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When Savoy Theater owner Rick Winston talks about "our kind of movie," he means a typical Green Mountain Film Festival selection with "humanist leanings." The annual Montpelier event, this year from March 18 to 27, will showcase 30 such features, shorts and documentaries that explore almost two-dozen diverse cultures. From Iran to Argentina to Senegal to Bhutan, this indie endeavor traverses a planet with an infinite number of poignant, or playful, stories.

"They tell you something about the world outside yourself," suggests Winston, whose art house is a festival venue. "You really feel like your eyes have been opened and you see life differently."

Indeed. Holy Cross, a fact-based Irish drama about a 2001 conflict, may provide a new understanding of the country's age-old "Troubles." Director Mark Brozel's BBC production offers an unflinching examination of people who prefer segregation to coexistence in a working-class North Belfast neighborhood. The flashpoint is a Catholic school located where Protestants constitute the majority.

Viewers witness the tragedy from the perspective of two 10-year-old girls with different religious backgrounds who live across the street from each other but have never met. Their families are caught in a vortex of bitterness, hatred and violence. Anyone interested in a happy ending had better look elsewhere.

Like Moolaade, perhaps? It's the tale of another fractured community -- in Africa rather than Europe -- by octogenarian filmmaker Ousmane Sembene. The veteran Senegalese auteur focuses his camera on a Burkina Faso village that adheres to the custom of female circumcision. His upstart heroine, Colle, has not allowed her grown daughter to be mutilated and gives safe haven to four prepubescent girls who have escaped from a ceremony of ritual cutting.

Initially Colle finds very little support for her rebellion, which involves the declaration of a protective spell called a moolaade. That semi-sacred designation keeps her compound off-limits for the red-gowned priestesses who carry out the butchery. They're in league with the male elders in a patriarchal society that gives men unquestioned authority over their multiple wives. But Sembene, known as a feminist, juxtaposes positive traditions with 21st-century enlightenment in the battle between hope and despair.

Hope and despair also fuel the yin-yang philosophy of Wilbur (Wants to Kill Himself), Lone Scherfig's black comedy that manages to celebrate the human condition. Set in contemporary Glasgow, the picture observes how Scottish gloom is relieved by the national penchant for ironic wit. The commonsensical Harbour repeatedly saves his younger brother Wilbur, a handsome devil with suicidal tendencies. This fraternal pas de deux leaves them little time to keep the bookstore they've inherited afloat.

This intense equation changes when a single mother named Alice and her young daughter come into their lives. The ensuing tangle is very different from the standard movie love triangle. Scherfig doesn't let strong emotions become sentimental mush.

Gallows humor can be found in other festival fare as well, according to Winston: Kitchen Stories concerns a Swedish researcher studying Norwegian bachelors -- "Prairie Home Companion" alert! Crying Ladies, from the Philippines, depicts professional mourners among Manila's Chinese population. The Beauty Academy of Kabul is a nonfiction take on Afghan women, both émigrées and those who endured Taliban rule. This film opens the extravaganza and will be followed by a post-screening chat with the producer on March 18 and 19.

The fest, which is presented by the nonprofit Focus on Film, always leaves room for live action. "A Conversation With David Thomson" will introduce the noted critic whose work appears in The New York Times and Salon. A panel discussion, "The Write Stuff: Writing for the Screen," is a free session for aspiring wordsmiths or the just plain curious.

Vermont projects are invariably part of the mix. The 2005 gathering will include a collection of shorts made by teens in the Northeast Kingdom-based Fledgling Films program; Sacrificial Lambs by Ed Dooley, about a Warren couple whose sheep were seized in the 2001 Mad Cow Disease furor; and The Unbroken Circle, Mark Greenberg's 1985 look at the state's country-music scene.

On the other end of the artistic spectrum: The Ramones. End of the Century, which profiles the pioneering punk band, marks the festival's first attempt at a "late-night" show. In easygoing Montpelier, 10:45 is apparently what passes for the midnight hour.

For more information on the Green Mountain Film Festival, call 262-3456 after March 11, or visit http://www.focusonfilm.net.

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Susan Green

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