For years now, the Academy of Music in Northampton has played host to the annual KidsBestFest film festival. It’s a free week-long event (donations are welcome) that mixes great kid-centric movies from around the world with a local event known as YouthFilm, which gives youthful local filmmakers the chance to have their work shown on the Academy’s big screen. The festival is scheduled to coincide with the school vacation week each year, giving parents and kids a great indoor activity to help break up the winter days. As the father of three, let me tell you firsthand: in the slushy doldrums of a New England winter, this is no small thing.
It’s on again this week, and the first film out of the chute is not one to miss. The Eagle Huntress, screening at 1:30 p.m. on Monday afternoon, is director Otto Bell’s 2016 documentary delight that tells the story of Aisholpan, a 13-year-old Kazakh girl who takes up — and excels at — the traditionally male-dominated tradition of eagle-hunting, in which hunters on horseback send eagles out from a perch on their arm to hunt smaller game. To Western viewers especially, whose fights on the equality front are perhaps more likely to feature play than prey, Aisholpan’s story may seem otherworldly, or like a Disney film come to life.
Part of that otherworldliness comes from the remarkable Mongolian landscape, which forms the backdrop for the film: snow-covered steppes and rocky cliff faces such as the one the young girl climbs early in the film to capture the eaglet that will become her hunting companion (some of the scenes seem so cinematic that Bell has been accused of staging them for dramatic effect; he has denied that the film is anything but documentary). But much of it comes simply from seeing someone whose remarkable experience is so unlike our own — and yet whose triumphs and yearnings will feel utterly familiar to any of us, at any age. If you’re a parent hunting for a bit of inspiration for your little one this week (note that there are a couple of scenes showing animals being hunted, but nothing terribly gory), The Eagle Huntress will be hard to beat.
Speaking of Disney films, the very next day (also at 1:30 p.m.) the festival brings in The Little Mermaid, the popular adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale which Disney transformed into a musical tidal wave. The story of teenaged mermaid Ariel, who longs to become human, and Eric, the human prince who falls in love with her voice, The Little Mermaid ushered in a new era of animation for Disney, leading directly to The Lion King, Frozen, and beyond.
And on Wednesday, director Andrew Garrison’s film Trash Dance follows choreographer Allison Orr as she joins city trash workers on their daily routes, learning their routines and ultimately convincing some two dozen of them to join her for an odd but fascinating performance involving them, their trash trucks, and an abandoned airport runway.
Also this week: one of the most talked about films of the year arrives at Amherst Cinema when I Am Not Your Negro begins what will hopefully be a good long run. Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck begins with the 30 completed pages of author James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript (he died before it could be completed) and crafts a bracing film that is perhaps more timely now than it ever would have been. Penned as a remembrance of Baldwin’s friends Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, his book, originally titled Remember This House, has been transformed into an up-to-date meditation on race in America, drawing a line from the Civil Rights movement straight through to the hashtag revolution of today’s Black Lives Matter activists. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story,” intones narrator Samuel L. Jackson, and it’s surely true. But with Baldwin’s words leading the way, the discussion will be a frank, rich one that leaves us all better than we were before.
Contact Jack Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.