Film : True stories
It's a reminder of how important documentary filmmaking has become to the media industry that the Island's three summer film series will all present nonfiction films this coming week. Whether the topic concerns past heroism, amateur pianists, or the life of a radical lawyer, each film merits viewing.
On Sunday, August 16, the Martha's Vineyard Hebrew Center will conclude its Summer Institute Film Series with "Waves of Freedom," about a dramatic 1947 voyage of displaced Jews to Palestine.
On Tuesday, August 18, the Martha's Vineyard Film Society will screen "They Came to Play," about the Van Cliburn Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs.
On Wednesday, August 19, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" will play at the Chilmark Community Center as part of the Martha's Vineyard Film Festival's sixth annual summer series.
Paul Bernstein, who will introduce "Waves of Freedom," is one of 25 American volunteers who helped bring 1,500 Jewish refugees to Palestine before it became Israel. At the time, Palestine was still a British Mandate turning away thousands of Holocaust survivors.
When they joined the cloak and dagger operation initiated by the Jewish paramilitary organization Haganah, these heroic volunteers had little idea of what lay ahead. It included clandestine, nighttime rescue of homeless European Jews, nautical adventures in a less-than-seaworthy boat and dramatic confrontations with the British military.
Veteran filmmaker Alan Rosenthal brings alive this interesting, little-known bit of post-World-War-II history through archival footage of the actual voyage and interviews with the participating volunteers. "Waves of Freedom" offers a good example of how true stories can often be more intriguing than fictional ones.
The audience that attends "They Came to Play" at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs will enjoy a live, half-hour concert before the movie by Julliard-trained classical pianist Amaryllis Glass. Like some of the pianists featured in the film, she stopped playing for 10 years while she raised a family. Both Executive Producer Matt Cooper and Director Alex Rotaru will also be present to answer questions after the screening.
"They Came to Play" debunks the too-common assumption that amateur status as a musician implies inferior talent. The accomplished pianists profiled in this fascinating film all could have pursued professional careers. Each chose not to for a variety of reasons.
Their often-fascinating backgrounds range from those of Henri-Robert Delbeau, who practices internal medicine, and ophthalmologist Drew Mays to Clark Griffin, who suffers from AIDS, and dental hygienist Esfir Ross. Excerpts from their repertoires at different stages in the competition add up to a delicious banquet of sound and image.
Director Rotaru has woven together enough tidbits from the participants' lives to bring them and their stories vividly to life. Jeweler James Raphael plays so flamboyantly, for example, that a technician has to replace the piano bench he cracks.
Masterful editing and framing give the Steinway grand pianos used in the 2007 competition a visual appeal that complements the beauty of the music. The film's narrative structure invests the competition with suspense without making defeat seem like failure. Every one of the contestants is a winner of sorts.
On Wednesday, co-directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler will answer questions after the screening of their documentary about their late father, "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe." Taken from T.S. Eliot's famous poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," the film's title suggests an aspect of the radical lawyer that some may be unaware of.
The late Mr. Kunstler, who died in 1995, was not only a controversial activist lawyer. As a Yale undergraduate he penned verse and represented his alma mater in the intercollegiate Glascock Poetry Prize competition held annually at Mt. Holyoke College.
The Kunstler sisters were not born until their father, once called by the New York Times "the most hated and most loved lawyer in America," was nearly 60. For them, his activism often seemed tarnished and even threatening.
But they illustrate how their father began as a different man than the radical he eventually became. An Army major awarded the Bronze Star, he visited the family of a Japanese soldier who was killed after bayoneting him.
Until the age of 40, he lived in Mamaroneck, N.Y., where he practiced suburban law. His activism began in the 1960s when as a member of ACLU's national council he traveled to the South and began representing the Mississippi Freedom Fighters.
In the 1970s, Mr. Kunstler earned a national reputation for defending the Chicago Seven, the demonstrators accused of inciting a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It was during this case that he was sentenced for contempt of court, introducing the concept of judicial theatrics.
In his later years his choice of defendants alienated many, including the filmmakers, but in the case of accused rapist Yusef Salaam, he was eventually vindicated.
While "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe" may not be an objective portrait of its subject, it tries to be an honest one. The Kunstler sisters wield the tools of documentary - home movies, archival news footage, even animation - to provide a richly realized story at a time when words like "radical" have become taboo.
"Waves of Freedom," Sunday, Aug. 16, 7:30 pm, M.V. Hebrew Center, Vineyard Haven. $10.
"They Came to Play," presented by M.V. Film Society, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 8 pm, Tabernacle, Oak Bluffs. $8 ($5 for MVFS members). Concert begins at 7:30 pm.
"William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe," presented by M.V. Film Festival, Wednesday, August 19, 8 pm, Chilmark Community Center. $12 ($6 for MVIFF members, $5 for kids). Tickets available at Community Center box office starting at 5 pm or online at mviff.org until noon of screening day.
MVFF children's film, "Inside Scoop," and Cinema Circus on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 5 pm, Chilmark Community Center. $5 for kids.
Brooks Robards reviews film, books, and theater for The Times.