GREAT BARRINGTON — Creative types, including filmmakers, are frequently captivated by other artists; so painters, photographers, and their brethren regularly turn up as documentary subjects. But two marquee selections in this year’s Berkshire International Film Festival stand out: They do not dash dryly through histories of artistic greatest hits, but capture their subjects, in action, as they do some of their best work.
The seventh annual incarnation of the festival, featuring 70 films spread among the Triplex Cinema and Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, in Great Barrington, and Pittsfield’s Beacon Cinema, runs Thursday through next Sunday.
“You see them producing some kind of work,” director Ben Shapiro says about the protagonists of most artist-centered docs, “but their most important work already happened, off-camera.”
Yet Shapiro’s “Brief Encounters,” which closes the BIFF, catches up with Berkshires-based photographer Gregory Crewdson just in time to reveal the epic process behind the elaborately staged photographs for which he’s known. As shown in the film, Crewdson required dozens of crew members, plus street closures, and the occasional burning house, to pull them off.
Crewdson, who lives in North Egremont, has created most of his life’s work in the area, particularly Pittsfield and nearby Lee. Highly stylized tableaux, his quietly eerie photos display a cinematic sweep. “Brief Encounters” shows him spontaneously recruiting photo subjects in the street, as inspiration strikes.
“One of the reasons I continue to photograph in the same area over a lifetime is because you do become a known factor,” Crewdson explains. “In that way it’s easier to close a street down or set a house on fire — or whatever you’re going to do.”
Friday’s centerpiece is “The Artist Is Present,” a documentary following Marina Abramovic as she prepares her 2010 show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art — that museum’s first-ever career retrospective of a performance artist. As befits the nature of her medium, Abramovic included a new piece for the occasion, a heroic test of endurance lasting over 700 hours and eventually viewed by a quarter of a million museum visitors.
Directed by Matthew Akers, the film shows Abramovic’s ambition for the show: not merely to underline the prominence of her own work, but to finally situate performance art as a mainstream genre.
The film wrings unexpected drama from this performance, for which Abramovic sat nearly motionless in the museum’s atrium for six days a week throughout the run of the exhibition. Themselves considered part of the performance, museum patrons waited in line, often for days at a time, to sit in a chair facing her.
“I wanted to create a film that gives the large public access to the performance world, to understand what performance [art] is,” the Yugoslavian-born artist says in a telephone interview. “There is such a huge number of performance people in the ’70s who have just given up this form of art,” she adds, “and I never did. So I thought it is my obligation to create a space for performance that was not created before.”
Rory Kennedy’s intimate biography of her mother, “Ethel,” opens the festival at the Mahaiwe on Thursday. (Several Kennedys are expected to attend.) Highlights among narrative features include “Liberal Arts,” directed by and starring Josh Radnor, best known for his work on CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother,” as well as director Jean-Marc Vallée’s “Café de Flore,” which cross-cuts artfully between two intimate stories separated by 40 years. “Farewell, My Queen” is Benoit Jacquot’s depiction of four days in the French Revolution.
Festival founder and director Kelley Vickery says she decided to forgo the usual tribute night (special effects guru Douglas Trumbull was last year’s honoree) after successfully recruiting the charismatic Abramovic for a post-screening Q&A.
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