Vermont Arts Council

Vermont Humanities and International Film Festival Explore Democracy and Journalism

Last year, Vermont Humanities and Vermont International Film Festival (VTIFF) chose, independently of one another, to plan their largest annual events around the relationship between democracy and journalism. Vermont Humanities’ months-long 2020 Fall Conference, themed “Democracy 20/20,” starts today, and in the conference’s later weeks there will be a special preview of VTIFF’s 2020 program, themed “The Reporter.”

The coincidence is no surprise—an election year is the perfect time to talk democracy. But no one could have known all the pressures 2020 would bring to bear on American democracy. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, civil unrest, and economic crisis, the organizers of both events agree it’s more important than ever to stimulate conversation about civic duty, and to offer a wide variety of pathways into that conversation.

“Last year’s conference was called ‘Searching for Home: Journeys, Quests, and Migrations,’ and it was largely about the refugee and immigrant experience,” recalled Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup, executive director of Vermont Humanities, when asked about the planning of this year’s conference. “Since then, it has only become more urgent that we spend our time talking about civic engagement and the right to vote. I do think our audience at Vermont Humanities is pretty savvy. They are very likely to be participating in all the local and state and national elections, but it doesn’t hurt to always remind people where these traditions came from, how hard fought they were, and how important it is to maintain them.”

Vera Longtoe Sheehan (center), Director of the Vermont Abenaki Artists Association, will lead a conference panel, “Democracy, Social Change, and Representation in N’dakinna (Our Homeland),” on August 26 with Abenaki leaders, mentors, and community members. Photo courtesy of Vermont Humanities.

Vermont Humanities’ Fall Conference will at offer 15 weekly sessions at 7:00 p.m. starting today, Wednesday, Aug. 19. All sessions will be available online in both live and recorded versions. The conference kicks off with “Women’s Suffrage: Moral Advancement or Politics As Usual?” a presentation with constitutional scholar Meg Mott. From there the subjects range from a panel of Abenaki voices on “Democracy, Social Change, and Representation in N’dakinna (Our Homeland)” to a talk with political cartoonist Jeff Danziger, to Amherst College professor Catherine Sanderson on the psychology of the “innocent bystander,” to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Moats on research and diligence in reporting. Other sessions include a personal story of artistic activism from composer and Middlebury College professor Dr. Matthew Evan Taylor and even a democracy knitting circle in the tradition of those that supported the abolitionist and suffragist movements. See the Fall Conference’s full program on the Vermont Humanities website.

On Oct. 21, the conference will present a preview of the 2020 Vermont International Film Festival, including film clips and a discussion with festival director Orly Yadin. Normally a large, in-person festival featuring 40 or 50 films, this year VTIFF is presenting 12 films, as well as a variety of talks and Q&As, all virtually.

“I really, truly believe,” said Orly Yadin of her hopes for this year’s festival, “that film has the power to change people’s minds. And by that I don’t mean a type of didactic film that tells you what to think, but that when you’re exposed to new ideas, it broadens your mind. So my hope is that this festival will do that. Like all our festivals and screenings, my hope is also that, by showing a range of different styles and periods of filmmaking, people might learn more about the history of cinema.”

From left to right: A promotional image for The Black Press; a poster for The Corporate Coup D’État; a still from The Corporate Coup D’État. Images courtesy of Vermont International Film Festival.

The films are a mix of documentary and fiction and span the old and the new, including The Front Page, Lewis Milestone’s 1931 comedy about an investigative reporter; George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), which portrays American journalist Edward R. Murrow’s struggle against McCarthyism in 1953; Stanley Nelson’s The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords (1999), a history of African-American newspapers; and Fred and Alfred Peabody’s The Corporate Coup D’État (2018), a documentary examining corporate power in American politics.

Among the festival speakers and special guests scheduled to appear are award-winning filmmakers and journalists, familiar locals and national figures including VTDigger founder Anne Galloway, Guggenheim Fellow and Middlebury College scholar-in-residence Sue Halpern, Emmy-winner Fred Peabody, and two-time Pulitzer-winner Jake Bernstein. After previewing on Oct. 21 during Vermont Humanities’ Fall Conference, the 2020 Vermont International Film Festival will run from Oct. 23 to Nov. 1.

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