If playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht was still around, he’d surely approve of the Moab International Film Festival’s mission to bring movies with a message to local audiences.
This year’s lineup of documentaries, features and short films lives up to “The Threepenny Opera” author’s philosophy that “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
From Friday, Nov. 20, through Monday, Nov. 23, the festival will be showcasing socially conscious movies that touch upon everything from immigration and political persecution to freedom of the press and individual rights.
“These are powerful films that do change the world,” Moab International Film Festival Director of Administrative Affairs Nathan Wynn said.
The festival’s organizers went through more than 600 submissions in search of movies that have a deeper meaning, and they whittled their selections down to entries that might not make it into theaters elsewhere. Wynn said they looked for eclectic alternatives to mainstream Hollywood fare that are free of any corporate influence; they also shunned movies that promote smoking, drunkenness or other unhealthy behaviors.
That’s not to say that all of the selections are family-friendly, though.
“It’s not a religious-type festival, and it’s not a Disney-type festival,” Wynn said. “We do explore the tough issues, and we’re not afraid of controversy – not in the slightest.”
Perhaps the best-known selection at this year’s festival is “The Look of Silence,” filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing.” The film, which won the Grand Prize at the 2014 Venice Film Festival, will be shown at Star Hall on Saturday, Nov. 21, at 6 p.m.
“The Act of Killing” was a one-of-a-kind nonfiction film in which the perpetrators of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide reenacted their crimes for the camera. In Oppenheimer’s companion piece, an optometrist meets the men who murdered his brother five decades ago, and as he examines their eyes, he asks them to take responsibility for their actions.
“He’s now considered to be a new national hero in Indonesia,” Wynn said.
In conjunction with the Moab Valley Multicultural Center, the festival’s opening night kicks off on Friday, Nov. 20, at 6 p.m. with two documentaries that tell similar stories about immigrants’ experiences in Arizona.
“Two Americans” follows the aftermath of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s crackdown on Phoenix-area businesses that employed undocumented immigrants. “The Vigil,” meanwhile, examines the grassroots-level opposition to Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which requires police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained when there is “reasonable suspicion” that they are in the country illegally.
Moviegoers who attend the opening night’s screenings will have the chance to join a post-film question-and-answer session with “Two Americans” co-director Valeria Fernández.
Gina Sanchez, the real-life protagonist of “The Vigil,” is also scheduled to join Fernández via Skype for a panel discussion about immigration-related issues.
While this year’s festival puts a strong emphasis on documentaries, the once-disreputable genre movie is also well-represented.
“Human Resources,” which will screen at Star Hall on Saturday, Nov. 21, at 8:15 p.m., is a micro-budgeted horror flick about a haunted skyscraper.
“I was like, ‘A horror movie? A horror movie is not our thing,’” Wynn said.
“I Spit on Your Grave” it is not, though.
The skyscraper in this particular movie happens to be haunted by the victims of an unscrupulous corporation’s business practices, so it turns out that the satire about corporate malfeasance is very much in line with the film festival’s mission.
On a more serious note, the documentary “Frame by Frame” profiles four photojournalists in Kabul who personify the Afghan media’s sudden rise after the fall of the Taliban. Wynn praised the film, which will be showing at Star Hall on Sunday, Nov. 22, at 6 p.m., for its strong narrative and its superb cinematography.
“That one is not only powerful – it’s very cinematic,” Wynn said.
Another documentary, “A Different Drummer: Celebrating Eccentrics,” was inspired by a 10-year study which found that eccentric people tend to be happier, healthier and longer-lived than “normal” men and women. The film, which will screen at Star Hall on Saturday, Nov. 21, at 8:15 p.m., profiles Moab-area cave dweller Daniel Suelo – who is also the subject of the best-selling book “The Man Who Quit Money.”
“It’s a really good look at Daniel,” Wynn said. “He might be the main character of the film.”
Whether it’s by fluke or design, many of this year’s main selections have regional connections, whether it’s Suelo; the “Frame by Frame” production’s ties to Durango, Colorado; or “Two Americans” and its focus on immigrants’ lives in Arizona.
That story begins after Arpaio’s office organized sweeps of entire neighborhoods and targeted drivers for minor traffic infractions. Fernández – a veteran journalist in Arizona – wanted to tell a bigger story, and after she ran into soon-to-be co-director Dan DeVivo, she learned that they were interested in making the same movie.
The project finally came together when someone told her about a little girl who became a YouTube sensation when she appeared in a video and pleaded with President Barack Obama for her parents’ release from custody.
Both of young Kathy Figueroa’s parents were longtime employees of a car wash that was raided, and after the family was separated, the two filmmakers followed Kathy and other relatives as they struggled to free her parents.
“They were very open to allow us to document their stories in the midst of their family tragedy,” Fernández said.
While she was just 9 years old at the time of the raid, Kathy quickly became an advocate for other children – many of them American citizens – who have been forcibly separated from other family members.
“Her experience is so representative of so many children in Arizona,” Fernández said. “The same story is also playing out in much of the country.”
“The Vigil” follows the story of undocumented immigrant mothers who became unwitting leaders in their community after former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law.
Filmmaker Jenny Alexander initially set out to make a documentary about the so-called “Dreamers” – undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as young children, and often identify as Americans. Her focus shifted when she learned about the group of women who gathered on the Arizona state capitol’s lawn to protest the law, at the risk of deportation, arrest, or intimidation by armed Minutemen.
“I knew right away that something extremely special was happening – something different,” she said.
Sanchez and others at the core of the group hadn’t really been involved in politics up until that time, but Alexander said the experience had a transformative effect on their lives.
“It had a huge impact on the individuals who participated in it,” Alexander said. “They continue to be active in the community, and fighting for immigrants’ rights and immigration reform.”
For Wynn and other film festival organizers, “The Vigil” is the kind of movie that demands a wider audience, and he’s hopeful that moviegoers will learn more about the issues that Alexander and other selected filmmakers raise.
“For me personally, there’s an activist side that gets to come out,” he said. “These are stories that need to be told.”
Moab International Film Festival runs from Nov. 20-23
When: Friday, Nov. 20, through Monday, Nov. 23
Where: Star Hall, 159 E. Center St.
Cost: $30 for a festival pass; tickets for individual screenings are $5 each
For more info: moabfilmfestival.org
For a complete list of films, showtimes or more information, go to www.moabfilmfestival.org. You can also call 435-261-2393.