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The Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival focuses on ‘films about film’

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(UMass Film Studies official Facebook page)

(UMass Film Studies Official Facebook Page)

The film studies program at the University of Massachusetts offers its students an interdepartmental education on all things cinema. But this time of year, it extends its resources to the greater community. Every Wednesday until April 20, students, faculty and the public are invited to experience film through a carefully curated collection.

Since its inception in 1993, the annual Massachusetts Multicultural Film Festival has showcased a mix of documentaries, feature films, animations and shorts. The festival features an eclectic mix of films strung together by the thread of a common theme that changes yearly.

Shawn Shimpach, interim director of the interdepartmental program in film studies, took over the role of curator for the MMFF last year.

“We’re doing this to spread the love of cinema,” Shimpach said.

For his first year, the theme, “Dislocations,” focused on those who find themselves pushed aside or threatened with invisibility. To fit the theme, last year’s festival showcased a film about an Israeli woman with amnesia (“Self Made”), an animated feature about depression (“Rocks in My Pockets”) and Rupert Julian’s 1925 silent film “The Phantom of the Opera” accompanied by a live performance from the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra.

Shimpach and other curators work together to design a lineup that appeals to the audience, satisfies the theme and includes a diverse mix of film forms, genres and cultures.

This year’s theme: “films about film.”

“Every year there’s a new treasure trove of brilliant works that are out there,” said Daniel Pope, UMass film studies professor and assistant curator for the festival.

“The thing about this particular festival is that more than ever … students have an extremely well developed sense of film culture and reading movies,” Pope said. “So I think it’s a really appealing theme for people who are already thinking in sophisticated ways about how films are made.”

Screenings are held on campus in the Flavin Family Auditorium, with the exception of the late Chantal Akerman’s “No Home Movie,” to be shown at Amherst Cinema in conjunction with its 10th anniversary. All events are free and open to the public. Now celebrating its 23rd year, the MMFF has a loyal following of five-college students, faculty and local residents from Amherst and the surrounding areas.

“We have some regulars that love to come every week and see what we have,” Shimpach said. “Other times it’s because the film resonates with them in some way and they want to come see it. It’s a huge variety.”

Sponsorship for the festival mainly comes from the colleges of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Humanities & Fine Arts. The colleges support the film studies program and provide funding for the release agreements required to screen the films. The funding also allows the festival to host visiting directors who share their creative process and backstory with the audience.

UMass alumna Pamela Yates will be present on March 30 to discuss her film, “Rebel Citizen.” Yates received several awards for her previous work, including the MacArthur grant for documentary film.

“She’s a true success story for anybody, anywhere, but it’s great that she’s a success story for (UMass),” Pope said.

Most notably, Cheryl Dunye will present her 1996 film, “The Watermelon Woman,” for the festival’s finale on April 20. Dunye wrote, directed, edited and starred in her award-winning feature that details the protagonist’s struggles to make a documentary about a 1930s African American actress.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, “The Watermelon Woman” is known as the first feature film directed by an African American lesbian.

“It was part of independent filmmaking, new queer cinema and independent African American cinema,” Shimpach said. “It influenced all three of those filmmaking modes which existed in the 1990s.”

This year, the festival will welcome directors to four of the screenings, but every film includes an introduction from a local scholar whose purpose is to give background and context to the story.

“They will have a film critic’s approach,” Pope said. “(They’re) giving us a sense of why it’s an interesting film and what it speaks to.”

This year’s edition of the MMFF is well stocked with material that fits the theme. Twelve countries are represented in this year’s lineup and only three films don’t require English subtitles. Audiences can enrich their lives with exposure to international films that tell unique stories – some highly relatable, some not at all.

At first glance, some of what will come to Flavin may not appear to be “Films about Film.” That’s certainly the case with this week’s selection, “10,000 Km.” None of the characters are making a movie, or talking about making a movie.

Set in Los Angeles and Barcelona, the dialogue includes English, Spanish and Catalan. With a two-person cast, the film focuses on a couple forced to spend one year in a long distance relationship. The use of technology plays a huge role in the film and the characters’ connection.

“(We’re) pushing the edges of films about film,” Shimpach said. “It’s about the screen and using moving-image technology as a bridge or a divide.”

Shimpach expects “10,000 Km” will likely resonate with students. The couple struggles to be creative with their connectivity. How do you have a romantic dinner over Skype? Or dance with your lover by cradling a laptop?

The film took home awards from several festivals, including Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Male Lead and Best Female Lead at the 2015 Gaudí Awards. The director, Carlos Marques-Marcet, will be present to discuss his film at the screening this Wednesday.

“It’s a wonderful directorial achievement,” Pope said.

With its diverse slate of international films, the MMFF offers the audience more than just a movie: it offers a new experience. The curators argue that watching a film streamed to your laptop doesn’t offer the same involvement as being part of an audience of people who are also reacting to the film.

“The collective experience is something that film scholars have noted as quite distinct from an isolated viewing of a film on a small screen,” Pope said.

When the MMFF began, its purpose was to offer audiences the chance to see cinema that can’t be found at the multiplex.

“It was a recognition that there were really important, beautiful, valuable films that students could only see if they were taking a class in which that film was being shown,” Pope said.

Twenty-three years later, in an age when nearly everything can be streamed, the MMFF is still achieving the same goal. Many of the films chosen lack an American release and therefore, are impossible to see at home.

“One of the considerations for our festival is what we are doing that goes above and beyond the kinds of things that are already available and already being done,” Pope said.

Once a film is chosen, Shimpach organizes fair compensation and permission to show the film to the festival audience. Five College students, faculty and the public then have the opportunity to see some of the few things one can’t find on the Internet.

“Not only is it a free movie, it’s a movie you can’t see any other way,” Shimpach said.

Pope pointed out the diversity in choices for this year’s festival.

“I think something like ‘Go-Go Boys’ is on one end of a spectrum that ‘Watermelon Woman’ will be on the other end of,” said Pope, referring to the brochure laid out in front of him as his finger jumped around the page. “That, alongside the Kurdish Genocide (‘Memories on Stone’) or someone who wants to make serious art films, but can’t get support (‘Why Can’t I Be Tarkovsky’) … it’s a huge variety.”

“This is going to be a lot of fun,” Pope said.

Yelena Rasic can be reached at [email protected]

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