By Mary Summerbell
Time, again, to bring your attention to the next annual Beloit International Film Festival – coming Friday, February 23 through Sunday, March 4, 2018. Mark your calendar for ten days of movies and activities in this thirteenth year of the event. Visit the BIFF website for detailed information.
Maybe you noticed my lapse in reporting on BIFF films this year – going from reviewing a movie almost every issue of the newsletter to not commenting on any this year. This is partly because current political events have overshadowed other issues in my psyche, and I chose to write about them. But mostly because I was disappointed in the film festival this year.
Before this, when I got the program listing for BIFF, I would eagerly read through the previews, spend hours and hours watching trailers online, pouring over the options and the schedule, trying to fit the optimum number of movies into the fewest trips to Beloit. It was always difficult to narrow my choices down to a somewhat reasonable number of them to see. This past February, on first glance at the program, there wasn’t a single film that interested me. Looking again, and again, I found some I decided to go see.
Of the movies I viewed there’s only one I thought met the standards of others I’ve seen in the past. That was Seed: the Untold Story, a documentary about seed keepers worldwide trying to save and protect the biodiversity of plants in seed banks. A 12,000 year legacy of variety in seeds has drastically and dramatically diminished – by 94% – in just the last century. That’s a shocking and alarming fact for pondering the future of food on this planet.
Seeds are not safe just sitting on a shelf in a container; they must be planted and harvested in regular cycles to stay viable. The film featured one seed saver, his seed bank, and his lifelong work of planting and replanting seeds to keep them alive. It is amazing and impressive to think that people give their lives to this cause, for all of us to benefit.
Seed keepers give their lives, not just dedicating time and energy to this service, but sometimes actually dying to save the seeds. In 1941 and 1942, in Leningrad, Russia, Hitler’s army blockaded the city in a siege lasting 880 days. While thousands starved and froze to death, a group of botanists protected tons of rice, wheat, corn, beans, and potatoes from being eaten, or destroyed by the extreme weather. Nine of those scientists died saving 187,000 varieties of seeds, including 40,000 food crop seeds that have since been cross-bred with other seeds to create foods that sit on our tables today. What a legacy! Can you imagine yourself dying to save seeds?
Seeds. I enjoyed this movie. It was the bright light in the 2017 BIFF experience for me. But, overall, I was still disappointed. I hate to say that. It’s difficult for me to be critical of any creative endeavor, least of all one that’s provided me with so many hours of cinematic fun and adventure in the years I’ve attended it. I realize and appreciate the thousands of volunteer hours invested year round in this activity. I know how much love and work goes into every BIFF event, and every film submitted to it for consideration. Every movie is somebody’s baby.
But, as an active participant, and eager advocate for Beloit International Film Festival, I feel an obligation to be honest in my responses to it. I told people at the BIFF box office this year of my disappointment, told them what I didn’t like. I thought there was too much violence in this year’s movies, too many guns, too much vengeful, sci-fi, zombie-apocalypse nonsense.
Also, I was very irritated that the movie I most wanted to see had been completely withdrawn from the festival – sold on condition that it not be shown at BIFF. All my years at BIFF, I didn’t know that was possible. So that was a surprise. “How could I have known that?” I asked. As I understand it, access to the update was only by cellphone – and I don’t own one. So I went way out of my way in a determined – and futile – effort to see a movie that wasn’t even showing. Not fun.
The box office ladies listened to my venting, offered sympathy and apologies, and suggested a different movie for me to see, to not completely waste my gas and time in being there. They reminded me that BIFF officials can only pick from movies submitted, and some years the variety and/or quality of the options are better than others. And different people like different things in movies, so there’s no pleasing everyone all the time.
Then, one of them asked me, “What do you like? What do you want to see in movies?” I felt so frustrated at the time, and was so intent on my little rant that, in the moment, the question took me by surprise. I had to stop and think about it for a minute. Then I said that I like documentaries, that I want to know what’s going on in the world, and how different people see it. But I like fiction, too. And movies about Art and artists. Just about every year one of my favorite movies at BIFF is about some aspect of Art. Finally, I told her, “I guess I like movies about relationships, when people interact in ways that change their lives.”
What do I like to see in movies? It’s a question that has stayed with me. A question I am still answering. It’s weird. Whenever I think I know what I like, I think of an exception – a movie I really like that doesn’t have that. Or I think of movies that have what I say I like, but I don’t like them. I’ve challenged myself to come up with a list of clear, definite qualities or characteristics that all my “like” or “love” movies have in common. I haven’t come up with it – yet.
But I’ll keep trying. And I’ll keep looking for some of the answers at BIFF. Next year I’ll go with the attitude of trying to be more open than ever – of not letting my expectations get in the way of my experience. I resolve to just relax and enjoy whatever I can in the moment, whatever is there for me. I still strongly believe in Beloit International Film Festival – that it is a worthy and worthwhile endeavor, and I highly recommend it as a great community activity. See you there!