On a recent sunny afternoon, several cars, many with ski racks, pulled into a large dirt parking lot at the corner of Route 100 and Carroll Road in Waitsfield. Children pulled off brightly colored ski hats and unzipped puffy jackets as they led their parents through sturdy wood doors. Above, bold red and black letters inscribed on a round, Art Deco-style clock identified the building as the Big Picture Theater.
Inside, the petite proprietor, Claudia Becker, was hustling from one task to another. She swept the wooden floor of the large, windowed café-lounge, dusted the player piano, crossed to the carpeted hallway to help an employee count a cash drawer, and answered both the theater phone and the personal cell phone hooked to her corduroys.
A young man and his blonde girlfriend - friends visiting from Becker's native Germany - appeared and greeted her. After a quick exchange of words in German, the man walked behind the bar to the kitchen area and began polishing silver, while his girlfriend took over the broom. Becker darted back to the concessions area and, with a warm smile, greeted the line of customers arriving for a 4 p.m. matinee of Charlotte's Web.
The past year has been a whirlwind for Becker, 39, in her new role as owner of the Big Picture Theater. When she bought and renovated the former Eclipse Theater last spring, she already had a full plate: two children under the age of 6, a marriage to filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger; Why We Fight), and an acclaimed film fest. Lately, Becker's velocity has increased as she gears up for the fourth annual Mountaintop Film Festival. The human-rights-based marathon runs at the theater starting this Wednesday, January 10, through Sunday, January 14.
The fest presents 10 documentary films and three dramas, all addressing issues of national and international concern, from the toll of the Iraq war to Bombay's child sex trade to civil disobedience during the Vietnam War.
It showcases personalities, too. The opening night gala features a reception with filmmaker Henrietta Mantel before the showing of her film on Ralph Nader, An Unreasonable Man. A Q&A with Nader himself via Icam [CORRECT?] follows. Olympia Dukakis, who stars in the drama Day on Fire, is expected to make an appearance at one of her two film screenings (Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m.). Filmmakers James Longley (Iraq in Fragments), Milena Kaneva (Total Denial), and Alex Gibney (Enron: The Movie) are all scheduled to appear. And Jarecki, whose 2005 doc Why We Fight won a grand jury prize at Sundance, will teach a three-hour media lab on Sunday at 1 p.m. Three nights of live music and a Friday night community potluck dinner round out the five days of brainy cinema.
Mountaintop grew out of a serendipitous meeting five years ago between Becker and Kimberly Ead, now festival manager. At the time, Becker was a teacher - she holds a master's degree in special education from the University of Munich - and an informal consultant to her husband's filmmaking. But she was looking for new pursuits that would express her "deep sense of political concern." Ead, who was working on antiwar issues at Burlington's Peace and Justice Center, offered just that. "Claudia and I really connected," Ead remembers. "We combined her contacts in the film industry and my work as an activist to create the festival."
Both women have a strong commitment to educating youth about film and filmmaking, and it shows in the festival. This year, students from area high schools, including Harwood Union, Mt. Mansfield, Burlington and Vergennes, will be bussed in for special screenings. "I'd like to add more educational components to the theater," Becker says, looking to the future, "like a media literacy program and a documentary filmmaking program."
And the future looks bright, judging by the success of the festival so far. Becker points to an increase in "the level of recognition . . . and in the turnout. The festival has established itself as one of the premier film festivals in Vermont."
One positive change is that the fest is no longer a renter - this is the first year Becker has owned its venue. After the previous owners shut their doors, Waitsfield locals kept talking about the need for a community space. Becker decided she needed to buy the theater and make it a viable epicenter of the Mad River Valley. Vowing to spend every last dime she had, she purchased the building, hired a construction crew, and began a major renovation.
In May 2006, Becker re-opened the theater and unveiled the transformed space: an open-kitchen café with a full bar, old-fashioned soda fountain, and Internet lounge; a newly renovated smaller theater with flexible seating, to be used for both movie showings and community events; and a largely untouched traditional movie theater.
Becker's vision for the aptly named Big Picture was a "local gathering place with a global dimension," she says. "And I wanted the name to reflect my personal desire for teaching, discourse and thought exchange."
Her political beliefs aren't just talk. Becker demonstrates her commitment to the "local" by letting organizations rent the space at a price that often just covers her costs. To accommodate area events, she formed a partnership with the nonprofit Open Hearth Community Center, which "wouldn't have a home without Claudia," says Open Hearth program manager Kirstin Reilly. "She has worked with the board to create a space that is useful for the community's needs."
Becker has brought an eclectic mix of first-run and documentary films, thought-provoking discussions, music, comedy and art exhibits to Big Picture. Last fall, New Hampshire comedian Cindy Pierce drew a huge crowd for her show on the mysteries of women's sexuality. Soon after, the theater filled up again for a discussion of international security issues with former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter.
Becker says she's still working on balancing her political passions with the need to turn a profit. "It has been a real learning experience to find what works and what doesn't," she admits. "Live music continues to be a challenge. But when we bring in a political speaker, the place is packed."
Becker seems to have found a management style that suits her: a nonhierarchical organization that still allows her to jump in and be the boss when needed. And when friends and family visit, they're put to work. Jarecki is often seen pouring beers behind the bar. The couple's daughter Anna has baked cookies to sell in the café.
"When I was hiring, I was very careful to find people who had a positive attitude and a predisposition for multitasking," Becker says. Her core team is composed of women: Ead; theater manager Jo-Anne Billings; and chef Amanda Astheimer, who aims to deliver on Becker's international culinary vision. Several men work as projectionists and concessions staff.
All hands will be on deck during this week's film festival. "I am looking forward to it all being over, just so I can take a breath," Becker says.
But she also recognizes that a busy theater is the best reward. Becker defines success as "seeing people having a great time; working with and within the community; feeling that I am doing something that is greater than myself." If she can bring new issues and ideas to filmgoers' attention, so much the better.
"I want to open people's minds and inspire discourse," Becker says. "I don't believe I can have an impact on what people do with the information, but I feel it is important to get it out there."
GOING TO THE MOUNTAIN
The Mountaintop Film Festival runs Wednesday, January 10, through Sunday, January 14, at Big Picture Theater in Waitsfield. Many filmmakers and subjects will be available for postscreening discussions.
The festival opens with Henrietta Mantel's documentary about consumer activist and erstwhile presidential candidate Ralph Nader, An Unreasonable Man, followed by an Icam Q&A with Nader. Gala reception January 10, 6 p.m., screening 7 p.m. (reservations recommended).
Other films begin at 4 p.m. daily. Some of this year's selections include:
* Black Gold, a Sundance Film Festival documentary that examines the $80 billion coffee industry against the backdrop of poor Ethiopian coffee farmers struggling to earn a living;
* The Day My God Died, Andrew Levine's documentary on Bombay's child sex trade, narrated by Winona Ryder and Tim Robbins;
* Home Front, Richard Hankin's exploration of the lives of some of the 46,000 American servicemen and -women wounded in Iraq;
* Iraq in Fragments, James Longley's Sundance triple award winner about the grim toll of war on ordinary Iraqi citizens;
* Total Denial, Milena Kineva's story of 15 Burmese villagers who brought suit in U.S. court against oil giants UNOCAL and TOTAL for devastating their homes during construction of the Yadana pipeline.
For a complete festival schedule, visit http://www.mountaintopfilmfestival.com or call 496-8994.