A virtual film festival is both a shame and a blessing: A shame because the coming together of live audiences and in-person filmmakers is an experience to treasure, a blessing because many more people can see the movies at home. For its 19th edition, Independent Film Festival Boston — the largest festival in New England and one of the best curated – is going online-only from May 6 through May 16 at iffboston.org. If you’ve always wanted to go but have never quite managed to get there, here’s your chance.
I couldn’t recommend it more strongly. If my pandemic-era experience with virtual festivals in Toronto and New York, at Sundance and SXSW, in Austin, is any indication, the streaming software will be glitch free, and there will be apps that allow you to watch on your big-screen TV via Roku, Apple TV, and Amazon Fire TV. (The festival’s usual venues — the Somerville, Coolidge Corner, and Brattle theaters — remain closed, although the Coolidge has announced a May 13 phased reopening.) There will be filmmaker Q&As and panel discussions; more to the point, the 26 feature films and 43 shorts are cherrypicked from the best of recent festivals and/or found locally, nationally, and abroad, and they include some terrific movies.
The opening night offering is a shot of pure joy: “Summer of Soul,” a concert film documenting the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a.k.a. “Black Woodstock.” Held in New York’s Marcus Garvey Park, the festival took place over a series of sweltering summer weekends and included a phenomenal lineup of talent: Stevie Wonder at the exact midpoint between Little Stevie and the mature musician of “Talking Book,” Sly and the Family Stone tearing down the house, the Fifth Dimension scared they’ll be too pop for the crowd and finding out otherwise, Mahalia Jackson duetting with Mavis Staples, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nina Simone, and on and on.
Why have you never heard of this event? Because the footage sat unedited and unseen in a closet for a half century until Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson took it upon himself to reclaim the music, the movie, and the moment. (In the process, he recovers the discontents of the era; the interviews with Black concertgoers about the 1969 Apollo moon landings — which cost money many feel could have been better spent on the poor — are choice.) Set your home speakers on stun for this one.
Available starting May 7 is the New England premiere of a documentary with great interest to local audiences: “A Reckoning in Boston,” from filmmaker James Rutenbeck, is a superb examination of our city’s inbred racial inequities that tackles the subject on both the systemic/structural level and the deeply personal. Focusing on adult students at Dorchester’s Clemente Course in the Humanities, Rutenbeck started by making a traditional “fly on the wall” documentary, but as he came to know his subjects he understood that a distanced approach was part of the problem — that he was part of the problem. So he pivoted to enlisting several of the students, notably Kafi Dixon and Carl Chandler, as collaborators and co-producers. The result is a Boston film of a kind that’s never really been made or seen here before. In other words, an absolute must-see, especially for white audiences who think they know their hometown.
Sean Gannet’s “Last Night in Rozzie” is a drama that explores the mean streets of Roslindale, and there are two docs from Cambridge-based filmmakers, Garrett Zvegetis’s “Spring Valley” (about a viral video of a 2015 racist school incident) and Rebecca Richman Cohen’s “Wine & Weed,” which compares and contrasts a French vintner and a California marijuana grower.
Some personal IFFBoston favorites pulled in from earlier 2021 festivals: “The Sparks Brothers,” in which the great British filmmaker Edgar Wright (“Sean of the Dead,” “Baby Driver”) goes nonfiction and indulges his love of the band Sparks and founders Ron and Russell Mael’s wayward 50-year career. “Strawberry Mansion” is a brain-melt of a midnight movie in which a “dream auditor” (co-director Kentucker Audley) gets more than he bargained for when he shows up to collect back taxes on an old lady’s nightly dreams. “Luzzu,” a drama from Malta’s Alex Camilleri tells of a Mediterranean fisherman (Jesmark Scicluna) torn between his generations-old trade and the economic realities of the black market. And the closing night feature, the appropriately titled “How It Ends,” looks at a clutch of Los Angelenos coping with their last day before the meteor hits Earth. Yes, it’s a comedy.
As long as we’re on the topic of film festivals, the TCM Classic Film Festival runs from May 6 to May 9 and it has some goodies. Normally an in-person event held in Hollywood, the festival is virtually available this year, with separate programs on both the Turner Classic Movies channel (filmfestival.tcm.com/schedule/) and streaming platform HBO Max (filmfestival.tcm.com/on-hbomax/). Highlights include an opening night 60th anniversary screening of “West Side Story,” with guests Rita Moreno, George Chakiris, and Russ Tamblyn; film archeologist/auteur Bill Morrison’s latest exercise in decayed recovered silent footage, “let me come in”; and a rare chance to revisit the 1996 “American Masters” documentary “Nichols and May: Take Two” alongside a conversation with Mark Harris, author of the fine new “Mike Nichols: A Life.”