Ira Glass from This American Life merges radio and dance with Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass — cartoonist and TV host David Rees explains the best way to sharpen pencils — jazz clarinetist David Rothenberg plays music with humpback whales … this doesn’t sound like a documentary film festival.
In fact, it’s a film festival bursting its bounds into a celebration of new technology, broadening perspectives and connections between people across the world.
This weekend, today through Sunday, Oct. 18, the Wind-Up Fest will bring a host of innovative storytellers in many forms to Williamstown and North Adams: films and film-makers, podcasts, National Public Radio, New Yorker humorists and performers.
“It’s a festival of nonfiction storytelling in all flavors and colors — live performances, audio, storytelling, journalism, longform,” said artistic director Paul Sturtz.
It comes as the new incarnation of Williamstown Film Festival, an annual event since 1999. Sturtz, the founder of Independent Film and Media Art, launched the True/False Festival of documentary film in Columbia Missouri in 2003, and True/False has grown exponentially since then; it sold more than 45,000 tickets 10 years later.
He began working with Wind-Up Managing Director Sandra Thomas last spring, he said, to re-create the festival from scratch: to build a team and a geographic identity
signal to the world that the festival is different.
He chose the new name, Wind-Up Fest, without the word “film” in it.
“The name has a kinetic quality,” he said.
He considered the industrial history of the area, the closing factories and the damage they caused, but for him a turning crank also carries positive imagery: forward-looking, energetic. So he has created a festival built around documentary films that range from the Louisiana bayou to a retreat center for veterans — and surrounded them with talks and performances ranging from comic to contemplative.
On one end, on Friday afternoon archivist Rich Remsberg of North Adams will host a History Jukebox gameshow with vintage newsreels. On the other, on Sunday director and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson will talk about her newest film in progress, “The Blind Eye,” a film about the making of film, her passion for her work and the dilemma of the person behind the camera telling someone else’s story.
“There’s a lot of interest in making the camera more relevant, showing the process, holding back the curtain and letting people in,” Sturtz said. “It’s exciting. “[We want to] make it into an event, not a stagnant medium played six times a day in a multiplex. There’s a thirst and hunger for community, dialog, an authentic experience that goes beyond something on a screen.”
For him, blending film and performance, documentaries and podcasts goes beyond compelling entertainment.
“There’s such a breakdown in civic culture in this country,” he said. “Technological breakthroughs from air conditioning to streetcars have pushed people indoors, away from the easy sociability of urban life. Festivals are reanimating that urban lifestyle — people rubbing up against something they don’t know. It goes beyond the desire to present entertainment. It’s a space where people can feel it’s a worthwhile adventure to be in a room with strangers.
“The mission of festivals is much grander than a red carpet and celebrities. It’s a community-building exercise. That’s what gets me going.”
So he has brought in innovators like Nick van der Kolk, creator of the boundary-pushing podcast “Love and Radio,” and Rees, who knows the best way to do everything from shaking hands to tying shoes. Rees makes nonfiction performance fresh and different, Sturtz said.
“His performances are not completely tongue-in-cheek. He’s bringing something like pencil sharpening to a high art. It’s refreshing in a modern world where we’re encouraged to skate over everything.”
And Scott Carrier from This American Life tells heart-breaking stories with a light touch and a sense of humor, a rich processing of life.
Wind-up Fest celebrates bright minds using all kinds of storytelling tools in new and unexpected ways and surging against the boundaries of their fields — saxophone with singing whales, dance with radio, live documentary film — turning out new senses of what a form can do.
New tools have evolved for longform journalism, Remsberg said, and more people have these tools in their hands.
“I love that about podcasts,” he said. “Programs that come out of someone’s basement can be less polished but have interesting history you don’t find anywhere else. It contributes to a composite telling of history — this beautiful thing, a mental landscape of America. [We have a new appreciation for who’s out there at the other end of the soundwaves.”
More people have the means to tell stories and to share their stories with the world.
“It’s thrilling time we’re in, [because more people can tell stories]” Johnson agreed. “…It’s a global conversation, people can weigh in, in all kinds of ways.”
She welcomes new voices and perspectives, like Remsberg, while valuing the work and skill in good storytelling in any form.
“I’ve filmed for 25 years,” she said, “and now everyone has a Smartphone. Anyone can create a film, but what are they filming and how? Those of us who are professional [understand] experience is valuable.”
“When someone catches real life, it bursts off the screen,” Sturtz agreed, “and people want to meet the director.”
That kind of energy gives him hope for the documentary form.
“In the last 13 or 14 years, low-cost portable cameras and quality images have been transformative,” he said. “They have allowed filmmakers to go places they wouldn’t have before and gather hundreds of hours of film. You still need the skill of a professional editor — that’s what separates a decent film from a great one.”