Every year for a while now, Valley filmgoers have had the chance to be part of a truly global film phenomenon thanks to the return of the Manhattan Short Film Festival. Arriving in area theaters just before the approaching autumn, the festival—now in its 16th year, it gets its name from its earliest incarnation, when films were shown on the side of a truck parked on a street in New York—draws hundreds of entrants from dozens of countries, each hoping to win the gold medal ultimately awarded to the one film voted best of the bunch.
The kicker—and a big part of what makes the annual event such a crowd favorite—is that it is the viewers themselves who decide which of the 10 finalists will take home the award. Unlike many festivals, the MSFF, though it screens in more than 300 cities across six continents, is not a traveling show; thanks to digital presentations, the screenings can happen concurrently, with partnering cinemas the world over—local houses include Tower Theaters and Amherst Cinema—showing the same finalists in a 10-day period beginning Sept. 27.
And at each of those screenings, audience members are given a voting card and asked to cast a ballot for the film they deem the cream of this year’s crop. Votes are tallied and sent off to the festival headquarters, with a winner announced on the final night of screenings—a fine time for a Sunday soiree. It’s a bit like having a party on Oscar night, but with the added frisson of knowing that your vote might actually mean something.
This year’s finalists, culled from an initial group of 628 films, include films from France, Finland, and Australia, as well as a trio from U.S. filmmakers. One of those American films, and at almost 18 minutes the longest of the finalists, is Pale of Settlement, director Jacob Sillman’s story about Moische, a young Jewish boy trying to escape conscription into the Russian Army during the Crimean War. Just 22 years old, Sillman made the film as his thesis piece as a student at NYU. Inspired by the stories his mother told about his great-grandfather fleeing the Bolsheviks, Sillman’s story evolved into its current form after his research turned up stories about the Khappers—men employed to kidnap Jewish boys who were then forced to serve in the Russian army.
When it came time to film, Sillman didn’t have to look far for his set: the White Mountains of Northern New Hampshire proved the perfect stand-in for the Carpathian Mountains, and Sillman zeroed in on a small, rustic cabin nestled among the white birch that provides the central location for the film’s drama. Since it’s only 18 minutes, I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but for a sneak peek, visit paleofsettlement.com and watch the haunting trailer.
Also this week: a passel of special shows come to screens throughout the Valley over the next few days, beginning on Thursday with a free screening of Barbara at Amherst College’s Stirn Auditorium. Part of the school’s German Film Series, the 2012 drama about a doctor plotting to escape East Germany in the 1980s shows at 4 and 7:30 p.m. On Friday and Saturday, Northampton’s Academy of Music brings in two different stage shows, each presented on the big screen in filmed versions. First up is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, filmed in 2012 at the Royal Albert Hall with over 200 cast members and musicians. And on Saturday, the theater hosts A Dancer’s Dream: Two Works by Stravinsky, recorded live this summer at the New York Philharmonic’s home at Avery Fisher Hall. Blending dance with puppetry, animation and circus arts, the production features NYC Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns as a young woman with dreams of becoming a dancer. Both shows are a bargain at $8, but note that tickets are cash or check only at the door.
Also this weekend, Pothole Pictures brings climate change documentary Chasing Ice to Memorial Hall in Shelburne Falls on Friday and Saturday nights. Directed by Jeff Orlowski, it tells the story of environmental photographer James Balog, who in 2005 traveled to the Arctic on assignment for National Geographic to take photos of our planet’s changing climate. A skeptic before setting out, Balog returned a different man, and he spent the next several years recording long stretches of time-lapse footage of our changing Earth. Compressed into fast-moving film, they tell a chilling story of a warming planet.•
Jack Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.