UpDocs, Upstate Film’s weeklong series of great documentaries, May 18-24

This Way of Life (directed by Thomas Burstyn) tells the story of a horse-loving Maori family in a remote part of New Zealand.

It’s hard to beat Hollywood movie fare when you’re feeling burnt out and looking for a little light, escapist entertainment. But at other times, many of us want something to see that exercises more than two or three brain cells, and even has some meaning in the real world. That’s when docs really rock.

Most weeks, it’s tough to find a good documentary in A Theatre Near You. So if you love this genre as much as I do, you owe it to yourself not to miss UpDocs. It’s a wonderful gift that our friends at Upstate Films are bestowing upon the mid-Hudson cultural scene for the full week of May 18 through 24, with a number of the featured films to be screened in both Rhinebeck and Woodstock.

The selection of documentaries to be shown at UpDocs spans the globe and penetrates some of America’s quirkier corners. One cited as a favorite by Upstate Films staff members – and a title that they’ve been trying to bring to these shores for over a year now – is This Way of Life (directed by Thomas Burstyn, 2009), a gorgeous portrait of a horse-loving Maori family in a remote part of New Zealand. If you were knocked out by the scenery in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings flicks, or you’re at all interested in the ways in which families weather challenging times and instill strong values in their children, then this movie is for you. It will screen at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 18 in Woodstock and at 8:15 p.m. on Sunday, May 20 in Rhinebeck.

Elsewhere in the South Pacific, you may have heard of the efforts of Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldive Islands, to get the United Nations to help his low-lying country, which will be the first in the world to be entirely submerged as sea levels rise with global climate change. The Island President (Jon Shenk, 2011) tells the story of the Maldives’ struggle for survival as one atoll after another vanishes beneath the waves. It screens on Friday, May 18 at 4:30 in Rhinebeck and on Saturday, May 19 at 5:30 in Woodstock.

The title Five Cameras (2011) is a literal reference to what it took for a young Palestinian man named Emad Burnat to film his documentary, beginning with the day when his first son was born in 2005 and his village in the West Bank was simultaneously attacked by Israeli forces. For the next five years he brought his camera to every demonstration against the evictions, wall-building and Israeli settlements being erected at the fringes of their small community. Each time a camera was destroyed – usually by being tossed to the ground or shot with a bullet – he got a new one. Now that’s cinema vérité. It will be shown on Monday, May 21 at 5:45 in Rhinebeck and Tuesday, May 22 at 7:30 in Woodstock.

Another view of the strife-torn Mideast comes from sergeant Nathan Harris, an American soldier whose leg was shattered in Afghanistan. The story of his harrowing experiences both on the battle lines and in readjusting to the home front is told in Hell and Back Again (Danfung Dennis, 2011), which won last year’s Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary. Iraq veteran Derek McGee will speak at the screening in Rhinebeck on Sunday, May 20 at 5:45 p.m.

Two Bantu families, refugees from the war in Somalia, encountered different kinds of difficulties when they relocated to the US. Rain in a Dry Land (Anne Makepeace, 2006) documents the culture shock of their first two years here, as they find jobs, pay bills and navigate the mysteries of the American supermarket. Director Makepeace will introduce her film in person on Tuesday, May 22 at 8 p.m. in Rhinebeck.

A film that should appeal to fans of maverick documentarian Errol Morris’ homages to America’s enclaves of weirdness is Darwin by Swiss director Nick Brandestini (2011). Nestled in inhospitable Death Valley near a top-secret weapons station and the burnt remnants of the ranch where Charles Manson was arrested, Darwin, California’s 35 denizens carve a life for themselves in a town with few jobs, no organized religion, no government and little water. While some residents bury weapons caches, hoard food supplies and tend survival gardens in preparation for the Apocalypse predicted by their postmistress, others have comfortable homes amid vast desert vistas and talk of the comfort that they find in an end-of-the-road kind of life. See Darwin in Rhinebeck on Saturday, May 19 at 6:45 p.m. or Thursday, May 24 at 6 p.m., or in Woodstock on Sunday, May 20 at 5:30 p.m.

Two films set in the American South are also on the agenda. General Orders No. 9 (Robert Persons, 2009) is set on the outskirts of ever-growing Atlanta, Georgia. A poetic elegy for a disappeared landscape, the film gets at the essential components of our communities that live off the land by consuming it. It will show on Friday, May 18 at 9:15 in Rhinebeck and Saturday, May 19 at 8 p.m. in Woodstock. Kati with an I (Robert Greene, 2010) is a gradually unfolding portrait of a high school senior living in rural Alabama who has a traumatic secret. Director Greene will speak at the screenings on Saturday, May 19 at 4 p.m. in Rhinebeck and Thursday, May 24 at 7:30 in Woodstock.

There are lots more documentaries on the schedule – too many to detail them all. There’s a biopic about Harry Belafonte; an exposé of the ugly realities behind the pink façade of Susan G. Komen for the Cure; the story of Kevin Clash, the hand and voice behind Sesame Street’s Elmo; docs about the locavore movement, the Icelandic rock band Inni, what Hurricane Irene did to Schoharie and the plight of the wild rabbits who used to find refuge in the No Man’s Land between the two courses of the Berlin Wall. And Tobe Carey’s Sweet Violets will screen in Woodstock for the first time.

Somewhere amongst all these titles (and more), there’s at least one documentary that will stick in your mind forever. Check out the rest of the schedule at https://https://upstatefilms.org/film-series/updocs, and make sure that you come on out! You definitely won’t be able to catch these remarkable films at your local multiplex.






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  1. I think this documentary is going to be a hit in my family. We too love horses and the natural blessings around us. After watching the trailer, I see my own family in his. Aloha from Waimea, Hawaii Island, the Keakealani ‘Ohana

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