Fun is not a word generally associated with the Vermont International Film Festival. Interesting? Yes. Informative? Always. But the annual Burlington event devoted to "images and issues of global concern" is no laugh riot for audiences. Nonetheless, the 15th edition running Wednesday through Monday, October 13-18, might just have 'em rolling in the aisles.
Perhaps a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down while we're scrutinizing the planet's many woes. "Even with difficult subject matter, everybody responds to humor," acknowledges Barry Snyder, president of the VIFF board.
So, starting a long weekend of serious cinema with sharp satire makes perfect sense. Tanner on Tanner, playing Wednesday at the Roxy, is a mockumentary that once again pairs director Robert Altman with a script by "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau. They last collaborated on the groundbreaking Tanner '88, which mingles fact with fiction to convey behind-the-scenes observations of campaign war rooms, focus groups, stump speeches, debates and media madness in a run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
John Sayles skewers the current resident of the White House in Silver City, playing Friday. The black comedy, in part, traces the misadventures of a Colorado gubernatorial hopeful who makes verbal gaffes when trying to communicate his right-wing views.
The mid-1950s kitsch in Godzilla may seem funny, yet this Japanese cult classic about a monster awakened by atomic tests is relevant for a festival that has always focused on the nuclear arms race. Saturday's screening will not use the doctored version seen on these shores 50 years ago, however.
"Back then, Raymond Burr was added to the cast to make it more palatable for the American public," Snyder explains. "The original has now been re-released, with a pristine print. Reportedly, it's something of a revelation, starker and less campy, a more accurate look at Japanese cultural expression."
While Creature From the Black Lagoon emerged from the same era, the freaky fish tale apparently wreaks havoc with less social significance than its Tokyo cousin. Then again, "a connection can be made to Cold War paranoia," Snyder notes.
On the plus side: The movie's many underwater sequences should be a blast in 3-D. The requisite cardboard eyeglasses will be handed out for the Monday night presentation at the Flynn MainStage, with live music, dialogue and sound effects performed by the Jazz Passengers.
The fest's ongoing concerns are environment, justice and human rights, and war and peace. Filmmakers enter their work, most often documentaries, in these categories, and local juries choose which ones to screen. The selections then compete for prizes.
Even as the world's flashpoints keep changing, other films are simply handpicked because they're a good thematic fit. This year, for example, Films From the Holy Land will include Lullaby, about Israeli and Palestinian babies killed by both sides during the Intifada.
The Take, a glimpse of Argentineans running boss-free operations in bankrupt workplaces, is part of Latin America in Full Frame. Another doc in this section is Children in a Jar, which follows six kids -- among many thousands -- living on the streets of Central American cities.
In the Women's Showcase, Return to Kandahar revisits postwar Afghanistan with Nelofer Pazira. She's a Canadian citizen who starred in a 2001 movie about a journalist's dangerous trek through the Taliban-controlled country to rescue her sister.
A section called Visions of Africa features Witches in Exile, about women in Ghana who are banished to remote villages after being accused of practicing black magic.
"Small, individual narratives offer hope for the future when we see the grand designs of governments and ideologies," Snyder says. "That's what film is so good at doing -- engaging us in the emotional reality of these compelling stories."
Accordingly, VIFF will show Seeing Is Believing. The Canadian picture examines grassroots access to video and radio equipment in communities around the globe.
"The idea is how footage from ordinary people makes a difference in the pursuit of social justice," Snyder points out. "One example is [musician] Peter Gabriel's Witness Foundation, which sends camcorders all over the world. In the Philippines, the very presence of cameras has sometimes prevented death-squad violence."
Snyder, who heads the Burlington College cinema studies department, finds such developments intriguing. "If VIFF's mission is about how film can help encourage discourse, it's an important phenomenon to pay attention to," he suggests. "There aren't necessarily great aesthetic standards. What you gain, to offset that, is richness and variety from marginalized voices." A Friday panel discussion entitled "Reel Action for Real Democracy," at the Firehouse Center, will explore this theme.
Other talks on the schedule bring Glover's Peter Schumann to the Queen City. The Bread and Puppet Theater founder is participating in two Saturday chat sessions at City Hall Auditorium. Violin in hand, he'll give a 2 p.m. "fiddle lecture," followed by an "Arts and Activism" forum at 2:45.
Bread and Puppet has been at the forefront of progressive politics for decades. The same could be said of George and Sonia Cullinen, the Wilmington couple who launched VIFF in 1985 to counter the proliferation of nuclear weapons. They were inspired by their visit to a similar festival in Hiroshima. Dignitaries and filmmakers from the Japanese city regularly attend the Vermont gathering.
Sadly, in the last two years, the Cullinens both have joined that great protest march in the sky. But their legacy continues at the festival in such topical docs as Helen's War, about fellow longtime anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott.
On Sunday, Sonia will be one of two late VIFF champions to be honored: Her tribute is in the morning. An evening party to dedicate the Lorraine B. Good Room at the Firehouse Center celebrates a woman who helped spearhead the fest, first as the director and later as a board member.
George Cullinen was a filmmaker. Many of his Vermont counterparts will be in the 2004 festival spotlight. Ken Peck's The Old Intervale considers the historic and fertile Winooski River floodplain. Americanos, produced by Nectar's co-owner Chris Walsh, is a feature shot in Cuba that chronicles the travails of two Yankee cigar smugglers. Bush-B-Gone 2004: The Infomercial by Bill Kinzie is a 15-minute short about a clever voting initiative dreamed up by ice-cream mogul Ben Cohen.
For many VIFF enthusiasts, the idea of regime change in Washington, D.C., is no joke.