Films with the power to transform lives shown at Black Bear
Patrons moved to tears, laughter, and renewal at 17th annual festival

Toni Thompson, director of "What It Takes To Be Extraordinary," and Wendy Kaplan at their Q&A (Photo by Anya Tikka)

By Anya Tikka
MILFORD — Patrons were moved to tears at one of the main stage features at last weekend's Black Bear Film Festival, “What It Takes To Be Extraordinary," a documentary about a Nepalese home for orphans started by an ordinary American.
Director Toni Thompson and interviewer Wendy Kaplan took questions from the audience. Many who saw the film said they were in tears over the problems faced by children in Nepal who are sometimes sold into servitude by their families or simply abandoned or without parents. They said the work of Michael Hess, once a carpenter in Florida, has transformed their lives with his orphanages. The film was brought to Milford by a local resident, Tamara Chant.
By coincidence, the film screening had a visitor from Nepal. Madan Khanal, who’s currently working at the Hotel Fauchere while completing his studies, was much moved by the storyline. His own journey to go to school was similar, he said.
The opening film, “Mommy's Box,” on Friday night, was followed by a Q&A with the cast and producer and with Rex Reed, one of Hollywood's most famous film critics. He was interviewed by Hollywood historian and author John DiLeo.
The short films at the Salon ranged from local filmmakers documenting the beauty and fragility of faraway places like Africa as well as Shohola. A thought-provoking — if not downright frightening — docudrama, “Sugar Shake Down,” about the real cause of many health epidemics and obesity. Director Andrea Culková started to investigate the role of sugar after her unborn baby developed gestational diabetes. Salon Director Karen Kelly said she is in touch with Culkova by email, and asked for reviews of the film on Amazon to raise awareness of this important issue.

'Fighting for their lives'

The full-house audience sat spellbound at the Salon’s Sunday morning “Fragile Beauty” by Wendy and Alan Kaplan, described in the opening scenes as “The medicine story about malaria, and documenting the way of life of the Murai people of Africa that they’ve followed for thousands of years.”
“People love their own culture," Wendy said. "The government doesn't understand their way of life, and is at odds with the Murai with projects like the Omo Valley hydroelectric dam.”
She said they’re "fighting for their lives."
"Their sacred places are being built over," she said. "There’s nobody to protect them.”
The Murai don’t want education, she said, and programs for malaria like mosquito nets can misfire.
“They wear them over their heads as decoration," she said. "We have to find another way or they're going to disappear. Malaria drugs cost $15 to save someone's life, and they don’t have it.....I'm documenting it, I have no solutions.”
Wendy said they were told the Murai were fierce and maybe hostile, but added, "They couldn't be nicer.”

'Place of peace and tranquility'

The second, local short film, “Shohola: Along the River,” directed by Dennis Lee and narrated by a local historian George Fluhr, documents life along the Delaware River.
The film told the story through old photographs and postcards. The native population called it "Shohola," meaning a place of peace and tranquility. The earliest settlement dates to about 1772 around Panther Creek.
The film documents the French and Indian wars and the Battle of Minisink during the American Revolution; the rise and fall of the D&H Canal, which brought coals from Lackawanna Valley through Shohola; the Civil War era train accident that left many Confederate prisoners dead; and the late 19th-century bluestone industry and that new railways that brought tourism from New York City.
The newer footage, of modern times, depicts the land, water, and people, and the respect for nature and its resources exhibited by the locals — in ways similar to the remote Omo Valley in Africa.
Will Voelkel, director of Black Bear Film Festival, and artistic director Bob Keiber pronounced the annual festival, now in its 17th year but under new management, "a great success.”