Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival explores wide-reaching cinema

Andy Tybout | March 25, 2010
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Ask any filmmaker what drives them, and you’re bound to get the same… Ask any filmmaker what drives them, and you’re bound to get the same response.

“You’re always looking for a story,” Ralph Vituccio, the director of the documentary “In Service: Iraq to Pittsburgh,” which profiles locals who have served in the war, said. “I was going into [the film] with the primary purpose of letting those people tell their stories.”

Fortunately, the CMU International Film Festival — a month-long, 14-film celebration of foreign cinema — is in the business of doing just that. The festival, which this year focuses on globalization, features narratives spanning both geography and genre, ranging from a documentary on Liberian liberation (“Pray the Devil Back To Hell”) to a part-documentary, part-drama on global warming (“The Age of Stupid”) to feature films and even a musical about a North Korean concentration camp (“Yodok Stories”).

“I just hope that people will be inspired by the films,” Jolanta Lion, director of the festival, said.

The opening film, “The Age of Stupid,” epitomizes the festival’s diversity of voices: In 2055, humanity’s sole survivor, played by Pete Postlethwaite, examines the real stories of seven people living in 2008, trying to discern why we didn’t stop global warming when we had the chance. Each story focuses on a symptom of global warming, like increasing consumption or the power of industry.

“For each theme, we tried to find a person that reflected all the contradictions and complexities of that one theme,” Lizzie Gillett, the film’s producer, said.

For the theme of increasing consumption, for example, the film crew traveled to India to profile the owner of a low-cost airline, and for the theme of industry power, the film crew traveled to the Niger Delta in search of locals who had been hurt by oil companies.

“We wanted it to be a global story,” Gillett said.

Another award-winning documentary, “Pray the Devil Back To Hell,” underscores the impact one person can have on an entire nation. The film chronicles the story of Leymah Gbowee, who led a band of women in a protest outside the Liberian presidential palace to force a resolution to halted peace talks.

Director of photography Kirsten Johnson said the women’s stories, now a source of inspiration, had previously gone unnoticed.

“There was very little documentation of the women engaged in this brave act of social protest,” Johnson said. “That was part of what motivated [producer] Abby and [director] Gini — to make sure that their story didn’t get forgotten.”

A third documentary, “In Service: Iraq to Pittsburgh,” makes global conflict a local issue. The film features the stories and footage of 15 Pittsburghers who served in the war as soldiers, journalists and government officials.

“I wanted to depict, in some way, what it was really like over there — without the CNN sugarcoating,” Vituccio said.

Vituccio said the predicament of being thrust into a wartime situation became a fascination of his.

“How do you act? What’s going on in your head? If you’re raised Catholic, or Jewish or whatever, what’s the ethical, moral dilemma you have to face when you have to kill someone?” Vituccio said. “That’s extraordinary circumstances.”

Almost all these films will be accompanied by events that help re-enforce such themes. The documentary “The Garden,” for example, will be coupled with a discussion with the director. Another film, “Z32,” will feature a live performance from the film’s score. A third, “Mid-August Lunch,” will feature an attempt by the local Italian restaurant Stagioni to recreate the food and wine made in the movie.

“The events enforce the message of the films,” Quelcy Kogel, the festival’s writer, said in an e-mail. “We have to answer the question ‘how do we make this film come to life and mean more for the audience?’”

While finding stories and trying to reach a global audience can often be a thankless, arduous experience, all filmmakers agree on one thing: It’s worth the effort.

“It really restores your belief in human nature,” Gillett said. “I wouldn’t have wanted to do anything else with the last seven years of my life.”

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