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MFA Cinema Is A Window On The World, Diversity — And On Boston

"Soul On Ice: Past, Present, and Future," included in the Roxbury Film Festival this June (Courtesy MFA)
"Soul On Ice: Past, Present, and Future," included in the Roxbury Film Festival this June (Courtesy MFA)
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When it comes to culturally diverse and foreign language films, Boston moviegoers would be right to look to the Kendall Square Cinema, which caters to the art house crowd. It's also part of Mark Cuban's Landmark chain and beholden to direction from HQ (i.e. all things Magnolia and Weinstein). Ultimately, that means you're picking off the dim sum cart and not a dutifully planned menu with locally sourced programming.

Across the river at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, though, cultural diversity in cinematic curating is job number one. Over the years, the institution's film program has grown vastly by partnering with local cultural organizations to stage festivals and host segments of other established festivals in search of a capable venue.

The MFA is home to some eight film festival offerings throughout the year with several encore presentations nestled in between. Many of the foreign focal points are rooted in the Middle East and Europe, while from our fair Hub, gay- and lesbian-themed films and filmmaking by people of color provide the local cultural accent.

"Summertime," which will be included in the "Wicked Queer" festival this April (Courtesy MFA)
"Summertime," which will be included in the "Wicked Queer" festival this April (Courtesy MFA)

Carter Long, the MFA's Katharine Stone White Curator of Film and Video (the program named after the late Kitty White who founded the Film Program in 1956 during her tenure on the MFA’s Ladies Committee), best describes the eclectic smorgasbord as, "Voices and cultures that are underrepresented in mainstream media," and sees the opportunity for immersion into other cultures through film as "a transformative experience."

To that end, the universal and transcendent nature of film is embodied at its near apex in the MFA's programming. Remarkably enough, given the historical strife in and around Jerusalem, it's a brilliant and galvanizing testament that the revered institution stages Palestinian and Jewish cultural offerings in back to back succession, the Boston Palestine Film Festival running during the latter half of October and portions of the Boston Jewish Film Festival following in November. Long also points out that in 2012, both the Boston Palestine Film Festival and JEWISHFILM.2012 screened "Love During Wartime" a politically piquant drama about an Israeli who marries a Palestinian and the challenges they face as a couple.

"Mustang," a film that will be part of the upcoming Turkish Film Festival (Courtesy MFA)
"Mustang," a film that will be part of the upcoming Turkish Film Festival (Courtesy MFA)

Currently, the 15th annual Boston Turkish Film Festival is underway and the 32nd edition of the Boston LGBT Film Festival — getting an edgy rebranding this year as Wicked Queer: The Boston LGBT Film Festival -- is set to begin its 11-day run April 1 (the MFA being one of several venues hosting the fest), with films from gay-repressive countries as Russia, Cuba and even Syria screening throughout.

Earlier in January, the Boston Festival of Films from Iran kicked off the MFA's season. This May, JEWISHFILM.2016, put on by the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis (not to be confused with the Boston Jewish Film Festival), stages its 19th annual festival. The festival has restored more than 100 rare and orphan films that document the diversity and vibrancy of Jewish culture — including 44 Yiddish films.

Later in June, the 18th edition of the Roxbury International Film Festival begins its run (distinguished, past guests have included Robert Townsend, Billy Dee Williams, Ruby Dee and Kasi Lemmons), and in July, the MFA's most attended film fest, the Boston French Film Festival, in collaboration with the French Cultural Center, launches its 21st staging.

Still from "Theeb," which will be co-presented by the Boston Palestine Film Festival at the MFA's Arab Film Weekend in June. (Courtesy MFA)
Still from "Theeb," which will be co-presented by the Boston Palestine Film Festival at the MFA's Arab Film Weekend in June. (Courtesy MFA)

April, too, features three special offerings: "Cemetery of Splendor," by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (director of "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives"); two films by Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov, the first his quirky sojourn among European aristocracy, "Russian Ark," and the second, his latest "Francophonia," which also examines art and European culture; and lastly, the Boston ReelAbilities Film Festival (April 10th), presented in conjunction with the Boston Jewish Film Festival and featuring films about the lives of people with different abilities from a variety of communities and cultures. ReelAbilities is free, open to the public and is presented with captions for the hearing impaired.

Overall, the MFA's annual lineup offers an embarrassment of diversity riches. Long matter of factly sees it as a valuable opportunity to explore other cultures through the language of film, but admits, too, that beyond regular attending cineastes, many of the specific cultural offerings primarily draw rotating niche crowds. It's a challenge Long embraces, however, endeavoring to create a crossover experience and to grow the audience in the future.

Related:

Tom Meek Twitter Contributor, The ARTery
In addition to The ARTery, Tom Meek's reviews, essays, short stories and articles have appeared in The Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, The Rumpus, Charleston City Paper and SLAB literary journal.

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