WOODSTOCK - The Woodstock Film Festival opened Wednesday with a ballet.
A packed house at the Bearsville Theater viewed the "The Fiddle and the Drum," a ballet choreographed by Jean Grand Maitre of the Alberta Ballet Company and performed to the music of Joni Mitchell.
Meira Blaustein, executive director and co-founder of the eighth annual festival, called the opening "perfect."
"We are opening and closing the festival with cultural icons," she said. The five-day festival will close with the narrative feature "I'm Not There," which was inspired by the life of folk rock icon Bob Dylan, a former Woodstock resident.
Blaustein said Americans are engaging in many of the same political debates they were during Dylan's era, and that the festival features "films that make a statement."
"The Fiddle and the Drum," which evoked themes ranging from sex to war to the environment, indeed made a statement.
"That's why I loved it," said Joan Apter, 59, of Woodstock. "We can rely on Joni to cut through all of the mindless entertainment and give us something timely - food for the soul."
One of the primary messages of the ballet, Apter said, was simply that "war is hell." Even so, the performance left her feeling hopeful.
"It makes you feel how precious freedom of expression is," Apter said. "Despite the war-mongering, economic, environmental, and all of the other problems our civilization faces, it really made me appreciate how lucky we are to be free to express ideas and dissent."
Blaustein said the filmmakers care about the world in which they live, and a medium as popular as film will send their messages to millions.
"Joni doesn't want escapist entertainment with everything going on in the world," Chrissy Glenn, of the Pearl Art Gallery in Stone Ridge and curator of a recent Joni Mitchell art exhbition, said. "She feels the need to speak out."
Many also expressed appreciation of "The Fiddle and the Drum" as a work of art.
"It was beautifully choreographed," Glenn said. "They spent so much time and effort on the details - for example, Joni wanted the dancers to time their movements with the first beats, and Maitre wanted the dancing to be a metaphor for the change in social and political consciousness that Joni's music aims to cause."
Roland Marzulo, 65, of Brooklyn, is a fan of Mitchell and was excited to hear new material from her upcoming album "Shine."
"She is a superstar, like the singers of yesteryear," Marzulo said.
Some young filmmakers present at the screening also offered their opinions.
Luke Eberl, the writer, director, and producer of "Choose Connor," a film premiering Friday night in Rosendale, said Mitchell's voice in the ballet was "overproduced."
"Her lyrics are amazing and her voice is still beautiful," Eberl said. "But, in the '60s and '70s, it was so naked and honest - I'm afraid that the extra production takes away from her message."
Another criticism of the ballet came from Sylvia Zinn, 68. "Why weren't there any black dancers?" she asked.
The festival continues with dozens of screenings of independent films through the weekend. Today, the festival will feature two screenings of "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly," about a French editor who awakens from a coma, unable to communicate with the outside world in any manner other than blinking his left eye. Both screenings are sold out.
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