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Doc Talk: Finding the world in Salem; going underground with Dinosaur Jr.

Anisa Al Raissi (left) and Misba Khan in "Exposure."Powderkeg Studios

“Come to Salem, see the world,” goes the wry slogan of the Salem Film Fest (March 24-April 3). But it’s no joke. The 28 documentary features offer access to fascinating, illuminating, and emotionally compelling worlds ranging from the Arctic to Afghanistan. (Full disclosure — I’m a member of the jury.)

Go to www.salemfilmfest.com.

Holly Morris and an all-women film crew trek to the frozen North for “Exposure” (2021), an account of a 2018 skiing expedition to the Pole compr—ising Arab and Western women who wanted to prove themselves and show their feminist solidarity. Some of the participants, like Misba Khan, a Pakistani-English mother and Muslim chaplain, have no experience in such endeavors; but as it turns out, her good-humored, compassionate spirit proves key to the mission’s success.


And it’s no walk in the park. They travel through the habitat of thousands of polar bears, braving cracks in the ice, frostbite, temperatures of minus-50 degrees Fahrenheit, and nagging self-doubts to reach their destination before the spring thaw renders it impossible. As it turns out, theirs may have been the last such mission for the foreseeable future because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian-Ukrainian war, and the inexorable encroachment of climate change.

“Exposure” screens March 26 at 1:30 p.m. at the Peabody Essex Museum and can be streamed online from March 28 at midnight to April 3 at 11:59 p.m. A Q&A with the filmmaker follows the in-person screening.

From "With This Breath I Fly."Development Pictures / Dirty Robber

Though many have looked forward with dread to the fate of women in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, Clementine Malpas and Sam French’s “With This Breath I Fly” (2021) suggests that conditions were not all that great to begin with. Even during the Allied occupation of the country, despite billions of Euros invested by the European Union, the Afghan justice system tended to fall back on patriarchal, misogynistic tradition when it came to women’s rights.


Malpas and French take up two such cases of inequity. Gulnaz had been raped and impregnated by her uncle and was jailed on morals charges. The authorities will release her only if she marries her attacker. Farida had been sold into marriage as a child to a degenerate who beat her with an iron bar and four times forced her to have miscarriages. No one would help her. When she tried to flee with her boyfriend, she was imprisoned for adultery. An American civil rights attorney fights for their freedom, while the filmmakers must fight the EU — which initially financed the movie — for the right to continue making it.

“With This Breath I Fly” screens March 25 at 7:05 p.m. at Cinema Salem and can be streamed online March 28 at midnight through April 3 at 11:59 p.m. A Q&A with French follows the in-person screening.

From "The Distant Barking of Dogs."Cinephil

The war in Ukraine has prompted the festival to bring back the winner of its special jury award in 2019, Simon Lereng Wilmont’s “The Distant Barking of Dogs” (2017). Shot while the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainians was simmering, it accompanies a young boy and his friends who wander the shell-shocked, desolate countryside and empty village streets while artillery fire crosses overhead. They come across the debris of war, including a loaded handgun.

“The Distant Barking of Dogs” can be streamed on Salem Film Fest’s Eventive Channel prior to the festival itself, until March 23. All proceeds will go to an online streaming fund-raiser for the Ukraine charity Voices for Children. Go to watch.eventive.org/salemfilmfest2022.


Go to www.salemfilmfest.com.

Dino Mascis, from "Freakscene."Rapid Eye Movie

Notes from underground

Fittingly, the Boston Underground Film Festival (March 23-27) has programmed a documentary about one of the most influential, eclectic, ecstatic, and gnarly underground bands of the past four decades.

Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr.” (2021) by Philipp Reichenheim (a.k.a. Philipp Virus) opens with a gray-haired and whiskery fellow driving through the streets of Amherst during a snowstorm. He is J Mascis, songwriter and lead man for the seminal alt-rock and grunge band of the title. In laid-back, sotto voce tones reminiscent of Steven Wright or Frank Zappa, he recalls the 1980s genesis of the band.

As a kid he would plays drums (he later switched to guitar) while listening to 33 r.p.m. hard-core LPs speeded up to 45 r.p.m. He hated hippies. He put eggs in his hair and in many other ways stood out from his high school peers because of his defiant weirdness. By 11th grade he and his pal and acolyte Lou Barlow (who is interviewed in what looks like an attic) had released a single; and with the addition of drummer Murph (interviewed somewhere in the woods) they followed the path of many bands before them. They made records and they toured nonstop in a van, with one memorable episode involving breakdowns, both vehicular and mental, occurring in a small town in Idaho.


What distinguished them from the rest of the groups, however, was the intensity of their dysfunctional family dynamics, with Mascis often in the role of abusive father. Nonetheless, they achieved fame and went on international tours and had gigs on TV programs like the “Late Show with David Letterman.” By the time their third album, “Bug,” came out in 1988, the strain of passionate creativity mixed with unresolved hostilities led to Barlow being fired in 1989. Murph exited a few years later. Mascis would pull the plug in 1997.

Despite the infighting (since resolved, apparently, as the group has reunited), or maybe because of it, Dinosaur Jr. influenced the likes of Nirvana and Sonic Youth (Kim Gordon of the latter is interviewed in the film) and other notable bands. Several of their songs, such as “Freak Scene” of the film’s title and “Feel the Pain” (my personal favorite) have been enshrined on various “Best of …” lists.

In telling their story Reichenheim captures the jagged, rapid-fire rhythms of his subject, abruptly intercutting interviews with archival footage of performances and music videos, a ragged collage that is kind of like a ‘zine from that era. The film is an homage to a past phenomenon and an examination of the creative spark that has since brought it back to life.

“Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr.” screens March 24 at 5:15 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre. Go to bostonunderground.org/schedule/2022/feature/freakscene-the-story-of-dinosaur-jr.

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