GREAT BARRINGTON and PITTSFIELD -- Now in its ninth season, the Berkshire International Film Festival has become as sure a sign of the arrival of spring as the greening of the surrounding Berkshire hills.
"There is this whole ritual that takes place," said founder and executive director Kelley Vickery, immersed in the build-up that begins weeks before the showing of the first film. "There is the announcing of the films, and people getting their programs and tickets and asking me what I think they would like to see. It is such fun for the community."
This year's festival, at the Triplex and the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington and the Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield, gets underway today -- Thursday, May 29 -- and wraps up on Sunday, June 1. Seventy-five features, documentaries and short films from 18 countries will cross the screens and, as always, many of the film-makers will come to discuss their works at the screenings and in bustling local restaurants and taverns.
BIFF, which has opened with a documentary for the past eight years, will break with tradition Thursday at the Mahaiwe with the drama, "May In The Summer." Written and directed by and starring Cherien Dabis, the film chronicles the visit of May, a successful author, to Amman, Jordan, to visit her Jordanian mother and American diplomat father, who are divorced, and her two contentious younger sisters.
"The Berkshire International Film Festival should open with an international film," Vickery said, laughing.
She saw "May In The Summer" at the Sundance Film Festival, where she also met Dabis.
"It's so topical," she said, "about culture clashes and families and the dynamics of sisters."
Dabis will be on hand to discuss her film.
Pittsfield's opening night film, Friday, is "The Trip to Italy," the inevitable sequel to Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's hilarious "The Trip" of 2010. Having explored northern England and its restaurants, the two comedians, friendly rivals whose dueling impersonations of Michael Caine were a highlight of the first film, enjoy the exquisite food and wine of Italy.
"This is every bit as funny as the original," Vickery said in a phone interview. "I absolutely loved it. These guys are so funny, so inventive. I just can't get enough of them."
The film will also close out the festival Sunday night at the Mahaiwe.
In the marquee position Saturday night at 7 at the Mahaiwe, the documentary, "Battered Bastards of Baseball," gives an account of the free-wheeling Portland Mavericks, an independent baseball team that shook up the establishment in the 1970s. Directors Chapman and Maclain Way and Mavericks hurler and former major leaguer Jim Bouton, now a South Berkshire resident, will take part in a discussion after the film.
Vickery predicts that "Obvious Child," starring Jenny Slate as an aspiring comic who loses her job and her boyfriend and learns she is pregnant -- with Valentine's Day around the corner, will be a sleeper hit this year. Another coup for BIFF is a screening of "Venus In Fur," the latest from the always controversial writer-director, Roman Polanski.
While documentaries have always shared equal billing with feature films at BIFF, they have, with the exception of the occasional break-out doc like Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" or the work of provocateur Michael Moore, generally been regarded as second-class citizens in the marketplace. With documentaries coming into their own for their topicality and artistry, that has begun to change.
Among the documentaries showing at BIFF is "Ivory Tower," which assesses the college experience at a time when students are graduating with huge debts and poor job prospects. "Slingshot" explores ways to solve the planet's clean water crisis and "The Case Against 8" goes inside the effort to legalize gay marriage in California. "Freedom Summer" looks back at the fight for civil rights in the American South 50 years ago, while "Plot for Peace" looks back at the fight to end apartheid in South Africa.
"Miss Hill: Making Dance Matter" and "Paul Taylor Creative Domain" make for a dance double feature.
"I am amazed at the diversity of documentaries right now," Vickery said. "Truth really is stranger than fiction."
Presentation of the "Next Great Filmmaker Award," designed to encourage makers of short films, is one of the highlights of the festival, and Vickery said with pride that the winner two years ago, Sarah-Violet Bliss, will return this year as the writer-director of "Fort Tilden," which chronicles the adventures of two 20-something female friends enjoying a summer day at the beach, while pondering where they are going next in life. The movie won the grand jury prize at the prestigious South by Southwest Film Festival.
"So you see, we're not just saying that," Vickery said wryly. "The winner really is the next great filmmaker."
If you go ...
What: Berkshire Independent
When: Thursday, May 24,
to Sunday, June 1
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington and the Beacon in Pittsfield