Family-friendly film series celebrates human-animal relationships


MY OCTOPUS TEACHER

STREET GANG: HOW WE GOT TO SESAME STREET

SHEPHERD: THE STORY OF A JEWISH DOG

FROM THE WILD SEA

DUMA

BUCK

GRIZZLY MAN

THE RIDER

Who doesn’t love feel-good stories of relationships between animals and human beings?

That was Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival Producer Lloyd Komesar’s rationale when he set the theme for this year’s MNFF Selects film series, which screens one film a month from October to May at Town Hall Theater.

MNFF’s inaugural Selects series, which focused on biographies, started in the fall of 2019. The pandemic shut it down early after February 2020. 

“Coming back in person, for people to share the film experience every month is really important,” Komesar said. “And this series is aimed at a new demographic for us.” Komesar is hoping the family-friendly animal-based films he’s screening at Town Hall Theater will entice parents and grandparents to bring the kids along — masked, of course — to the movies this fall and winter. The first six films are rated G or PG.

“I’m inspired by the relationships that people I know in Vermont have with their pets and animals,” he said. “I’ve seen people relating so deeply to animals here.”

Komesar has had those relationships, too — and it may have been another reason he decided to dedicate the film series to the deep connection between humans and animals: He lost his 17-and-a-half-year-old dog last spring. “Biggie was a heck of a dog,” Komesar recalled. “As my vet said, he was living just for us. He had nothing left inside.”

“Let’s use film as a way to bring out these connections,” he said.

And the films look great. Here’s what’s coming up!

The series kicks off on Sunday, Oct. 17, with a free matinee of “My Octopus Teacher” (rated G), which tells the story of a filmmaker forging an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest.

“‘Octopus Teacher’ was a total surprise to me,” Komesar said. “I had no knowledge of what an octopus does, what their life is about. This filmmaker finds a way to create trust between himself, the octopus and his camera. It’s a gorgeous film, extraordinarily visual and colorful.”

The film, directed by Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed, won the 2021 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

On Nov. 21, catch the documentary “Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street” (rated PG). The film takes a behind-the-scenes look at the “Sesame Street” creators, artists and educators who established one of the most influential and enduring children’s series in television history.  This one has a special place in Komesar’s heart. “My kids, who are now 35 and 33, we raised them on ‘Sesame Street,’” he said. “I used to whistle the theme when I came home.”

(This film, and the rest in the MNFF Select Series, aren’t free. Adult tickets are $16; tickets for children under age 12 are $7.)

Up next, on Dec. 30, is “Shepherd: The Story of a Jewish Dog.” From award-winning director Lynn Roth, the film (rated PG) sensitively portrays the timeless and unbreakable bond between a boy and his faithful dog as it is put to the ultimate test in 1930s Germany. When the Nuremberg Laws are passed forbidding Jews to own pets, Kaleb, a German shepherd, is separated from his Jewish family and his beloved 10-year-old master, Joshua. What follows is a story of love and courage during an unforgettable time in history.

January’s film (Jan. 16) is “From The Wild Sea” (rated PG), a documentary portraying the heroic efforts of marine wildlife rescue volunteers who work tirelessly to save sea animals from oil, plastic and escalating winter storms.

Cheetah-lovers, take note: On Feb. 20, the film is “Duma” (rated PG), a colorful film about an orphaned cheetah who becomes the best friend and pet of a young boy living in South Africa. Winner of the Humane Society’s 2006 Genesis Award for Family Feature Film, and inspired by a true story, Duma offers audiences a blend of excitement, adventure and compassion with a beautiful and grand landscape as its backdrop.

On March 24, catch “Buck,” a documentary (rated PG) exploring the life of acclaimed “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman, who recovered from years of child abuse to become a well-known expert in the interactions between horses and people. Directed by Cindy Meehl, “Buck” won the 2011 Audience Award for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.

On April 21, it’s “Grizzly Man” (rated R), Werner Herzog’s intense docudrama about amateur bear expert Timothy Treadwell, who spent time in Alaska studying and living with bears. He and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were killed by a bear in 2003.

And finally, on May 12, catch Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao’s second feature film, “The Rider” (rated R), which tells the story of a young rodeo cowboy who has to reinvent himself on the Pine Ridge reservation after suffering a near-fatal head injury.

All the MNFF Select films are screened at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. Attendees age 12 and older must be vaccinated. Children under 12, and all other attendees, must wear masks inside the theater.

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