Although last year’s indie films were shown in area drive-ins or online, this year’s selections were viewed in darkened theaters once again, proving that the Woodstock Film Festival, held from Thursday, September 29 through October 3, 2021, was back and better than ever. The crowds showed up here, the restaurants, vintage clothing stores, and groovy souvie shops were bustling, and the weather was perfect for browsing. Meira Blaustein, the event’s co-founder and executive and artistic director hosted the Saturday morning screening of Storm Lake and Here.Is.Better, just two of the 128 films that were shown over the course of three amazing days and nights in and around Woodstock, America’s most well-known small town.
Meira Blaustein takes the Festival stage. Photo by Elkyn Orellana
Of course, about half of those films were shorts, running from five to 40 minutes in length, and grouped together by similar themes. There was a collection of animated shorts, another group titled family matters, and eleven other categories that provided provocative stories of heartbreak and hilarity, stories of strong women, stories told through music; films created by students, and some created just for teens. There was plenty for every taste and age; the only dilemma was choosing what films to see. But for the movies one had to skip, the ability to purchase a download was available via the Festival website.
Known for being “fiercely independent,” the festival was Covid-responsible as this may have been the first time attendees had stepped foot in a theater, something that Blaustein was especially jubilant about. “This year,” she said, standing in front of the Woodstock Festival logo, “we can sit together in a community and watch the film together, and discuss it together…the way the movies were meant to be experienced.” To enter the theatres, we had to show our vax card, photo ID, and were given the option of scanning a QR code for “contact tracing” should the need arise.
Matt Dillon discusses the film he directed, El Gran Fellove. Photo by Elkyn Orellana
Many of these films were in the works for years, began well before Covid hit, and had to stay under wraps until now. These producers, directors, stars, sponsors, and all those who worked in front and behind the cameras had to practice some serious patience before their projects were able to be unwrapped for an audience hungry to get back to the movies.
Storm Lake tells the story of a newspaper family in Storm Lake, Iowa, a small town of roughly 20,000 experiencing the major issues of the day: a population blended with immigrants, struggling farmers facing climate change — the town has become “wetter and warmer” — and during 2020, Storm Lake had the added bonus of experiencing the presidential Iowa caucus. We follow the newspaper’s editor and Pulitzer Prize winner, Art Cullen, as he navigates publishing The Times twice a week, covering the big national news, but also the births and deaths of small-town life: the stuff the community wants to know about. Viewers are given a front seat view to the passion in creating the community newspaper, and a lesson from Cullen on why it’s needed.
Signing-in and showing vaccination cards. Photo by David Liefer
Most of the Cullen family work at the paper and have given the film crew access to their lives whether at home, at the office, or in the car heading to an interview. The local paper, says Cullen, “is the keeper of democracy. How can residents vote on the issues affecting their lives, if they don’t know what’s going on?” He says local papers deal in fact, and that “a town is only as strong as its newspaper and its banks.” That Cullen won the Pulitzer for his work at The Times, what he’s writing about must be worth reading. And so is every small-town paper in America, at least the ones that are left. Once Covid hit, the paper was close to collapse. A go-fund me campaign raised a good portion of its goal, and since the film’s completion, the production began raising awareness of the plight of the local newspaper and created a website to learn more about supporting local democracy.
(The final credits reveal that The Times has partnered with other local papers in the Midwest, and formed the Western Iowa Journalism Foundation, and has upped their subscriber base, and may actually see a profit in the future.)
Members of the cast from Here.Is.Better answer questions from the audience. (Photo by MJ Hanley-Goff)
Here.Is.Better takes its name from a phrase uttered by one of the stars of this PTSD-themed documentary who stays hopeful each day by appreciating where he is right now, in this very moment. “Here is better.” With that, the director got his title. The star who uttered the line is Jason Kander, an aspiring politician, described by former President Obama as an “up and coming” star in the Democratic party. Kander shocked his constituents and fellow Democrats by announcing he would not seek public office because of an undisclosed, eleven-year battle with PTSD and depression. Kander and his wife, Diana, share their most intimate feelings as this illness looms over their marriage.
The film chronicles the journey of four Veterans, including Kandor, who suffer from severe PTSD. In one horrific scene, we see one of the Vets near breakdown during a trip to a local hockey game meant as a desensitizing experience. With fireworks exploding during a post-game event, the fans in the seats become pumped up, the game began, and the hockey players began to slam each other into the clear protective barriers. Proving too much for one Vet, we see her leave her seat for the quiet of the lady’s room, explaining later that she had a severe flashback.
The Woodstock Main Street (Photo by MJ Hanley-Goff)
Various PTSD therapies, some brand new, are explained, and we get to see how the group works through their nightmares, negative self-talk, and guilt; it’s raw, and something that every American should watch. At the film’s conclusion, a few of the Veterans took to the Festival stage to answer questions and echo their shared desire to continue to serve by being a part of this film.
(To learn more about PTSD, obtain information about the therapies illustrated visit hereisbetter.org)
The Woodstock Film Festival event is so much more than a film festival, it’s a time to understand different sides of the important stories of our time. In another film, The Forbidden Strings, we follow a group of Afghan rock musicians as they risk their lives to perform at a rock concert. In Life & Life, we learn about the prison parole system through the experiences of Reggie Austin, denied parole 13 times.
To learn more about the Festival, get involved, or make plans to go next year, Woodstock Film Festival.
Top photo: Meira Blaustein with Kelsey Grammar on hand for the viewing of his film, The Space Between. Photo by Dion Ogust