Volume 5 : Miscellaneous Column

Moondancing In Boulder

Samik Dasgupta


Anna could not believe her own eyes. The man she spotted at the backyard of her ravaged and solitary house was a German soldier! Yes, one of those who massacred her country, and her past, 6 years back … as the war took away her family and left her with memories of horror. What is he doing here? The occupation had ended, but residues of German troops were still to be seen in Italy, many of whom were trying to come to terms with their own war crimes. Anna knew that, but residues of German troops were still to be seen in Italy, many of whom were trying to come to terms with their own war crimes. Anna knew that, but she never expected this opportunity to avenge those nightmares which held her hostage night after night. As she grabbed her grandfather's old pistol and caught the soldier unaware, he didn't took too long to realize what was in store. Neither did he fail to understand her silent command to pick up the shovel and start digging his own grave. After all, that's how her countrymen used to be slain by the Germans, Anna was thinking. In the hushed but horrifying minutes to follow, we watched the man digging on the ground, and Anna's eyes grow steelier as one traumatic memory after another kept coming back to her mind. At long last, probably after a million hours, the grave was prepared, and Anna slowly approached the man waiting for his last moments. And then….she buried the gun! [Anna and soldier, Germany, Dir: Soeren Hoeper and Christian Prettin].

‘‘Such films are the ones we stand by, because they provide an alternative to violence in the truest sense’’ Elizabeth English was explaining to me. Ms English, 63, is the Executive Director of the annual Moondance Film Festival held at the city of Boulder, Colorado. Calling her the director hardly enunciates her phenomenal efforts, though. Moondance, known as the American Cannes, is virtually a one-man-show. Elizabeth founded it in 1999 to promote and encourage independent films aimed at ‘‘non-violent conflict resolution’’, and ‘‘..to raise awareness of the invaluable contributions of women to the entertainment industry’’. It has grown fast to be a premier film festival of its kind, so much so that Film and T.V. production companies all over the world ask to be notified of the Moondance winners in various categories, in order to have a first look at the script themselves. Last year, a group of film professionals voted it to be the third most important film festival of the world, behind Cannes and Sundance.

Every year, Elizabeth receives about 500 films (mostly short) from all over the world, and selects a handful of those to be screened. She does all the selection herself, as ‘‘I am not rich enough to hire people to do that’’. Then she assembles a group of volunteers to do the organizational work, and the screenings take place early summer, usually in the Chautauqua Park, against the majestic backgrounds of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder.

The funding primarily comes from the entry fees for the films, and also from a no.. of local sponsors with varying capacities. I was a volunteer (a ‘Moondancer’ as we were called) myself this year, through the efforts of my German friend Gina, a fellow student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The experience fascinated me with its simplicity. I hadn't seen too many instances of a Film Festival of this eminence being organized by a small group of mostly nontechnical people, with modest means and under the guidance of a single lady. Elizabeth once told me that Mahatma Gandhi would be one of her inspirations. She meant it in the context of non-violence, but I found a stronger resemblance in the area of ‘‘plain living and high thinking’’. To be honest, sporadic and not-so-sporadic lapses do show in the departments of publicity and organizatin. But the vision remains unflinching.

I was curious about the genesis of this vision, so I enquired Ms English of her background. It turned out that her mother was the silent era actress Lenore English who was a regular in Charlie Chaplin films. Her grandmother was considered a ‘lucky mascot’ by Chaplin. Blonde and beautiful, young Elizabeth was pitted to be the ‘‘next Shirley Temple’’ by the studios. But her mother wouldn't approve of a girl of her age being in the Hollywood atmosphere. ‘‘So, if anything, she was a negative influence on me as far as films were concerned’’, explained Elizabeth. Nevertheless, she grew up watching films, and being the biggest fan of James Dean. ‘‘How about Indian films?’’ I asked. She didn't care for the ‘Bollywood stuff’ she saw.

Gradually, she grew tired of the mindless violence, and indeed, the glorification of it, in mainstream english movies. A ‘movie pacifist’ was born, and she soon found Hollywood completely insensitive to her views. Thus, one fine morning, Moondance was conceived. After all, there had to be an organized voice against the ‘culture of violence’, and filmmakers advocating ‘non-violent conflict resolution’ had to be assured that their voices can be heard, too. The second motivation was to recognize the efforts of women associated with the film world in various capacities, a cause which has always been dear to English's heart. And of course, she realized that these two causes were related, that recognizing and highlighting the ‘female perspective’ was essential for conquering the evils of the society, including violence.

In the meantime, her direct involvement with films was growing, too. She was getting busy with writing screenplays, the kind she believed in. And Moondance brought in the desired recognition. Francis Ford Coppola's ‘Zoetrope’ was one among those who began to take active interest. Recently, ‘Wilderness within’ with screenplay written by Ms English, was featured at the Zoetrope Screenplay contest. It was screened in this year's Moondance, too. It's story set in an early 20th century Greek Island, where an orphan boy falls in love with the village mayor's daughter. It's their love story in the moonlit poppy fields.

Columbine is the state flower of Colorado, and it's supremely ironic that it should remind us of one of the most gruesome incidents in the recent past. In April 1999, two teenage college students of Columbine High School at Littleton, Colorado, went on a shooting spree, killing 12 fellow students and a teacher, and a teacher, and wonding several others; before committing suicides themselves. Influenced by the public outrage that followed, President Clinton ordered an investigation on the role of the entertainment industry in marketing voilence among children. The result was in the affirmative, once again pointing fingers to a sickness that people like Elizabeth had always been aware of. The enquiry commission specifically found that a majority of the R-rated films has the teenage youth as their target audience, often having the Theatre owners helping them circumvent the laws. Fittingly Moondance Film Festival gives away the ‘Columbine Award’ each year, to reward the strongest voice for against voilence, expressed through various categories of filmmaking. Among a plethora of other awards are the ‘Spirit of Moondance award’, the ‘Moondance Seahorse award’ etc, in various categories like Feature Film, Documentary, Screenplay, Music Score, Short Story, and what not.

I didn't get the chance to attend as many film shows as I would like to. In the feature films/ documentary section, there was the ‘Spirit of Moondance Award’ winner Las combatientes (The women warriors) [Peru, Sonia Valentin, 94 min], story of 3 women who bond by the same fatal diseases they were diagnosed with. It's a beautiful story of love and friendship, filmed in the beautiful Puerto Rico. Indianorigin filmmaker Aruna Namji teamed up with Aram Hekinian to create ‘One balloon’ [24 min], which is ‘‘the first film to introduce the narrative principles of lucid realism, a narrative strategy’’. ‘Gift from my foremothers’ [US, Petrushka Pavlovich, 33 min] is an autobiography of a woman in search of harmony in life. ‘The planting of girls’ [Viola Shafik, 90 min] is a horrifying enunciation forced circumcision of girls, a practice in parts of the Arab world.

It deservingly won the Columbine Award, The ‘Moondance Calypso award’ winner ‘Oil on Ice’ [US, Bo Boudart, 60 min] addresses the currently debated issue of drilling for oil in the Arctic region. Its an unbiased discussion on how America's energy policy and ‘thirst for Oil’ directly affects the wildlife in the Alaskan region, and also the culture and survival of the local Gwich'in Indians. Erez Berzilay's ‘Cry for Madiom’ [Canada, 63 min] takes a look at the unimaginable plight of the people of Southern Sudan, ravaged by the war.

Among the short films I enjoyed, there was Hallaig [U.K, dir: Neil Kempsell, 9 min], a cinematic exploration of the poem ‘Hallaig’ by Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean. In Ring Road [Malaysia, Alan Chan, 8 min], a hitchhiker gets a ride along Highway No 1 along the Pacific Coast. They find a curious resemblance between the road, and the roads their own lives journey through. It's not just a story of journey, it's also a story of return. ‘Lucky’ [US, Sondra Weimer. 15 min] is a funny story of an old couple who have a jolly life, until one day they buy the ‘wrong kind of tuna’. Steven Bilch's ‘Native New Yorker’, [US, 13 min], a 1924 hand-crank Cine-Kodak camera explores the past and present of the great city, from the time when it was an island ‘treaded for beads and booze’, featuring a narrow trail which is now Broadway, to the horror of September 11. The film won the Columbine award in the short documentary section.

There was also a ‘Music Videos’ section. The ‘Spirit of Moondance’ award winner was a 5 min film ‘United’ [Taron Lexton, South Africa], a story of kid and his quest to unite a group of people across ethnic boundaries, against the local goons. There was also an interesting short film for kids called ‘When Mama Flies Away’ [US, Zoomie Z, 13 min], which won the Spirit of Moondance award in the ‘Kids short films’ section. Its about the 6 yr old kid's memories of her mother, drawn with splendid images and a sonorous soundtrack. It's the kind children's film Moondance would stand for.

The picturesque Rocky Mountain city of Boulder, known to be ‘nestled between the mountains and reality’ is one of America's most eclectic College Towns. One of the prime centers of the ‘Beat movement’ and erstwhile home of the late Allan Ginsberg, it was also the workplce of one of the most illustrious. Avant Grade/ Experimental filmmakers of the 20th century, Stan Brakhage. In line with that tradition is Boulder's unique patronage of the ‘24 hour shoot out’. For those who don't know, the ‘Shoot out’ is a film festival, filmmakers from all over the would assemble to make short experimental films, which have to be completed (including editing and all such aspects) in 24 hrs. The films are shot with affordable equipments, and apart from allowing the aspiring small budget filmmakers to complete with their more established counterparts, the films have very distinct characters cinematically. Started in Newcastle, Australia, in 1999 with the $2000 as the first prize, the ‘Shoot out’ is now held in 5 cities in the world; Boulder being the only one outside Oceania, (the other ones being Newcastle, Geelong, Toowoomba in Australia, and Hamilton in New Zealand). Moondance typically features more than one shoot out films, and this year we had, amont others, ‘Ten more minutes’ [Erik Klassen and Patrick Domont, 6 min]. A story of Rico, the ‘new age Yogi’ gets a call while hanging from a 200 ft cliff..he has only 10 minutes to be somewhere. Then there was a ‘Shoot out film about shoot out films’, an unedited 7 min ‘Shoot out documentary’ about four best films from the latest Boulder festival.

However, I found Boulder's response to Moondance very disappointing if one were to go by the level of attendance. It was rather astonishing, as Ms English would put it, that a festival well known to the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg should receive such a lukewarm response from the liberal cultural bastion of this area.

Being a volunteer gave me the opportunity to interact with many interesting film personalities. It was a pleasure, for instance, to chat with the Shootout filmmakers. There was this aspiring actress whose name I forgot; her films got rejected but she flew all the way from Chicago just to attend the festival. Such is the aura of Moondance. I also met the ladies from ‘Coalition for quality Children's media’/‘Kids first’. It's a national non profit organization aimed at providing quality programms for Children, and improving their critical viewing skills. Among their activities is organizing the ‘Kids First’ Film and Video Festival, the largest Children's Film Festival in the world. It's also a traveling festival, Moondance being one of the favorite stops. This year, it plans to ‘travel to 50 cities all over the country, an rach and audience of more than 250,000 through its collaborations with children's museums, non profit film centers and similar groups’. I enjoyed their workshop titled ‘The Courage to Create Quality Children's Films’, which addressed the issue of the violence and profanity rampant in today's children's’ media, and search for alternatives.

Speaking of Workshops, Moondance typically gets some of the best minds of US in that department, which in the past included Robert Tobin, Judy Browne, and Elizabeth herself. This year we had quite a few interesting ones. Ms English presented a method she developed for ‘finding an eye catching title and sizzling logline’ for a screenplay or film story. In ‘Extreme filmmaking: Truth and Consequences’ documentary filmmaker Deborah Fryer talked about the challenges in shooting films at a wide variety of locations : from ‘slums of Mexico to the top of Kilimanjaro’ and from ‘inside ancient Roman aqueducts to inside the human body’! ‘Standing out from the crowd and landing the role’ (Katrina Cook) was for the aspiring actors. Arthur Kanegis's subject was ‘Writing creative alternatives to violence-want to change the Society? Change the story!’. The workshop participants would present their story lines, and would then be presented non-violent alternatives to their usually cliched methods of conflict resolution.

The Animation film section was a revelation to me, as my knowledge about the scope and variety of Animation films was rather limited. I didn't know how artistically this form could be used. Moondance has quite a few awards in the Animation category. The Columbine Award went to ‘Through my thick glasses’ [Canada, Pjotr Sapegin, 12 min]. In the chilly winter of Norway, a short sighted little girl hears from her gradfather the story of his personal involvement in the World War. The Moondance Sandcastle award winner was the internationally acclaimed ‘Chohon’ [Korea, Junsang Yoon, 14 min] set in the 1940s, depicts the forbidden love between a Korean soldier and a Japanese geisha. ‘A bad day for saving the world’ [Canada], is only 1 minute long perhaps the shortest film I've ever seen. Its about a ‘wannabe superhero who has trouble with a phone booth’’!

I chanced to view a few more of those Animation movies at Elizabeth's place, while taking her interview. She showed me an absolutely fascinating work named ‘Animusic’. Its computer animated music, created by 2 teenage boys at a basement in New York city. The DVD featured 7 distinct musical pieces, and the harmonization of the music with the animation, with an amazing emphasis on the details, was wimply breathtaking. I asked her about the recent movies whe liked. ‘‘Motorcycle Diaries, definitely’’ she replied. I couldn't agree more, as I viewed the film recently. She also mentioned ‘‘Whale Rider’’ (‘‘Its gonna make you cry, for sure’’). She also gave me a chance to view some of the aspiring entries for next year's Moondance. I got a glimpse of her ‘selection procedure’. It was a very instructive and pleasant way to spend a Saturday morning.

On the drive back home. I was thinking of Motorcycle Diaries again. Can movies ever bring about the changes Che had envisioned? Satyajit Ray did not believe that movies could change the society. Show me one film that has changed the society, he once challenged an interviewer. I agree with him, I think. Still, making and supporting the films we believe have to a part of the journey towards a better society…..as Ray himself would emphasize. I was also thinking of a film I saw at the Moondance festival. It's an autobiographical story of a rural Australian girl growing up, or trying to grow up, against her physically, mentally, and sexually abusive father the director not only shows you harrowing images of torture, but also gives enough indication of where all that come from; from the man's fixation with religion, male chauvinism, and absolute power. The girl finally escapes her father, takes refuge in a laundry, grows up to travel the world, and settles in San Francisco, Finally, One day she returns home to confront her deathbed-ridden father. The climactic encounter between the two is masterfully narrated. We see the man unremorsefully justify his action with, among other things, his religion. And the director's judgement of it comes out at his sarcastic best, when something strange happens after his death, and for a moment she has this eerie feeling that he might have a resurrection! [In the Shadow of Eden, US, Rachel Romero, 22 min]

Is this film going to change the world? Most definitely not! But it is an important part of the aforementioned journey. I realized that, and I as did, felt a little proud about being a small part of this journey.


(i) Ms Elizabeth English, Founder & Executive Director, Moondance Film Festival
(ii) The Boulder Weekly, online Archives.
(iii) Information Boolet, Moondance Film Festival 2005



Copyright Silhouette.
Reproduction of this site content by any means is subject to approval of Silhouette.