at the neighboring town of Kingston.

While this commingling of rural villages might be seen as some municipal form of upstate inbreeding, it really speaks to the open-air friendliness of the festival and its friends. Close enough to New York City to draw professionals with the promise of fresh air, changing leaves, and indie movies, the Woodstock Film Festival has developed a close family of filmmakers, executives and fans. In addition to James Schamus, other award recipients were the legendary Haskell Wexler to whom writer/director/actor John Sayles, producer Maggie Renzi, and actor David Strathairn presented The Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award.  The heartwarmingly obscene Kevin Smith was acknowledged with The Honorary Maverick Award––although because of its (mis)use in recent various political campaigns, the word “maverick” provided no end of joke fodder for presenters, recipients, and the event’s emcee Ron Nyswaner (the screenwriter of Philadelphia and a Woodstock resident––the actual town).

Lining up in Autumn beauty

Lining up in Autumn beauty

The festival, which mostly does occur in the real town of Woodstock (with cinemas in Rhinebeck and Rosendale pitching in), unfurled a lovely line up of films intended to fulfill their trademark promise “Fiercely Independent.” And, for once, the moniker “independent” was not stretched to the limits of credibility. As a juror for the Short Film Category, I saw a number of imaginative films, each which stood out more by its sheer originality than by any stars or fancy production values. The winning film, Benh Zeitlin’s Glory at Sea, a daydream of a movie, infused as much with the poetry of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and American folklore as the hard reality of its post-Katrina landscape, was a triumph of can-do filmmaking.

Across the board, low-budget wonders like Sean Baker’s narrative winner Prince of Broadway and Barry Jenkins’s Medicine for Melancholy, or documentaries like Astra Taylor’s engaging philosophical enquiry The Examined Life or Jeremiah Zagar’s intimate portrait of an artist In a Dream confirm that the health of independent film is much improved.