INTERVIEW: Belmont World Film Family Festival’s Ellen Gitelman

INTERVIEW: Belmont World Film Family Festival’s Ellen Gitelman

For the first time in my tenure with the Boston Hassle, the Belmont World Film Family Festival is live and in-person (with several accessible online options). BWFFF will show 11 features, five short programs, and two workshops. From January 14-22, the festival has in-person showings at the New Art Center in Trio, the Majestic 7 in Watertown, Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, and Regent Theatre in Arlington. 

Leading up to Belmont World Film’s 20th Family Festival: Hybrid Edition, I spoke to festival director Ellen Gitelman.

The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

BOSTON HASSLE: What do you hope the Belmont World Film Family Festival can bring to the communities and families of Greater Boston?

ELLEN GITELMAN: First of all, almost 85% of the films are based on children’s books, and since many of the films we show have subtitles, it reinforces their love of reading. But also, since the majority of films are from other countries, we hope it brings a different or new perspective to show how kids in other countries live and the situations other kids face that may be similar or different from what children in the United States face. 

We also hope that kids get inspired by the creativity that they see—and get inspired to do their own films or something related to media in general. Media fluency is really important now, so one of the things we have is the Become a Junior Film Critic Workshop (hosted by Cambridge Day’s Tom Meek and Boston Theater Critics Association President Joyce Kulhawik), where kids learn how to write a review from two top film critics. On the more creative side of things, we also offer online workshops on creating Gromit and Shaun the Sheep. 

The Smed & the Smoos

BH: Boston is a very diverse city by almost any metric. As the executive director of a festival of international films, can you speak about the diversity of your programming?

EG: We’re often at the mercy of what’s available. I try to be as diverse as possible. We wanted to show a film from Africa this year, but it just wasn’t very good. So, we’re at the mercy of what’s there. 

In the past, we’ve shown films from almost every continent except for Antarctica. (That being said,) this year tends to be more Euro-centric since that’s where the majority of films are made—but whenever possible, we try to get films from other continents. 

Short of that, trying to recognize the African American community, we always show a program dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. One of the shorts, “Showpiece,” is about a quilt handed down from generation to generation that shows how the effects of slavery have carried forward, though things have improved obviously. Another film in the program, “Amazing Grace,” is about a Black girl who tries out as Peter Pan even though she’s not white or a boy. We are also showing a Gospel piece, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and I’m hoping people actually get up, clap, and sing. It’s happened before!

We’re also showing an Indian Film, Last Film Show (dir. Pan Nalin). Did you know that it’s on the shortlist for Best International Feature by the Academy Awards?

BH: Yes, it actually made my 2022 Best-Of List as my second favorite film of the year! This leads right to my next question, Last Film Show is a relatively mature film in some ways. Can you walk me through your decision to conclude with Pan Nalin’s film?

EG: Practically, it’s later in the day, so that helps eliminate younger children (We tend to show films for younger children earlier in the day). The boy in the film is actually nine years old. I find it interesting how this nine-year-old boy became fascinated by film to the point he was willing to do anything willing to watch them. 

And of course, the timing of his fascination with film was not great. That scene where all  the film rolls are turned into bracelets is very depressing. But that’s something I think kids should see. Not everyone lives in a nice suburban home. Life is hard! 

BH: What are some of the titles you’re most excited for people to see this year?

EG: I love Oink (Netherlands, dir. Mascha Halberstad)! It’s based on a book, Oink’s Revenge, and it’s stop-motion with felt characters. It’s astounding. The woman who made it spent something like seven years on it. I think the kids will really enjoy it. The pig has poop everywhere, and kids will just love that. It’s about responsibility and trust, and it shows the small town, romantic side of the Netherlands. It’s really charming.  

Another film that’s pretty heavy is The Path (Germany, dir. Tobias Wiemann). It’s based on a true story about a boy, his journalist father, and their dog trying to escape Nazi Germany. They’re trying to get to the United States, where the boy’s mother is. It’s really about having grit. I think it’s a really wonderful film with (astonishing) scenery that shows the resilience of children. Children also do stupid things! And the boy in the film does a lot of stupid things. He’s not supposed to bring his dog, but he promised his mom he would so he brings it.

A lot of these films have heavy parts to them. In How I Learned to Fly (Serbia, dir. Radivoje ‘Raša’ Andrić), a very pretty film made in the same part of Croatia as Game of Thrones, is about a girl who has to spend the summer with her grandma and great-aunt. She thinks it will be really boring, but she learns some very valuable lessons. Unfortunately, the great-aunt dies death for the first time.

“The Websters” (Czechia, dir. Katarína Kerekesová) is a cute one. It’s about a family of spiders who live in a basement and the daughter, Lilly, finally meets a human being. It’s very sweet. They even wear clothes and use umbrellas. 

BH: As a child, my most significant barrier to non-English language films, like most, was the subtitles. How does the festival go about thinking through, and hopefully breaking this “one-inch barrier,” for many children?

The Path

EG: Oh! So we have headphones and someone reads the subtitles aloud through the headphones. This is our solution for those who can’t read very well yet (or for whom English isn’t a first language).

A lot of the older kids have cell phones and they are texting all the time. They are reading all the time. You see kids all the time with iPads and on their parent’s phones. It’s also good practice. But also, some of our audience members speak the language. For the German, Dutch, and French films, we will have German, Dutch, and French speaking people. 

BH: Have you started planning the next festival?

EG: We haven’t started planning for next year. Because this was our 20th year, I was hoping to do something grand—but given the uncertainties of this world, I decided to play it safe. Next year, I’d like to do more. I’d like to bring more filmmakers in. It was just too risky this year. 

Belmont World Film’s Family Film Festival will screen in-person at various locations from 1/14-1/21, and virtually from 1/20-1/22. For ticket and showtime info, see Belmont World Film’s official site.

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