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Sarasota Film Festival 2007

#"/Online Dailies Coverage of the 9th annual Sarasota Film Festival, April 13-22, 2007.


History Lessons At The Sarasota FF

Sunday, April 16---With the tail end of the Northeastern storm that has been plaguing the Eastern half of the United States whipping through Sarasota (for half the day, at least), the respites of the Festival’s jam-packed schedule provided a dry and warm alternative to the blustery winds outside the theater. This being my first full day of screenings, I opened myself to the serendipity of film hopping, only realizing after the day was done that there emerged a kind of symmetry to it all.

The films I attended on Sunday all had the connective tissue of being exploratory about the history…..of a little known part of World War II, an almost-forgotten American legal miscarriage of justice, even the heyday of the Broadway musical comedy. Despite these desparate subjects, the films on view reinforced the ability of the filmed medium, whether through exhaustive documentary fact-finding, or via powerful dramatization, to make history alive and meaningful for those who with a memory of the original times and events, and those coming to them with fresh perspectives and a hunger to learn.

As the winds raged, what could be better than a trip down memory lane to the legendary Broadway of composer Jerry Herman? The documentary film WORDS AND MUSIC BY JERRY HERMAN, directed by Amber Edwards for New Jersey Public Television, was an exhaustive account of the personal triumphs and tragedies of one of the masters of the Broadway musical, the normally reclusive Jerry Herman. Edwards has uncovered rare and ephemeral footage of Herman’s early career as a Greenwich Village tunesmith, which led to his pre-eminence on the Gay White Way of Broadway in the 1960s. With such shows as HELLO, DOLLY and MAME, Herman gave a permanent signature to a brassy, optimistic kind of stage extravaganza that, he recounts, was a welcome antidote for audiences weary of turmoil and dissent. In the early 1980s, with his fabulously successful musical adaptation of the French farce LA CAGE AUX FOLLES, Herman found the perfect vehicle to inject a political message (of tolerance for gays, despite their demonization during the early AIDS era) and to bring some dimension to his own identity as a gay man who was touched closely by the tragedy of AIDS. This is more than a feel-good, PBS fundraiser workhorse….much like its subject, it is deceivingly serious amidst the glamour and the feel-good frisson. Kudos to Edwards for conjuring up a Broadway baby who does not always get the recognition he deserves.

Exhaustive research and the unearthing of miles of difficult to find footage is also the hallmark of THE RAPE OF EUROPA, an eye-opening documentary by Richard Berge, Nicole Newnham and Bonni Cohen of the systematic theft, deliberate destruction and miraculous survival of Europe’s art treasures during and immediately after World War II. The filmmakers outline the nefarious plans of the Nazi elite to strip cultural institutions and individuals (mainly Jews and political opponents) of their priceless art collections, for both individual glory and idealogical fervor. Among the fascinating little-known facts was Hitler’s plans to transform his birthplace, Linz, a modest industrial town in the Tyrolean Alps, into a modern day Parthenon, where the great treasures stolen from captured countries would be displayed. The film also unearths some unlikely British and American heros….art historians and scholars who advised the Allies and who attempted (sometimes not always successfully) to save the architectural and artistic heritages of Italy, Russia and Germany, as the War crescendoed to its final bloody conclusion.

Equally devastating was the dramatization of a still-infamous miscarriage of justice that typified the legal system prevalent in the South during the years of the Great Depression. One hopes that young people are still being taught about the “Scottsboro boys”, a group of poor young black men who were railroaded after a less-than-honorable young white woman accused them of raping her in the box car of a hobo train. The case became one of the cause celebre of the era, with the nine black youngsters being convicted and sentenced to death on the flimsiest of evidence. Executive Producer Timothy Hutton and writer/director Terry Green bring a visceral reality to HEAVENS FALL, the story of the New York Jewish lawyer (well played by Hutton) who comes down to rural Alabama to defend the young men. Even though he almost certainly proves that the charges were falsely made, the all-white jury still convicted the young men….but this “rubber stamp” of Southern apartheid was dragged through the courts for several decades, until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s took up the case as an example of blind (and non-existent) justice.

The reach of history to influence our current ways of thinking is also evident is several other Festival films to be screened, including THE JOURNALS OF KNUD RASMUSSEN, a chronicle of the Danish anthropologists attempts to document the heritage and lifestyle of the Inuit nation; KLIMT, legendary director Raul Ruiz’ portrait of the radical Austrian painter, portrayed with great intensity by John Malkovich; THE CAMDEN 28, a searing documentary about one of the pivotal arrests of anti-war activists in the early days of protest agains the Vietnam War; and REVOLUTION ’67, a powerful look at the urban riots of the 1960s, particularly the bloody one that occurred in the cit of Newark, New Jersey, that galvanized all spectrums of the American public and created an imperative for political and social change in the crumbling African-American communities that were not participating in the bounty and promise of the American dream. Film festival as history lesson……where do I sign up?

Sandy Mandelberger, Sarasota FF Online Dailies Editor


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About Sarasota Film Festival 2007

Online Dailies Coverage of the 9th annual Sarasota Film Festival, April 13-22, 2007.

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