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Looking at the documentary side of this year’s Woods Hole Film Festival

From "The Story Won't Die."
From "The Story Won't Die."Woods Hole Film Festival

“Art can talk about politics,” says Tammam Azzam, one of the exiled Syrian artists in David Henry Gerson’s “The Story Won’t Die,” which screens at the Woods Hole Film Festival (July 31-Aug. 7). “But politics can’t ever talk about art.”

Gerson’s documentary (it screens Aug. 2, at 7:30 p.m., at the Cotuit Center for the Arts) is one of several in the festival that ponder the nature of politics and art. In this case it is art and politics in extremis, as it follows the post-exile careers of those swept up in the Syrian diaspora, fleeing the chaos of civil war and the tyranny of a regime where a rapper can be imprisoned and tortured for months for his lyrics.


Azzam, who lives in Berlin, creates collages and other visual art in which he superimposes images by Klimt, Goya, and other artists on pictures of the ruined buildings and rubble-filled streets of razed Syrian cities. He recalls the initial exhilaration of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad in 2011. “It lasted about two weeks,” he says. Then it was replaced by the mounting terror of seeing people killed every day or taken away and never seen again.

All have horror stories to tell, such as Diala Brisly, in Paris, an illustrator whose brother was forcibly drafted into the Syrian army and who stepped on a landmine and was killed. She had a promising career working on children’s television shows before she fled the country. Now she incorporates the carnage she has witnessed in graphic novels. In one picture, a little girl sits on a hospital bed, both legs amputated and bandaged, with bloodstained teddy bear next to her. “When I get better and have legs again,” the girl says, “I’m going to step on Bashar’s head.”

Those from poorer backgrounds who couldn’t afford an easy transfer faced trauma in the journey from Syria to Europe. For choreographer Medhat Aldaabal it took over a year of hardship to make it to Berlin, where he now has his studio. In the course of his sojourn he slept on the streets, in Lebanon, Istanbul, and Greece, freezing and starving but persevering. “Luckily I’m an artist,” he says, “so I have space to use these memories.”


From "Restart 2020"
From "Restart 2020"Woods Hole Film Festival

Though their circumstances are not nearly as tragic as those in “The Story Won’t Die,” the New Bedford artists in Drew Furtado’s “Restart 2020” (Aug. 4, 5:15 p.m., the Cotuit Center for the Arts) face challenges as well, not least of which is being an artist in New Bedford.

For many years disdained as a depressed city ravaged by crime, unemployment, and drugs, New Bedford recently has seen a renaissance of sorts, as painters, musicians, and others have found a home there. Their presence has attracted new businesses and transformed the downtown into an attractive destination.

But New Bedford has been a microcosm of the country’s recent troubles, such as racial discord and political divisiveness. These issues have influenced the local artists who have incorporated them in their work. In “The Hive” project, Kat Knudsen painted hexagonal portraits of some of the local people who brought the city together; and Alison Wells in her “In the Neighborhood,” series has created layered images of New Bedford’s diversity and history in striking, palimpsest-like canvases. Knudsen had plans for a gallery show for her project, and Wells’s works were scheduled to be exhibited in the New Bedford Whaling Museum when COVID-19 shut everything down. How they adapted and turned the crisis to their advantage is, like their artwork, an inspiration.


For the teenage activists in Skye Wallin’s “American Gadfly” (Aug. 5, 6:15 p.m., Redfield Auditorium, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) politics is not so much the art of the possible as it is the art of the implausible. Confronted by a world needing radical change, they seek out a Democratic presidential candidate who is somewhat to the left of Bernie Sanders. They learn about former Senator Mike Gravel (D-Alaska), who in 1971 read into the Congressional Record the Pentagon Papers — which revealed decades of lies by the government about the Vietnam War. He also ran a quixotic campaign for president, in 2008, and managed to land a spot in some of the Democratic debates. At 89, he agreed to campaign again with the kids in charge.

No one was under any illusion that he will win, but they were hoping that once again Gravel might serve as a gadfly, pushing the other candidates to more liberal positions on climate change, the military budget, and a direct democracy agenda. To that end, the young activists commandeered Gravel’s Twitter account, tweeting out barbs about the other candidates to stir them out of their complacency. The campaign gained traction, built a following, and gained respect from other political operators and pundits (“They are not dilettantes,” says one of the latter in the film). Suspense builds as it closes in on where Gravel can reach the total of 65,000 unique donors necessary to participate in the debates.


Gravel, a Springfield native who died last month, at 91, didn’t win the nomination. But those in his campaign team are just getting started.

All three films are also available for streaming, beginning July 31, at 8 a.m. Go to www.woodsholefilmfestival.org.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.