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White River Indie Festival celebrates 15 years, screens Aretha Franklin documentary

  • A still from "Amazing Grace," the Aretha Franklin concert film centered on the her live-recorded gospel album in 1972. It is to be shown as part of the White River Indie Festival on May 31, 2019, at 7:30 p.m. (Courtesy photograph)

  • A still from "Amazing Grace," the Aretha Franklin concert film centered on the her live-recorded gospel album in 1972. It is to be shown as part of the White River Indie Festival on May 31, 2019, at 7:30 p.m. (Courtesy photograph)

  • "Little Beeri's March," a 25-minute film directed by John Griesemer, of Lyme, and Whittaker Ingbretson, of Woodsville, is among the films that will screen during the White River Indie Festival, which runs from May 31 to June 2. (Courtesy photograph)

For the Valley News
Published: 5/23/2019 10:00:27 PM
Modified: 5/28/2019 10:49:05 AM

Opera is all about excess: the campy costumes, the melodramatic plot twists, the extended, glass-shattering arias. But the art form also suffers from other, more insidious forms of excess — excessive whiteness, excessive wealth — that keep too many talented people on the margins.

Aretha Franklin loved opera all the same. And what does it mean to love an art form that, in many ways, doesn’t love you back?

That’s part of what Jarvis Green, the producing artistic director of JAG Productions, wants to tease out at a free music recital and discussion Tuesday night, which he’s organizing as part of a collaboration with the White River Indie Festival next weekend, May 31 to June 2, now in its 15th year. A major highlight of this year’s lineup is the Upper Valley premiere of Amazing Grace, the long-awaited Aretha Franklin concert film — more than 40 years in the making — centered on the Queen of Soul’s live-recorded gospel album in 1972.

“(WRIF) getting the premiere, as opposed to other screening venues, is huge,” Green said in a phone interview Monday, noting that mainstream media outlets have been waxing revelatory about the film. More than one reviewer has used the word “miracle.” One has said “touched by God.”

And so Green is planning accordingly, by curating and facilitating events around the premiere. Tuesday’s recital, which starts at 6:30 at The Village in White River Junction, will feature the classically-trained Green and two other black opera singers, bass baritone Barrington Lee and soprano Tiffany Abban, both based in New York.

In addition to Tuesday’s event, WRIF’s annual gala fundraiser on Friday night will double as a reception for the film — which Green will also introduce, when it screens next door at the Barrette Center for the Arts — with an after-party planned at Piecemeal Pies.

These events are, at least in part, meant to celebrate Franklin and the gift her music gave us.

“And I mean, you can’t deny that gift,” Green said. That rush one feels when Franklin really starts belting, that prickle of arm hairs when she carries a high note home — “it’s something that brings us all together. She brings us together, through her art, to a collective place.”

But the other part of Green’s aim is to use that shared experience of Franklin’s music as a way to open up “real conversations.” Which is to say necessary, and potentially difficult ones.

“My hope is, we’ll talk about what the industry is like, what it’s been like for them, and what and how things have changed since (Franklin’s) time,” Green said. And spoiler alert: “Opera remains very discriminatory. It’s an obviously elitist space.”

Green’s two-pronged vision for the screening events — as celebrations, but also conversation-starters — points to an important distinction: It’s one thing to enjoy the work that black artists produce. It’s another, harder thing to grapple with the painful social realities black artists face, and to incorporate that awareness into the way we engage with their work. For Franklin, who not only lived through the turbulent Civil Rights era but also survived a litany of personal traumas, her struggle was not simply a backdrop to her art — it was inseparable from her art.

“Oftentimes, when we do have these great performers like Aretha and Billie (Holiday), we bask in the beauty of their God-given talent without really having an understanding of the struggle it took for them to wake up every day and walk around in the world,” Green said. “I just think having that conversation is important, about who is represented on that stage, and how they got there.”

Though screening a first-run of such a buzzed-about film is a new move for WRIF — which over the past decade and a half has tended to focus on films that fly under the radar of mainstream attention — selecting films that highlight difficult social issues is by now part of the WRIF brand, said festival founder and board member Nora Jacobson.

“I’m just kind of amazed it’s been going on for 15 years, to tell you the truth. Fifteen years seems like a really long time. It honestly seems like a lifetime,” the Norwich-based filmmaker said in a phone interview Tuesday. “In terms of issues, race is a big one this year — that’s why it’s great to be partnering with Jarvis. But the films we select have always had strong social activist concerns, whether that’s looking at the criminal system, human rights, environment, art and culture, war and peace.”

Little Beeri’s March, which screens on Saturday night, addresses many of these topics, plus a few more: family, love, commerce, death — “and also borscht,” said John Griesemer, of Lyme, who directed the film with Woodsville-based Whittaker Ingbretson.

Loosely based on Bertolt Brecht and Margarete Steffin’s anti-war play Mother Courage and Her Children, the film started out as an entry in a film slam, a contest in which participants must make an entire short film from scratch, in an absurd time crunch. Little Beeri won, and over the next two years, it stretched out into what Griesemer described as “a vast epic in 25 minutes.”

Though Upper Valley audiences may spot familiar faces and places — the film was shot largely in Woodsville, and features an Upper Valley-based cast and crew, including Griesemer’s wife, Faith Catlin — Little Beeri is also intentionally defamiliarizing.

“It’s about a family who follows the armies of an unknown war, being fought for unknown reasons, in an unknown country,” Griesemer said. It’s also shot in black-and-white, during an undisclosed time period, with characters speaking in a made-up tongue.

Though the war is initially a boon to the family, who sell goods out of their old wagon, things take a turn when the youngest son, Beeri, is conscripted into one of the armies.

“That’s when it gets a little darker,” Griesemer said. “Also, it’s a musical.”

Other films on the WRIF lineup this year include TransMilitary, a documentary about transgender people serving in the military; The Grand Bizarre, an experimental travelogue examining global culture, by Dartmouth College associate professor Jodie Mack; The Modern Jungle (La Selva Negra), an ethnographic film about a shaman in Mexico that grapples, self-consciously, with its own questionable ethics and exploitations; The Lost City of Mer, Norwich-based Liz Canner’s interactive virtual reality project that allows users to discover the impacts of climate change on a mythical undersea world; and a double feature that examines two different, and frequently opposed, strains of fundamentalism.

“That one’s really interesting, because of how people say the extremes of either party can ultimately come together,” Jacobson said. “One (film subject) is Muslim fundamentalism, and the other is the white Aryan right. Both of the people in these groups are so rigid in their beliefs, and they think the people on the other side of it are as inflexible as they actually are.”

As with most WRIF screenings — ever since Jacobson realized, around three years ago, how hungry audiences were to unpack what they’d just seen — there will be opportunity for discussion after the films.

Despite the surrealness of WRIF hitting its 15-year mark, Jacobson has high future aspirations for the festival, mainly in finding it a space. WRIF now mostly screens its films at the Barrette Center, but the festival also has used the Briggs Opera House, the Tip Top Building, the Freight House and Hotel Coolidge as venues.

“We don’t have a home yet, and I’d love for us to have one. In terms of the future, I think that’s on the horizon — having our own, permanent home that could also act as a movie theater during the year,” she said.

As for Griesemer, who formerly served as president of the WRIF board, he’s just heartened to see the festival still going strong, especially given the rise of streaming services, such as Netflix.

“Just think of the way Netflix has changed the way we’re exposed to film. It’s so radically different,” he said. “But you know what? It doesn’t matter. People still want to sit in a room, together in the dark, and watch a movie.”

And, as opposed to the opera, there’s nothing too excessive, or exclusive, about that.

Jarvis Green, producing artistic director of JAG Productions, will hold a music recital and discussion about Aretha Franklin’s opera pursuits on Tuesday night, from 6:30 to 8:30, at The Village in White River Junction. While admission is free, tickets must be reserved through wrif.org.

The 15th White River Indie Festival will screen the Upper Valley premiere ofAmazing GraceFriday at 7:30, at the Barrette Center for the Arts in White River Junction, following a gala reception and fundraiser at The Village.

For ticketing information and the full festival program, go to wrif.org or call the box office at 802-281-3785.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at emmajeanholley@gmail.com.

Correction: Amazing Grace will screen at 7:30 on Friday, May 31, as part of the White River Indie Festival. The date of the screening was incorrect in a photo caption in an earlier version of this story.




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