In its 20th year, IFFBoston plans a 'fresh-faced' festival
“We made it,” deadpans Independent Film Festival Boston program director Nancy Campbell, when congratulated on the local institution’s 20th anniversary. IFFBoston began as a four-day affair back in 2003, and over the past two decades has blossomed into a weeklong celebration across the area’s coolest indie cinemas, somehow surviving a couple of economic collapses and a global pandemic to emerge “as fresh-faced as we were the first year,” Campbell kids. She and executive director Brian Tamm have once again assembled another characteristically eclectic collection of 48 features and 42 shorts, set to start screening this Wednesday night and continuing over seven days at the Somerville, Brattle and Coolidge Corner Theatres.
After going dark for 2020 and running virtually in the spring of 2021, IFFBoston returned to in-person events for 2021’s Fall Focus, but still finds itself in recovery mode. Tamm estimates attendance at the 2022 festival was roughly half of 2019 levels, yet encouraging upticks at this year’s Boston Underground and Wicked Queer fests have him optimistic about the future of IFFBoston as a continuing destination for filmmakers and film fans. “There’s the film part and there’s the festival part,” he explains. “The film part gets a lot of attention, but the festival part is just as important. The event-ness of it all is important. It’s about people coming together and interacting with each other and interacting with the filmmakers. People missed that. People missed Q&As and filmmakers missed getting in front of audiences.”
It's also your chance to see these movies on the big screen at historic venues committed to pristine presentation. “Everyone’s stepping up their game,” Tamm says of recent renovations at the Somerville, the Brattle’s new surround sound system and the Coolidge’s ambitious expansion project. “There are all these articles about how s---ty everything is at the [AMC Boston] Common, which is true. But the independent theaters are still investing and caring. As much as the Landmarks and AMCs are letting things rot, the indies are doing it right. That’s really exciting.”
Opening night kicks off with a local legend. “Love to Love You, Donna Summer” tells the story of how Mission Hill’s LaDonna Adrian Gaines became the “Queen of Disco.” Directed by Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano – Summer’s youngest daughter – the film examines the singer’s career through the eyes of her family, something Tamm initially worried “could have been a puff piece. But the film doesn’t hold back, which I really admire.” It’s important to find fresh angles when you’re programming documentaries about famous people, he elaborates. “I don’t think there’s a need for a movie that just tells you how great a celebrity is. There are plenty of those on Netflix.”
In that regard, “Still: A Michael J. Fox Movie” is one of this year’s more astringent surprises, as the beloved “Back to the Future” star details his struggle with Parkinson’s disease in a disarmingly frank and often morbidly funny fashion. “He’s not up his own ass,” Campbell enthuses. “I think he’s very honest about himself, and the things that he’s done in his life and the choices that he’s made. I feel like it’s the story he wants to tell and not necessarily the one we want to hear.”
It's a more doc-heavy lineup than usual this year. “We try to find documentaries that have, if not direct ties to Boston, then at least echoes of things that are going on here,” Tamm explains. He cites “Stonebreakers,” a powerful look at the battles surrounding historical monuments, and “The Street Project,” about people working to make their communities safer for pedestrians and cyclists, as movies that are not set in Boston but “are applicable to what’s happening here. We’re expecting a lot more filmmakers than we had last year, so we wanted to be thoughtful about what conversations people will want to be a part of.”
Global affairs are still on the docket, with the shattering “20 Days in Mariupol” following Ukrainian filmmaker and journalist Mstyslav Chernov in his attempts to get shocking footage of Putin’s atrocities out to where the world can bear witness. Hassan Amini’s “Starting from Zero” follows three Afghan refugees from the fall of Kabul, stranded for a spell in a camp incongruously located in one of Qatar’s luxury World Cup compounds. Closer to home, “Kokomo City” invites a quartet of trans sex workers to tell their stories in bawdy, sometimes screamingly funny detail while still conveying the harrowing costs of lives lived on the margins. (Devastatingly, one of the film’s subjects, Koko Da Doll, was shot and killed on April 18 in Atlanta.)
I fondly remember seeing filmmaker Penny Lane’s first feature, “Our Nixon,” at IFFBoston in 2013. The brilliant director of “Nuts!,” “Hail Satan?” and “Listening to Kenny G” will be back at the Brattle on Friday night with “Confessions of a Good Samaritan,” a chronicle of her own experience donating a kidney to a complete stranger. The festival’s Centerpiece Documentary Spotlight is “Never Be A Punching Bag for Nobody,” in which indie rocker and photographer Naomi Yang finds herself rather accidentally training at Bartolo’s Boxing Club in East Boston, simultaneously discovering the seldom-told story of what Logan Airport’s postwar expansion did to the surrounding communities. (Yang will also host a listening party for the film's soundtrack album the following evening at the Somerville Theatre's Crystal Ballroom.)
This year’s Narrative Centerpiece Selection is Matt Johnson’s monstrously entertaining “BlackBerry,” about the rise and fall of the once-ubiquitous mobile device. It’s a Canadian spin on “The Social Network,” with well-mannered nerds bulldozed by a Harvard Business School shark played in a revelatory performance by “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” star Glenn Howerton. Even though the story takes place in Toronto, Tamm says it “cuts to the heart of Boston’s economic soul. It’s all about business and technology and hubris. The BlackBerry went from nothing to everywhere to nowhere. We’re reaching out to these tech guys to give them an object lesson in what not to do.”
Fans of last year’s Local Cinema Spotlight “How to Rob” will be pleased to see Cape Cod’s own Joshua Koopman onscreen at the Somerville again, this time as a quixotic community theater impresario in director Martin Kaszubowski’s Milwaukee-shot “Earlybird.” When his local playhouse can no longer afford the rent, Koopman’s loopy dreamer starts staging increasingly bizarre, avant-garde productions. He’s as surprised as we are when they become box office blockbusters in this endearing oddity.
“The movie that I want to talk about is ‘Charcoal,’” says Tamm, “which is a Brazilian film that I really loved. It’s a dark comedy about this poor family that takes in a guest who turns out to be an Argentinian drug lord. The thing I like about it is that I know for a fact that there’s a lot of political stuff going on that’s over my head, but it still works for me. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. We don’t show enough foreign films, so I’m really glad this is one we got to bring to Boston.” Indeed, the narrative lineup has a more international feel than in previous years, including Felix van Groeningen and Charlotte Vandermeersch’s Cannes Jury Prize winner “The Eight Mountains” and a sneak preview of “Phoenix” director Christian Petzold’s eagerly anticipated “Afire.”
This critic’s pick is Paul Schrader’s “Master Gardener,” the conclusion of a loose, late-career trilogy. Following the legendary filmmaker's “First Reformed” and “The Card Counter,” it’s another portrait of a troubled loner attempting to expiate his guilt through self-discipline and adherence to a rigid routine that can’t possibly last. This time he’s a former neo-Nazi terrorist played by Joel Edgerton, hiding out as the head horticulturist on an estate owned by Sigourney Weaver’s old money heiress. It’s a classic Schrader button-pusher about self-abnegation and lust, designed to provoke, infuriate and enlighten with questions about whether or not redemption is really possible, and when it is deserved.
Closing night at the Coolidge Corner Theatre brings writer-director Celine Song’s achingly lovely debut “Past Lives.” The Sundance sensation tells the story of two childhood sweethearts in South Korea separated when one of them emigrates to Canada with their family. A dozen years later, they find each other on Facebook, but won’t meet again in person for 12 more. Playing like all three movies of the “Before” trilogy smushed together into one, it’s a richly sensitive picture about the passage of time and the way absence can mold our memories. Would the one that got away still be as alluring if they’d stuck around? Song’s touch is deft, delicate and it sure gets a little dusty in the theater at the end. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate 20 years of sharing stories.
Independent Film Festival Boston runs from Wednesday, April 26, through Wednesday, May 3.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many days the festival ran when it first began in 2003. We regret the error.