Woodstock Film Fest: 'The Walk' Plays to Packed House, Jackson Browne Honors Cuban Icon

Alana Davis

The Woodstock Film Festival celebrated its Sweet 16 from Sept. 30 to Oct. 4. 

Featuring a challenging collection of screenings, panels, special events and parties -- spanning the New York towns of Woodstock, Rhinebeck, Saugerties, Rosendale and Kingston -- the “fiercely independent” festival kicked off Wednesday night with the documentary Poet Of Havana held at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston.

There, following a Q&A with director Ron Chapman and his subject, Cuban musician Carlos Varela, special guest Jackson Browne took the stage in tribute to a heroic artist who speaks for a generation of Cubans, including those affected by the longstanding U.S. embargo that has only recently begun to soften. To wit: Varela and his band only learned the day before the screening that they would actually be allowed to leave Cuba for the event.

Unknown in America and fighting decades of censorship in Cuba, Varela is greatly admired by the likes of Browne, actor Benicio Del Toro and many international musicians. Speaking at the Q&A, Browne said, “To see Carlos in Cuba playing for Cubans was a very emotional thing, and to see him play in the United States for Cubans is also very emotional. He expresses something about their common story that is not presented anywhere else.” Browne accompanied his comrade on Varela’s song “Walls and Doors,” which Browne also released on his 2014 album, Standing In The Breach.

Elsewhere on the Fest's lineup, The Walk, featuring dramatic vertigo visuals courtesy of director Robert Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ben Kingsley, played to a sold-out house and provided a standing ovation to the real life high-wire artist Philippe Petit, who resides in Woodstock and took questions after the film’s screening.

The festival wisely honored director Atom Egoyan, presenting him with their celebrated Honorary Maverick Award and screening his film, Remember, featuring veteran actor Christopher Plummer in a career defining performance. They also recognized Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin with the Fiercely Independent Award and a closing night screening of his new, dreamlike film The Forgotten Room.

Other official winners included the Best Narrative Feature, Oliver’s Deal directed by Barney Elliott featuring Stephen Dorf and David Straithairn. Best Documentary Feature went to Incorruptible directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and Best Short Documentary went to All About Amy directed by Samuel Centore.

Other highlights included The Adderall Diaries, adapted from Stephen Elliot’s memoir, directed by Pamela Romanowski and starring James Franco, Ed Harris and Amber Heard. Films with less star power also attracted attention. The Automatic Hate directed by Justin Lerner and represented by co-screenwriter Katharine O’Brien, was a debatably transgressive tale of unearthed family secrets and its legacy of broken ties. The more family-friendly narrative of Good Ol’ Boy, directed by Frank Lotito featuring Jason Lee and young Roni Akurati follows an Indian family attempting to assimilate into small town America in 1979.

The festival also showcased animations and quality shorts, including Origins, a brief documentary about 1960s counterculture activists, directed by Will Parrinello

Music has long been synonymous with Woodstock and the festival too looks to musicians as fertile film ground. For the 2015 edition: Mavis!, a documentary on singer Mavis Staples directed by Jessica Edwards, was fittingly screened at Levon Helm’s studio and included commentary from supportive friends like Bob Dylan, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Nashville musician Marty Stuart. The movie will air on HBO in February 2016.

A totally different music-cultural documentary, 1 Giant Leap II: What About Me?, directed by Duncan Bridgeman and Jamie Cato, combined music and philosophy to an enlightening degree. Produced in 2004 but lost in bureaucratic limbo for years, the film’s integrative mixing of musicians like KD Lang, Alanis Morissette, Michael Stipe, Krishna Das and Stewart Copeland with knowledgeable talking heads like Noam Chomsky, Ram Das and Stephen Fry provided a unique and uplifting message on raising one’s consciousness while living in the modern, somewhat dysfunctional world.