Independent Film Festival Boston, the gold standard of New England’s many film festivals, enters its 13th year on April 22-29 with a lineup of 21 narrative films and 41 documentary features carefully curated by program director Nancy Campbell, managing director Brian Tamm and associate director Judy Wong. Throughout the year, the tight-knit trio tirelessly attends other festivals—such as Sundance and SXSW—to track down and acquire the movie selections that help our eight-day filmgoing feast rival the festivals mounted in Park City and Austin.
But it’s not just the films that make this festival something special. The organizers of IFFBoston strive to connect audience members with visiting filmmakers—and with one another. Poster artwork for the festival encapsulates this communal theme: Under a star-filled sky, a marshmallow is toasted on a stick, and the smoke forms the words “Gather ’Round,” as though stories passed down for generations are about to be shared around a campfire.
There won’t be any outdoor screenings at IFFBoston—films are spread out across the area’s independent movie houses, the Somerville, Brattle and Coolidge Corner Theatres—but storytelling remains at the fore.
“This fest is enormously important to me,” says David Chen, the first-time director of The Primary Instinct, a stage-set documentary starring character actor Stephen Tobolowsky. While you probably don’t know his name (yet), you’ll likely recognize the performer who’s appeared in more than 200 films and television shows during the past four decades. Who can forget Ned Ryerson from Groundhog Day? That’s Tobolowsky. Chen, who grew up in Chelmsford and Lexington, first met “Tobo” (as Chen affectionately calls him) when the actor appeared as a guest on The/Filmcast, the popular podcast Chen began recording in Boston back in 2008, more than 300 episodes ago. A rapport was formed, and the two spun off a separate successful podcast, The Tobolowsky Files, where the actor shares his profoundly funny and moving stories about life, love and the entertainment industry.
In The Primary Instinct, Chen captures Tobolowsky delivering a captivating monologue in front of a packed audience at the majestic Moore Theatre, a 1,400-seat performance space in Seattle, Chen’s home for the past three years. His subject masterfully uses the art of storytelling as he tries to answer the question “Why do we tell stories?”
“IFFBoston is the first film festival I ever went to,” Chen says by phone, telling a story of his own. When he attended the seventh edition in 2009, he recalls, “I was a fest newbie.”
He was also hooked. Even though he accepted a new job in 2012 that would take him to the Pacific Northwest, he made sure not to fly out until the morning after catching The Queen of Versailles,
IFFBoston’s closing-night film that year.
On April 26 at 7:30 pm, he returns to Boston for a special screening of his documentary ahead of its official world premiere later this year. Chen and Tobolowsky will introduce the film in the Somerville Theatre’s main house and answer audience questions after.
Theirs isn’t the only standout documentary. Festival favorite Bobcat Goldthwait returns with his first nonfiction film: Call Me Lucky, a deeply affecting portrait of former Boston Phoenix columnist Barry Crimmins. Goldthwait highlights Crimmins’ immeasurable contributions to Boston comedy before delving into a painful past that sparked his activism.
Meanwhile, Maddy Myers, another former writer for The Phoenix who covers video games as Paste Magazine’s assistant editor, is one of the subjects of GTFO, Shannon Sun-Higginson’s look at the rampant misogyny that plagues the male-dominated electronic entertainment industry. Then there’s Stray Dog, directed by Debra Granik, who won IFFBoston’s Audience Award and Special Jury Prize for 2010’s Winter’s Bone, the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. Now, Granik focuses her camera on biker Ron Hall in this cinema vérité portrait of the Vietnam vet, whom she met on the earlier set.
It’s not all docs, though. There are a number of narrative highlights, like the New England premiere of The End of the Tour from director James Ponsoldt, who’ll be in attendance. Opening the festival in Somerville at 7:30 pm on April 22, it’s based on the true story of a days-long interview between the late writer David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel) and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg).
Closing the fest at the Coolidge at 7:30 pm on April 29 is another New England premiere: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Featuring Nick Offerman and Jon Bernthal, this coming-of-age tale about a teenage filmmaker (Thomas Mann) befriending a sick classmate was adapted from his own novel by Jesse Andrews, who will be on hand for a Q&A.
Former Bostonian Andrew Bujalski, accidental father of the mumblecore movement, makes a return appearance at IFFBoston with Results, a comedy starring Kevin Corrigan, Guy Pierce and Cobie Smulders. Also promising is Bob and the Trees, Diego Ongaro’s feature-length expansion of his narrative short about a rural Massachusetts logger with a weakness for golf and gangster rap that garnered cheers at 2011’s festival.
With nearly 100 film screenings, including 23 narrative and 24 documentary shorts, there’s more than enough to satisfy every viewer. So, grab a bag of marshmallows and head to the movies. But please, no toasting—any fire best remains an onscreen special effect.
Independent Film Festival Boston runs April 22-29 at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square, the Brattle Theatre in Harvard Square, the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline and UMass Boston in Dorchester. For a complete schedule and information on tickets, festival passes, memberships, filmmaker Q&A sessions, film panels, parties and events, visit iffboston.org.