Shelley A. Sackett
Special to the Journal
When local filmmaker Joe Cultrera, businessman Paul Van Ness and Salem Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rinus Oosthoek gathered at the fledgling CinemaSalem’s café in 2007, they all shared a common goal: to create a film festival that would be fair to documentary filmmakers and attractive to audiences. Just weeks later, in the middle of that very same winter, they presented a week of special film programming and live events. “That’s about as fast as a festival can be put together once you have a venue,” said Van Ness, who owns CinemaSalem. “I suppose you could call it a spring training for the big league festival that would inaugurate the next year.”
The 2008 Salem Film Fest drew 1,743 filmgoers; in 2016, more than 6,000 attended what has grown to be both one of New England’s largest and among the nation’s most respected all-documentary film festivals. Each March, the festival presents a rich and diverse collection of the year’s best work from all over the world that helps sustain cinephiles through the long, bleak slog of New England winter.
This year the festival runs from March 2-9 and will kick off its tenth anniversary with a Gala on Thursday, March 2 at the Hawthorne Hotel that will combine presentation of the inaugural SFF Storyteller Award to Frontline founder David Fanning with a live music dance party.
With a line-up of 35 features and more than 20 short documentaries from more than 25 countries, SFF 2017 covers a lot of the globe: from the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan (“After Spring”) to Finland’s worst cheerleading team (“Cheer Up”); from the Mississippi Delta blues (“I Am the Blues”) to Mexico’s most famous tabloid photographer (“The Man Who Saw Too Much”); from Jalalabad’s child street gangs (“Snow Monkey”) to a New York City West Village artist community (“Winter at Westbeth”). And everyplace in between.
As in past festivals, this one will focus on filmmakers as much as their films, and more than 20 filmmakers and/or their subjects will attend this year’s post-screening Q&A sessions, which promise to be as exciting and informative as festivalgoers have come to expect.
Among this year’s more compelling films is “Forever Pure,” the story of how the Beitar football club in Jerusalem dealt with outrage from fans in 2012 after its Israeli-Russian oligarch owner signed two Muslim players from Chechnya. The film had its world début last July at the Jerusalem Film Festival and won awards for best documentary and best editing.
First-time documentary feature filmmaker Maya Zinshtein is a Russian-born investigative journalist who believes the film holds a mirror up to Israeli society. The film’s message about hate speech, mob rule and discrimination couldn’t be timelier, or more global.
In “Zimbelism”, we meet 86-year-old humanist photographer George S. Zimbel, one of the last working elders of street photography. Born in Woburn to Jewish parents with roots in Lithuania and Estonia, he is a wonderful raconteur, and he invites us to watch him work in his print lab as he tells stories about shoots with JFK and Marilyn Monroe (including the famous “Seven Year Itch” shot), his family life, and a David and Goliath copyrights battle he endured with his beloved New York Times. Both George and the filmmaker, his son Matt Zimbel (a jazz musician who also contributed much of the lively score), will attend the post-screening Q&A.
Many films explore the impact of complex socio-political issues by focusing on one person’s story. “Almost Sunrise” addresses “moral injury” by following two Iraq War veterans suffering from PTSD as they trek 2,700 miles in a last ditch effort to find the healing they both seek. “Tickling Giants” examines the aftermath of the Egyptian Arab Spring by showcasing Bassem Youssef, the “Egyptian Jon Stewart” who endangers his life and livelihood when the Morsi regime doesn’t appreciate his jokes.
On the more whimsical side, The East Coast premiere of “The League of Exotique Dancers” introduces eight unforgettable Burlesque Hall of Fame inductees who share the good, the bad and the ugly about the golden age of stripping with bawdy good humor and moving insight in a film that is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
Every year, regular attendees look forward to the premiere of “Salem Sketches,” a series of two-minute documentaries based in Salem and created exclusively for SFF by local filmmakers and SFF Planning Committee members Cultrera and Perry Hallinan. “We’re one of the few festivals that can claim to have our own original programing,” Cultrera said with pride.
The wildly popular and highly anticipated festival draws sell-out crowds to one of the liveliest and friendliest of Salem’s many festivities. Patrons return year after year, and hugging reunions in the CinemaSalem lobby are commonplace. Clearly, Salem Film Fest is about more than films. It’s also about community.
“Come to Salem, see the world. Come to Salem, meet the world,” Oosthoek said with a smile.
Salem Film Fest runs March 2-9 with screenings at CinemaSalem, the Peabody Essex Museum and National Park Service Visitors Center. For schedule information and to purchase tickets or passes, visit salemfilmfest.com/2017/ or go to the CinemaSalem box office.
Israeli Film ‘Forever Pure’ Plays March 7
Beitar Jerusalem is the most popular soccer team in Israel. It is also the only team in the Premier League to have never signed an Arab player. The film “Forever Pure” focuses on the turmoil that is created when the team’s billionaire owner signs two Muslim players from Chechnya, providing “a window into how racism is destroying a team and a society from within.” The film will be shown March 7 at 6 p.m. at CinemaSalem.