The annual Ursinus film festival began this past Thursday with the films “White Helmets” and “Watani: My Homeland.” Both are short films about the Syrian Civil War, specifically about those caring for the wounded and seeking refuge from the travesties of war.
Film festival attendee and junior William Wehrs spoke about the effects the two films had on him. “It was extremely hard to watch. It was also very strange. There are some things you think of with war, like explosions, but then there was also the surreal. Like, at one point we saw an explosion and then we saw a girl running by in a Disney backpack. You don’t associate those two things.”
Ursinus’ International Film Festival was founded over two decades ago by French professor emerita, Dr. Collette Trout. It was formed as a way to introduce modern language students to the film and culture of the languages that they were studying. Each year the festival offers a film for every language taught at Ursinus.
The film festival is now run by media and communications professor Dr. Jennifer Fleeger and Japanese professor Dr. Matthew Mizenko.
According to Fleeger, three years ago “Dr. Mizenko and I decided that it would be an inter-esting idea to choose the films based on a theme. It used to be films from the contemporary era, say, the last five years or so, and good films that people would like to see. This year, we’re doing ‘documentary with an eye towards social justice.’”
Although attendance is mandatory for students in language classes, all students and Col-legeville locals are welcome.
Fleeger expressed her enthusiasm for the community involvement she has experienced over the years. “We’ve had some people [in the Collegeville community] who are completely dedicated to the festival, and that changes the conversation about the films we’re having. It’s a great way to bridge the gap between the college and the town.”
This year, the festival theme is documentary film. Wehrs spoke to the importance of this year’s theme.
“Documentaries are one of the best ways to build empathy because when you see a fiction film, even if it’s extremely real, there’s still a sense of removal that’s not there in documentaries,” Wehrs said.
The documentaries being shown this year offer a variety of perspectives on a range of subjects. Following last week’s Syrian films will be the Chinese film “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.” “Ai Wei-wei: Never Sorry” paints a portrait of the renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose politically themed work often makes him the target of the Chinese government. “Bonobos” tells a somewhat fictionalized account of the activities of the Belgian naturalist Claudine André in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as she studies and protects the bonobos, a rare primate species said to be one of the closest relatives of humans. “Minamata: The Victims and Their World” focuses on the residents of a small Japanese fishing village poisoned by mercury released by a fertilizer plant and the creation of a political movement seeking justice. “Oma and Bella” follows German filmmaker Alexa Karolinski’s grandmother and her friend, survivors of the Holocaust, as they teach Karolinski how to cook traditional Jewish food while reminiscing about their childhoods and addressing questions of heritage, memory, and identity. Finally, “Which Way Home,” nominated for the Academy Award for Documentary Feature, shows the personal stories of unaccompanied child migrants riding a freight train through Mexico in a courageous and resourceful attempt to enter the U.S.
Fleeger explained the motivation behind this year’s documentary theme. “We felt a social responsibility to think about what we could do, in our small way, to attempt to make the world a little bit better: We can foster discussion about real things that matter to real people, and issues that people might not think about every day.”
To add value to each viewing, specific professors were invited to lead discussions. Said Fleeger, “[Biology professor] Dr. Ellen Dawley, for example, will come when we see Bonobos, and talk about animals. [Professor of philosophy and religious studies] Christian Rice and [professor of politics] Dr. Becky Evans will talk about politics and civic engagement in relationship to the films from Syria. It brings the subject of the film in a much more real way to the audience.”
“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” will be shown on Sept. 28, “Bonobos” on Oct. 12, “Minamata: The Victims and Their World” on Oct. 26, “Oma and Bella” on Nov. 9, and “Which Way Home?” on Nov. 30. All films will be screened in Olin Auditorium at 7 p.m. and are open to the public.
Student Ben Susser has already proclaimed his excitement for the festival, “The films are eye-opening, and the discussions are richer than chocolate cake!”