Salem Film Fest presents special Thanksgiving weekend screening

FOR AHKEEM

By Shelley A. Sackett

Above: Daje Shelton in “For Ahkeem,” a documentary film directed by Jeremy S. Levine and Landon Van Soest.

BEVERLY — By the Sunday after Thanksgiving, even the most diehard football fan and Black Friday shopper should be ready to trade leftover pie for popcorn and venture out to the Cabot Theatre where Jeremy Levine, a Beverly native and Emmy Award winning documentary filmmaker from New York, will be returning home to screen his latest feature film, “For Ahkeem.”

The film tells the intimate and frank story of Daje Shelton, a strong-willed Black 17-year-old girl in North St. Louis, Missouri. The audience walks beside her as her path takes her from public school expulsion to the court-supervised Innovative Concept Academy, an alternative school for delinquent youth and her last chance to earn a diploma.

Shot over a two-year period against the charged backdrop of nearby Ferguson, we witness Daje’s struggles as she copes with academic rigors, the murders and funerals of friends, teenage love and a pregnancy that results in the birth of a son, Ahkeem.

With motherhood comes the realization that she must contend with raising a young Black boy in a marginalized neighborhood. The film illuminates the challenges that many Black teenagers face in America today, and witnesses the strength and resilience it takes to survive.

“For Ahkeem” will screen on Sunday, November 26 at 4:30 p.m. at The Cabot Theatre, 286 Cabot Street in Beverly as part of a special Salem Film Fest Presents — the documentary fest’s first cinema presentation outside of Salem. Levine will be on hand at to answer audience questions at the post-screening Q&A.

Salem Five Charitable Foundation is underwriting the screening and three local organizations are community partners: The Beverly Human Rights Committee, First Church Salem, UU and Salem No Place for Hate.

For Levine, who attended Beverly High School and worked for years as a counselor at the Waring School, the film he co-directed is more than a simple coming-of-age story. “It highlights the horrible effects of the school-to-prison pipeline, where we suspend and expel huge numbers of students — especially black and brown students — and the impact that has on girls like Daje from the time they’re five-years-old,” he said by phone from New York City, where he and co-director Landon Van Soest run Transient Productions, a full-service production company.

The film also approaches some of the most pressing social challenges facing America today — racial bias, social inequality, public education, police brutality and a biased criminal justice system.

“We wanted to tell a deeply personal story about what it means to live your life when so many systems are set against you,” Levine, an Ithaca College alumnus with a degree in Documentary Studies, said.

“For Ahkeem” has had an award-winning festival run starting in February at the Berlin Film Festival, followed by prestigious showcases like the Tribeca Film Festival, Canada’s Hot Docs, and the DMZ International Film Festival in South Korea.

While the film’s worldwide audience and awards —such as the Grand Jury Prize Award at Boston’s Independent Film Festival — thrill Levine, for him the screenings and discussions at high schools and prisons fulfill a greater mission of trying to do better for future generations of children.

In Tribeca, New York City, for example, approximately 500 high school students attended a screening. “When Daje came out for the Q&A afterwards, the kids erupted in applause,” Levine said.

The ensuing discussions included kids “really opening up about some of the challenges they face in their lives. It was really incredible,” Levine added. He is currently working to bring the film to more public high schools through a grant program.

Screenings at prisons have been equally powerful. When the lights came up at one screening for 100 inmates, all the tears in the room full of men touched Levine. “One of them wrote a poem for Daje and Ahkeem. Another man said, ‘Who knew I could learn so much about being a man from the story of a young woman?’” he said.

Levine credits the culture of Judaism and Hebrew School lessons at Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, “a part of my life growing up”, with imbuing in him a sense of responsibility to try to make the world a better place. “I learned about the long suffering of our heritage and the injustice of that. That kind of moral underpinning is definitely huge in the work I do,” he said.

 

“For Ahkeem” will screen on Sunday, November 26 at 4:30 p.m. at The Cabot Theatre, 286 Cabot Street in Beverly as part of a special Salem Film Fest presentation. For more information or to buy tickets, visit theCabot.org.

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Salem Film Fest Turns Ten!

The “little festival that could” celebrates with a Gala

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 an event that would be fair to documentary filmmakers and attractive to audiences. They presented a week of special film programming and live events in the middle of that same winter. “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; last year, more than 6,000 attended what has grown to be both one 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 2017 SFF Storyteller Award to Frontline founder David Fanning with a live music dance party. (Visit salemfilmfest.com/2017/gala-tickets for more information).

“Come to Salem, see the world” has been the Salem Film Fest catch phrase since its inception, both as an homage to old Salem merchant ships that established trade with the rest of the world and in tribute to the dozens of countries represented by the films the festival has screened over its ten years.

With a line-up of 35 feature and 13 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’s West Village artist community (“Winter at Westbeth”). And everyplace in between.

Besides CinemaSalem, SFF partners with Peabody Essex Museum’s Morse Auditorium (PEM) and the National Park Service Visitor Center (NPS) as additional venues. With simultaneous screenings at all three sites, the streets of Salem feel like a mini Sundance as filmgoers greet each other on the street, making their way from one film to the next.

As in past years, SFF 2017 focuses on filmmakers as much as their films, and 19 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. “It’s great to see the growth of the festival while we also stay true to our roots. More and more filmmakers have found the festival to be a haven of sorts for their films, and they enjoy spending time in Salem,” said Jeff Schmidt, who has been SFF program director since 2014.

Cultrera, who handed the programming to Schmidt in 2013, agrees. “The thing I look forward to every year is getting a new crew of filmmakers to the festival: spending time interacting with them; introducing them to Salem; watching friendships build between them and some of our audience, and talking shop at after-hours gatherings,” he said.

Among this year’s line-up are three U.S. premieres: “The Day the Sun Fell” (surviving Red Cross doctors and nurses remember the day Hiroshima was bombed as nuclear disaster strikes Japan again); “Mattress Man” (an Irish 60-something-year-old creates a tacky YouTube persona to boost his failing business) and “Zimbelism” (one of the last working street photographers shares stories from his dark room). Both filmmaker Matt Zimbel and his subject and father, George S. Zimbel, will be present at the “Zimbelism” screening at PEM on Sunday, March 5 at 10:50 a.m.

The programming committee started looking for SFF 2017 films last June, and the richly varied menu of films has something to please every palette. To make planning easier, SFF offers a helpful guide that organizes the films into a number of “curated itineraries” to allow the audience to review films through specific lenses.

Three films that address complex socio-political issues through one person’s story are “Almost Sunrise”, Tickling Giants” and “Death by One Thousand Cuts”.

Filmmaker Michael Collins’ “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. Collins will attend the Q&A after the screening at PEM on Saturday, March 4 at 8:35 p.m.

“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. Filmmaker Sara Taksler will be available for a post-screening Q&A. The film is at PEM on Friday, March 3 at 8:10 p.m.

In “Death by a Thousand Cuts”, a brutal murder on the Haiti-Dominican border exposes the complex consequences of killing the Dominican forests, one cut at a time. The filmmaker will attend the Q&A after the screening at CinemaSalem on Sunday, March 5 at 5:10 p.m.

On the more whimsical side, “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. It screens at CinemaSalem on Saturday, March 4 at 9:40 p.m.

Those most interested in the arts have plenty to choose from this year. “The Ballad of Fred Hersch” traces the foremost jazz pianist and composer’s journey from AIDS coma survivor to musical triumph (Friday, March 3 at CinemaSalem at 5:10 p.m.). “Yarn” introduces edgy, contemporary women who are revolutionizing the art of knitting and crocheting. (Saturday, March 4 at PEM at 11:50 a.m.). “I Am the Blues” gives an up-close-and-personal tour of the original southern juke joints with the aging blues musicians who still play its “Chitlin’ Circuit”. (Closing night feature on Thursday, March 9 at CinemaSalem at 7:00 p.m.).

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.

SFF 2017 is also jam-packed with events, parties and the live music performances before many of the screenings at CinemaSalem by local musicians whose contributions add to the festival’s literal good vibrations.

While the community-driven, all-volunteer festival steadfastly remains true to its ideals of high-level programming and treating filmmakers like the stars they are, the “little festival that could” seems poised for even wider appeal and reach in its second decade. All agree that fundraising and broadening the volunteer base are two critical ingredients for generating this growth.

“The festival is special, but it could be on another level entirely if we had the resources and if there was a mechanism in place in Salem that better synchronized public, private and non-profit energies,” said Cultrera.

Nonetheless, 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, the Salem Film Festival 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, Peabody Essex Museum and National Park Service Visitors Center. For more information or to purchase tickets or passes, go to the CinemaSalem box office or visit salemfilmfest.com/2017/.

Celebrating Ten Years with a Bubbly Brew

Far From the Tree Launches special Salem Film Fest Cider

far-from-the-tree

Alex Snape brewing a special batch of craft cider.

 

When Salem Film Fest, the week-long all documentary film festival that runs from March 2-9, celebrates its tenth anniversary this year, it will be even more special because of Alex and Denise Snape, co-owners of Far from the Tree, a craft cider company specializing in unique, high-quality hard cider made from local ingredients.

 

They will create a special SFF Brew (stay tuned for its official name) that will reflect the film they are co-sponsoring, “First Lady of the Revolution”, the remarkable story of Henrietta Boggs, an Alabama Southern belle who takes a life-altering journey through marriage, civil war and audacious democratic reforms to become the First Lady of Costa Rica.

 

“When we think of documentary film, we think of raw, powerful emotion and beauty in storytelling. We hope to make a cider that will boast strong flavors and a lot of personality that people will enjoy from the first sip to the last,” Alex said.

 

far-from-the-tree-cider2

 

Jeff Schmidt, SFF program director, couldn’t be more pleased with the collaboration between the two local mainstays. “I think the handcrafted artisan nature of the cider produced by Far From the Tree pairs up in a really interesting way with the artistic process of filmmaking. Henrietta Boggs is quite a character, and creating a tribute to her seems like a great fit!” he said.

 

Alex plans to launch the new cider on Sunday, February 26, days before the festival opens. He is working with the SFF committee to show the short films from the previous festivals in Far from the Tree’s tasting room that night, and he’d like to collaborate with Popped! Gourmet Popcorn in Salem to provide popcorn for his guests.

 

“Whenever we release a new cider, the response has always been very great. We hope the launch on February 26th will be just as successful,” he said.

 

Far from the Tree makes a craft hard cider based on a philosophy that respects tradition by controlling the entire production process from apple pressing straight through to bottling. The cider is made with local apples and exclusively natural ingredients. Over the almost three years they have been serving up their delicious hard cider, they have crafted other special brews, including Husk Cider, a small-batch fermentation designed to complement Island Creek oysters, and four brews inspired by inspired by the works of New England horror author, H.P. Lovecraft and released in October 2015 to coincide with Salem’s month-long celebration of all things Halloween.

 

Alex isn’t the only film fan at Far from the Tree. Erik Pudas, its head cider maker, is a former cinema projectionist who has worked at film festivals in the past and still enjoys the unique films only a festival setting can offer. Jen Tran, the tasting room manager and head of sales, has attended the festivals for the last several years. “As a growing Salem business, we have developed several connections and relationships with community leaders, volunteers and organizers, and are happy to help support them,” Alex said.

 

Salem Chamber of Commerce Executive Director (and a Salem Film Fest co-founder) Rinus Oosthoek echoes Alex’s enthusiasm. “I think the special brew is a fantastic way both to celebrate Salem Film Fest’s 10th Anniversary and to help promote the festival and FFTT at the same time. Our film fest audience will be very receptive to the idea, so we should be able to get FFTT some new customers,” he said, adding in his native Dutch, “Proost!”

 

 

Far from the Tree is located at 108 Jackson Street in Salem. For hours and more information, visit farfromthetreecider.com.

 

Salem Film Fest 2017 runs March 2-9. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit salemfilmfest.com.