It was a year ago next week that the Independent Film Festival Boston’s fifth annual Fall Focus ended with the local premiere of Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a screening that culminated in one of the most cathartic mass crying jags I’ve ever witnessed. Peering down from the Brattle Theatre's balcony one could see in the flickering light hundreds of strangers united in heaving, heartbroken sobs. It was the kind of thing that can only happen at the movies, and exactly the sort of unforgettable communal experience that IFFBoston has been bringing to area audiences since 2002. But little did any of us know on that tear-stained Sunday evening, it would be the last of its type for a very long time.
The 18th iteration of IFFBoston had been intended to take place this past April at its regular venues the Somerville, Brattle and Coolidge Corner Theatres, then was canceled like so many countless other arts and cultural events in the path of COVID-19. We haven’t heard much from the festival since then, an intentional choice so as not to divert attention from the virtual screening offerings at their regular venues. “We debated for many, many months where our space is in all this,” says program director Nancy Campbell.
But this week the Independent Film Festival Boston’s Fall Focus is making a leap to your living room, with a typically eclectic selection of 10 films that will be available for streaming during staggered windows from Thursday, Oct. 29 through Monday, Nov. 2. “We figured now would be a good time for us to at least try this out,” says Campbell. ”It’s giving us something to look forward to, and distracting us a little bit from current events.”
“It’s nice to have something to do,” laughs IFFBoston’s executive director Brian Tamm, who jokes about choosing not to schedule any screenings after Election Day. “Who knows? We might not have electricity then! I’m not pre-buying tickets for anything!”
The virtual Fall Focus kicks off Thursday night with “Minari,” winner of the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize as well as the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award at this past January’s Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by Lee Isaac Chung, it’s a wonderful, warm-hearted movie about a Korean family that moves to the outskirts of rural Arkansas in pursuit of the American dream. “It was one of my favorite films at Sundance, which feels like 12 years ago,” Campbell enthuses. “I think it resonates on a lot of different levels. For me, as a person who is half Japanese, it always means a lot to have Asian representation onscreen and in the media. We have a few films about immigrants this year. You never plan to have a theme, but it’s a topic that’s top of mind in the country right now.”
“Farewell Amor,” the deeply moving debut of writer-director Ekwa Msangi, follows an Angolan refugee who has been driving a cab in New York City for the past 17 years, at long last able to bring his wife and daughter over to the United States. The challenges of reuniting a family after nearly two decades of estrangement are given especially sensitive treatment by Msangi’s novelistic structure, returning to the same events from multiple points of view so that each character is allowed to become the protagonist of their own story.
The end of an era is achingly evoked in “Freeland,” about an elderly pot farmer from a commune in California’s Humboldt County who finds her way of life undone by the mass-market forces of legalization. (It’s a bummer to watch an old-fashioned, upstanding business like selling weed get corrupted by corporations.) One of the films intended to screen at this spring’s festival, the locally-shot “Sound of Metal” stars Riz Ahmed as a rock drummer losing his hearing, with an experimental soundscape crafted to make his experience a subjective one for the viewer.
Tamm’s favorite is “New Order,” an incendiary new film from director Michel Franco about street protests in Mexico City infiltrated and exacerbated by undercover authoritarians seeking to turn public sentiment against the demonstrators. The movie has been causing all sorts of controversy on the festival circuit and Campbell admits, “I have a lot of questions about its intentions. But it’s one of those compelling, divisive films that I love to see people’s reactions to.”
“It’s the one that makes me most sad we’re not doing this in person,” Tamm laments, “because this is the kind of movie where I love sitting at the back of the Brattle and hearing everybody react. People come stumbling out, some saying ‘That was amazing!’ and others saying ‘What the f--- was that?’” His excitement reminds me of IFFBoston’s wild, late-night screening of my beloved “Vox Lux” back in 2018, during which waves of audience antipathy felt like they had the entire auditorium vibrating by the end.
Of course, that sort of screening is admittedly impossible to have in a virtual context, something IFFBoston is wrestling with right now. “Whether you’re the Brattle or whether you’re us, our role is creating community by bringing people together in a place,” says Tamm. “Not having that, I feel like our core mission is nebulous. Everyone’s trying to figure out what works for the vibe of what we do.”
While some virtual festivals have made their entire block of films available on demand for the entire duration of the event, the Fall Focus has spaced out the availability of movies to be released on specific days, which Campbell explains is a way of “highlighting or showcasing so that people are kind of watching the same things at the same time, because that’s really what the festival is about. I hope people will watch things at the same time and have common discussions among their friends.”
Like most of us right now, IFFBoston is trying to find its footing in this new landscape. “Everybody’s got Netflix and everybody’s got Amazon Prime so there’s so much to watch,” Tamm concludes. “You’re trying to figure out how to make this a thing that people want to see. Looking around at what other people have done… Roxbury did so many things, and that was really inspiring. We’ve put together a lineup that I’m really excited about, and I’m interested in seeing where this takes us for the spring and beyond.”
Independent Film Festival Boston’s Fall Focus runs from Thursday, Oct. 29 through Monday, Nov. 2.