After its cancellation last fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Homer Documentary Film Festival returns for its 17th year starting with a gala opening at 6:15 p.m. Sept. 23 at the Homer Theatre with a showing of “Summer of Soul,” one of five films in the festival.
Homer Theatre co-owner Jamie Sutton, and founder of the festival with his wife Lynette, said he talked with community members before deciding to hold the festival.
“That’s one of the things for us,” Sutton said in an interview last month. “Are we going to be leaders or not?”
This year’s event includes COVID-19 precautions, including fewer shows daily, a 2 p.m. vaccination-only show, 50% capacity, universal mask wearing inside, sanitizing between shows and a shorter play list. The roster includes what has become a Homer Documentary Film Festival standard — a mixture of feel-good musical films, explorations of science and nature, personality profiles and off-beat quirky pieces.
“We are striving to stay open because we know how much fun it is to go to the movies, and we will protect the public and our patrons, and to support the community in the best way possible,” Sutton wrote in an email.
Sutton said he recognized that for some documentary film festival fans, attending will be a difficult decision.
“For us there are folks in Homer who won’t go to the Doc Fest,” he said. “Going into a dark room with strangers — that’s a hard duty.”
To help make people more comfortable, the 2 p.m. showings will be for vaccinated customers only. People will have to show their vaccine cards. The mask wearing rule also was made to help people feel safer, Sutton said.
“The requirement to wear masks is a small imposition, irrespective of your politics, in exchange for, respect for, compassion for other folks who want to see a movie as badly as you do who have medical conditions,” he said.
Earlier this summer, as with other businesses hoping to ease back to normalcy as vaccination rates increased and COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations dropped, the Homer Theatre had begun showing movies to larger audiences.
“We started out at 50% and opened up to more people,” Sutton said. “‘Black Widow’ had 150 people. It was great. We were back rolling again. And here we are now with this relapse, and so we’ve had to go back to the earlier constraints.”
The festival features five films: “Summer of Soul,” about the 1969 weekend performances in Harlem of the top Black and Soul artists; “Roadrunner,” a biography of chef Anthony Bourdain; “Fantastic Fungi,” about the wonders of mushrooms and other mycelium life forms; “The Lost Leonardo,” the discovery of a $1,400 painting that could be by Leonardo da Vinci, and “Bear-Like(Der Bär in mir),” the adventure of a German filmmaker and biologist who develop a relationship with Alaska bears.
“Summer of Soul” fits into that category of a musical crowd pleaser. Filmed in the summer of 1969 in Harlem, New York, when Woodstock happened upstate, for six weekends some of the top soul acts performed, including Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, the Staple Singers, Herbie Mann and B.B. King.
“It was fabulously well filmed and recorded, and then it disappeared,” Sutton said.
Musician Questlove Thompson found the lost footage and produced the film. A celebration of Black music, it also captures the emerging 1960s movement of Black pride and unity.
“The whole Black power, that movement is at hand,” Sutton said of the time.
Made by Morgan Neville, the same filmmaker who did “20 Feet from Stardom” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” two previous Doc Fest film selections, “Roadrunner” focuses on the life of chef Anthony Bourdain. It looks at how an anonymous chef became a cultural icon.
Sutton said his favorite film is “Fantastic Fungi,” a look at mycelium, the mushrooms and other plants that enrich soil and form synapses to communicate among themselves.
“The synapses that mycelium form to communicate with itself, all of those have come into our brains,” Sutton said. “… People walk out of the movie with their view of the world dramatically changed.”
In “The Lost Leonardo,” an art collector buys for $1,400 a painting described as “in the school of Leonardo da Vinci.” When the collector takes it to an art expert to be examined, masterful brush strokes lie under a cheap restoration. The painting, “the Salvador Mundi,” could be a genuine da Vinci. It winds up selling at auction for $450 million. The film raises questions about its authenticity.
In a different telling of the same theme in “Bear Man,” a previous documentary film festival selection about the ill-fated Timothy Treadwell, “Bear-Like(Der Bär in mir)” is about another lover of Alaska grizzly bears — except he doesn’t get mauled. Filmmaker Roman Droux and biologist David Bittner get up close to the bears of Katmai National Park, but with respect and caution.
“It’s just a lovely movie,” Sutton said.
For 2021, there are no DocFest passes. Admission to the gala event is $20 or $15 for seniors, youth, Peace Corps and military. Admission per film is $9 or $7 for seniors, youth, Peace Corps, military and matinees. For advance ticket sales, more information and trailers, visit https://www.homerdocfest.com/2018-festival.