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Ten Years Through the Lens of Newport Festival - NIFF

Ten years ago, in Texas, Esequiel Hernandez, Jr. turned 18. Half a world away, in Afghanistan, a young man named Dilawar did the same.

Ten years ago, David Sington was at the BBC, Tony Kaye was shooting two movies in black and white, and Labour crushed the Conservatives ending an 18-year reign.

Ten years ago, Eric Rudolph had moved on from the Olympics to abortion clinics, while Teignmouth Electron was marooned in the Caymans, never to move again.

Ten years ago, Billy Mitchell was famous, but Bob Bechtel was infamous.

Ten years ago, there were no Devils in Darfur, no Ghosts in Haiti and Gitmo was just a Navy base.

Ten years ago, a film festival was born in Newport.

In the Beginning
Legend has it that the idea for the festival came while watching the Oscars in 1997. By the end of the year, wheels were set in motion. By the following summer, dozens had toiled to launch the Newport International Film Festival (NIFF). In the summer of 2007, the child of their imagination has turned ten.

In its first decade, NIFF has grown into one of the country's renowned regional festivals. Each edition presents a smorgasbord of the silver screen - ranging from narrative features and documentaries to shorts and films for children - seasoned with interactive panel discussions and post-screening Q&A sessions. Add in a pinch of Newport - a little music here, some local filmmakers there - with a dollop of mansion on top and you have a recipe for success. Indicative of that success, the roster of alumni includes two dozen Academy Award nominees, at least one each year, with two (Born Into Brothels, March of the Penguins) that took home statues. Coincidentally, those two were among the productions that brought props to Newport - Brothels brought a photography gallery and Penguins brought a petting zoo.

Centered about the shady green of Washington Square, the close proximity of the venues allows for the festival to be both intimate and accessible. The flagship cinema is the Jane Pickens Theater. With its single, wide, balconied auditorium and its eclectic concessions, the Pickens is a throwback to when a picture show was an experience and not a time-killer at the mall. Steps downhill from the Pickens, the Opera House Theater's three screens dutifully carry the yeoman's share of the schedule. Depending on the year, need, and availability, other nearby spaces (notably the Newport Art Museum) are annexed for panels, live performances and further screenings.

One of the things that made NIFF a rare occurrence from the outset was that the early creative forces were all women. One remaining link to that handful of women is Festival Director Nina Streich. She has lived through the collegial days of "creaky plastic twin mattresses" and common baths in the freshman dorms of Salve Regina juxtaposed with glamorous mansion-hosted galas on three of five nights. After all these years as the Festival's "fire marshal", quelling one crisis after the next, she still enjoys the event. For her, NIFF is "about the people", both behind the scenes and in the seats. "Even destination festivals start as local demographics. Newport is about good films in a nice destination with great parties. What other festival offers mansion parties?"

In his second year at NIFF, Director of Programming David Nugent brings the discerning eye of a veteran of New York's DocuClub and a former curator at Coolidge Corner. His aim is to "continue the trends" of NIFF as he sees them: "a strong slate of international films" combined with "quality films that attendees might not get to see elsewhere". He also considers the sensibilities of the Newport audience, which skews "older and more conservative" than many festivals. They have shown "a taste for European films, especially French", and films with "artistic vision", but "not as risqué or experimental." Overall, he tries to include a "broad range of films of different styles from different areas of the world." This year he has gathered 100 options from 20 countries on six continents.

As NIFF is a regional festival, Nugent says he "goes for quality rather than focus on premieres. I'd rather bring a New England premiere of a great film than a world premiere of a bad one." In order to do so, he not only evaluates works submitted directly to NIFF, but also travels the globe, drawing from festivals as far flung as London and Berlin and as close as Boston's IFFB - even holding slots open for pieces shown as late as New York City's Tribeca, which occurs only six weeks before NIFF.

Asked how NIFF is perceived in the festival community, his opinion echoes Streich's: "I think people see it as a well-programmed festival in a location that's nice to get away to. Great films, good parties and close venues", adding "who wouldn't want to come to Newport in June?"

Looking forward, his approach seems to be one of: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In his mind, NIFF is "the right size. There's no need to expand the length - just keep bringing quality programming to the Newport audience."

With a nod to NIFF's tenth birthday, take a look through the lens of this year's selections to see what can happen in ten years' time.

Exploring the borders
In early 1961, John Kennedy made a pledge that the US would get to the Moon before the end of the decade. David Sinton's Opening Night opus, In the Shadow of the Moon, weaves extensive present-day interviews with obscure historic "engineering footage" to provide a glimpse into the first-person experience of meeting that challenge.

Part of Sinton's skill is in utilizing the strengths of others. His cinematographer routinely used tight close-ups at the beginning of each interview to fix focal depth on the eye before pulling back. When his editor was clever enough to intersperse this intimacy to draw in the audience, Sinton was clever enough to allow him. For his score, he wanted "a very American feel." He found the right composer to take comments such as "Apollo 11 liftoff should invoke an Amish barn-raising" and "for the Rover footage on the Moon, think of a wagon train crossing the Missouri" and make it happen.

The most awe-inspiring elements, however, were created by astronauts and auto-timers. Sinton uses these cobwebbed cast-offs to expand our awareness past the familiar. Beyond the static image of Earthrise, we exhilarate as Apollo 8 zooms from the shadows past the terminator and into the light. We've all ridden along into orbit with the iconic images of Stage 1 separation from the vantage of Stage 2. This time from Stage 2, we watch Stage 3 separate and venture for the Moon. Left behind on the ultimate road trip, we slowly rotate our former companions out of frame and turn to the inky isolation of space, only to be rescued from our loneliness by the welcoming blue of home. Run uncut from flash frame to flash frame and synched to the mission audio, it is soul stirring.

Sinton considers this salvage from NASA archives to be perhaps "the greatest shot in the history of film". Pressed to explain the superlative, he continued "not only for the images themselves, but for what they represent and the technology to achieve them." In response to the observation "That's a heck of a crane shot", he replied, "Yes, it is."

While Apollo 8 was preparing to race around the moon, nine sailors were preparing to race around the earth, single-handed and non-stop for the first time.

Deep Water focuses primarily on the least capable of those that made the attempt, Donald Crowhurst. Using material from a variety of sources, including Crowhurst's own mid-voyage movies, audiotapes, and logs, the film unspools the tale of a man who is slowly unspooling in his own right.

Barely under way in the North Atlantic, as his craft Teignmouth Electron proves sluggish and equipment failures mount, Crowhurst is caught in a crippling dilemma: abandon the race and return home to financial ruin or continue on to face near certain death. In his desperation, he gambles everything on a third tack. That decision and its funhouse-mirror aftermath create the cruel paradox of a man in the vast open ocean feeling the walls metaphorically close in around him.

One of Crowhurst's final delusional log entries was eerily similar to a more famous quote uttered mere weeks later by Neil Armstrong: "A small sin for a man to commit, but a terrible sin for a cosmic being."

Clocking in at two and a half hours and fifteen years in the making, Lake of Fire probes the issue of abortion in America as only an outsider truly can. As he did with 1998's American History X, English director and cinematographer Tony Kaye once again uses black and white to great effect, sometimes delivering dispassionate newsreel and at other times offering the grisly reality of a crime scene photo. With no discernable prejudice, Kaye chronicles events as diverse as the righteous vengeance of Paul Hill, John Salvi and Eric Rudolph, the conversion of "Jane Roe" and the clinically-objective outcomes when abortions have been both legal and illegal. By giving voice to left, right, and center - from protesters to professors, from practitioners to patients - the high-contrast duality of black and white gives way to shades of gray.

Instead of the rousing, thunderous standing ovation in response to Sinton's Moon, this audience primarily filed out in introspective silence. Lake of Fire is emotionally hard to watch, but not everything that's good for you is easy. Kaye shows that the abortion debate is not polarized into two sides, but is really a complex polygon. Whichever "side" you think you're on, Lake of Fire will give you an unvarnished look at the diametric opposite, at your own, and at all the facets between.

Esequiel Hernandez Jr. grew up in Redford, TX (pop ~100), 200 yards from the Mexican border. Six days after his 18th birthday, while tending his goats near home, "Zeke" was shot dead by a squad of camouflaged US Marines - the first killing of a US citizen on native soil by their military since Kent State in 1970.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez weighs the events that preceded this tragedy, the cultural, social and political factors that framed it, and the personal and policy ramifications since. One of the unexpectedly moving aspects of Ballad comes from interviews with the Marines involved. While the Hernandez family has openly grieved and some maintain justifiable anger, the young men on the other side of the riflescope have been emotionally neglected, shunned, twisted and torn over their actions in the death of someone who could have been a classmate in other circumstances.

Ballad is a strange happenstance of art generated by art imitating life. Director Kieran Fitzgerald came across this story while working on Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, which was inspired by these real events. In return, Jones' deep raspy voice and Texas twang lend a sense of place to the documentary's narration.

Devils, Ghosts, and things that go bump in the night
A trio of films - The Devil Came on Horseback, Ghosts of Cite Soleil and Taxi to the Dark Side - examines man's capacity for inhumanity towards his fellow man. The perpetrators are, respectively, Darfur's Janjaweed ("devil on a horse") militia, Haiti's Chimeres ("ghosts") gangs and America's civilians and soldiers responsible for Guantanamo's detention center.

US Marine Captain Brian Seidle retired from active duty and became a military observer in Sudan. Armed now with only a camera and his conscience, Seidle is in the wrong place at the right time with unparalleled access to document the Arab-on-African violence unleashed by the Janjaweed as they mercilessly rape, murder, pillage and burn their way across western Sudan for profit and pleasure. His thousand-plus deep catalog of stark photographs bears witness for many who no longer can. Devil gives shape and voice to his efforts to impart his knowledge to a broader audience.

2Pac and Bily are rival Chimere gang leaders living in Cite Soleil, described by the UN as "the most dangerous place on earth". They are also brothers and aspiring rappers with access to Wyclef Jean, who scored this picture (as he did 2003's Haitian bio-pic, The Agronomist). Like the "devils" of Darfur, these "ghosts" are backed by their government to maintain brutal order. Powerful men in a destitute realm, these brothers are the embodiment of big fish in a small pond. At times gritty and frenetic and at others haunting and moody, Ghosts reflects the lives of young men unlikely to see old age. As their story unfolds and allegiances swirl, we are left to wonder: will something change for the better, will someone die before our eyes or will the cameras simply stop rolling?

Dilawar was a hard-working Afghan cabbie transporting a fare when he was ensnared by a US Military terrorist dragnet. Five days later and half a world from home, he was dead - the victim of unrelenting beatings at the hands of his inquisitors, beatings so severe that had he lived he would have required amputations. Taxi traces his case like a detective, from Afghanistan to Cuba to the halls of power in D.C. to uncover not only what happened to him, but also what happened to us.

Devil is the handiwork of the same team that delivered last year's lauded The Trials of Darryl Hunt. Taxi earned Best Documentary honors at both NIFF and Tribeca (where it was found by Nugent).

The Outsiders
Another group of films explores the meaning of belonging and acceptance.

This is England (Best Director, Shane Meadows) is a tale of twelve-year-old Shaun, a fatherless social outcast growing up in Thatcherite England. Over the summer, Shaun falls in with a group of local skinheads. When that group splinters between the mischievous and the malevolent, Shaun must determine the kind of man he will become.

Jury Prize Documentary winner King of Kong introduces us to the clannish world of classic arcade gaming. Billy Mitchell is its rock star - proud and confident, he rules many games, but Donkey Kong mastery is his legacy. Unassuming newcomer Steve Weibe has time on his hands and a knack for pattern recognition. As Steve's emergence threatens Billy's dominance, it sets up a battle of wills that goes beyond the game consoles to the very core of respect.

Bob Bechtel was known as a caring father, a trusted friend, and an esteemed professor. Unknown to most, he was also a cold-blooded killer. The Killer Within begins as Bob reveals his 50-year-old secret that echoes Columbine and Virginia Tech. After facing the reaction from without, Killer turns inward to plumb not only his daughters’ painful adjustment but, after all this time, Bob’s own strange disconnection.

Also of note echoing this theme are the geek-comedy Eagle vs. Shark (First Prize, Narrative; Best Actress, Loren Horseley), the light-hearted con of Great World of Sound (Best Actor, Kene Holliday) and the endearing short about a boy, a girl and a goat, My Backyard was a Mountain (Student Jury Winner, Shorts for 10+).

Finale
A fitting end to NIFF's tenth year is Closing Night's star-graced, red carpet, world premiere, Evening - a story that blends Newport, love and the passage of time. Its parting shot leaves us where waves lap against rocky shore and a boat sails into a sun that sets on ten years of film.

- Todd Cioffi

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