Mountaintop Film Festival reaches out

The 5th Annual Mountaintop Film Festival, hosted by the Big Picture Theatre in Waitsfield, extended its reach this year beyond a presentation of films focusing on human rights issues, by bringing together a group of Vermont organizations working for political, social, and environmental justice in a Democracy Fair at 4 p.m. on Saturday to encourage attendees to move past the feelings of outrage and frustration that the festival's films might evoke, and take some real action to change these situations. "The festival will hopefully evoke enough anger, frustration and pain when people are confronted with these images of injustice that they sense a need for change," said Claudia Becker, owner of the Big Picture Theatre. As the Big Picture prepared for the 2008 run of the festival, Becker realized that they needed to move beyond these feelings that change is necessary, and provide people with real opportunities to make those changes happen. "We felt a responsibility to offer opportunities for people to get involved," said Becker. "This year, we invited Vermont organizations that are out there giving people the opportunity to participate to the Democracy Fair." By engaging directly with attendees of the festival and building a grassroots movement focused on primarily local issues, the organizations present at the fair built on what Eugene Jarecki, co-owner of the Big Picture and winner of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival Documentary Prize for his film "Why We Fight," has called "great reckonings in small rooms." In all, six organizations participated in the Democracy Fair, including the Peace and Justice Center, the Global Justice Ecology Project, the League of Women Voters, Rural Vermont, the National Popular Vote Coalition, and the Mount Mansfield Union High School Peace Club. Award-winning journalist Amy Goodman, anchorwoman for the independent news broadcast Democracy Now!, engaged the audience in a question and answer session following the U.S. premier of the film "Deserter" on Friday night. In past years, the Festival has brought other nationally recognized figures such as Ralph Nader and Senator Bernie Sanders to discuss issues relating to human rights, and environmental and social justice. Through their selection of films, the festival has been successful in attracting a relatively diverse crowd by Vermont standards. Becker noted that "In the Valley of Elah," a new Hollywood film focusing on the problems of one young veteran's return from Iraq, brought in a group of younger people "who didn't seem like they'd usually be at a political event. But they had been to Iraq and were interested in seeing the film." "We try to pick movies that are above opinions, that are more thought provoking," said Becker. Becker and Jarecki have also tried to move beyond the "preaching to the choir" phenomenon which often characterizes activist functions in Vermont, by inviting 200 regional high school students to a special screening on Friday of the film "Democracy in Dakar," a documentary which focuses on the influence of hip-hop artists in the 2000 and 2007 presidential elections in Senegal. "I hope that the film will encourage people to think outside the typical parameters, and realize that you can take power into your own hands," said Becker. During the duration of the Festival, which lasted from Wednesday through Sunday, more than 1,000 people came to the Big Picture to see films such as Democracy in Dakar, In the Valley of Elah, Taxi to the Dark Side, Please Vote for Me, Deserter, Occupation 101 and Searching for Ghandi, amongst many others. With two screens and a full-service caf_the Big Picture Theatre shows first-run and art films year-round in Waitsfield.

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