Won't you be my Neighbor
The 13th annual Berkshire International Film Festival, which returns to the Southern Berkshires May 31st, with a tribute to Academy Award-winning actor Rachel Weisz on June 1 and a heart-warming look at a cultural icon, Fred Rogers, who invited children to be his neighbor over 900 episodes aired on public television.
Won’t You Be my Neighbor, created by Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville, officially opens June 8 in Pittsburgh but will have one of its earliest public viewings at the festival on June 3 at 7PM in Great Barrington’s Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. It will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Producer Nicholas Ma.
Critics and the public have embraced the production, giving it a 96 percent critical approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 98 percent from the general public. The documentary pays homage to the gentle genius who tried to explain an increasingly complex world to young children in a non-partisan way.
“I hadn’t thought about Mr. Rogers in so long but, with where we are as a country, we could all use a little Mr. Rogers right now,” said Kelley Vickery, founder of the BIFF. “The film was huge hit at Sundance. People could not stop talking about it.”
The film could easily have leaned too hard on nostalgia but avoids sentimentality. “When we went to see his wife, Joanne, to talk about making the film, she made us promise we wouldn’t make him out to be a saint,” said Nicholas Ma.
Still, in an increasingly divisive world, one wishes that Fred Rogers could be here to help children—and adults—find a way through the sturm und drang. Rogers died in 2003 but his benign presence could not be a more-timely counterpoint to the coarsened attitudes so prevalent today. His mild-mannered approach to children, the comfortable cardigans he wore and the low-tech sets were an implicit promise of peace, reason and safety.
“But there was a kind of backbone of steel underneath that gentle voice,” Nicholas Ma observed. Rogers, who always stood for love, grew frustrated at the hyperactive violence of much children’s television and promoted a message of inclusivity dramatically at odds with the political atmosphere of today. Stunningly, archival footage from an early episode seems to foreshadow today’s culture when a paranoid puppet monarch, King Friday XIII, builds a wall around his kingdom.
Ma said the concept of the film was formed before the last election even before the Trump campaign was in full swing. “It’s uncanny that it so timely,” said Ma, “but Rogers had a timeless story to tell. It has been wonderful to have this film to focus on over the past year and a half. It’s a reminder that there are people and ideas that can still unify us as a country. If the past two years had been different, would another part of this story resonate with people? I hope that is true.”
Rogers was not afraid to challenge his audience according to Ma. As a commencement speaker at Harvard, Rogers exhorted his listeners to “be true to the best within you.” Ma said, “What does that mean? Not to do the best you can in a situation, but to hold yourself to the best within you. That’s a very tall order—but one that is achievable.”
The documentary shows that Rogers did just that in his own life. “He was simultaneously one of the most tolerant of people and also a lifelong conservative Republican,” Ma said. “Inclusivity is not partisan, it’s a human trait. He also evolved—part of the film is about his views on homosexuality and the powerful idea that Fred was not afraid to change.
“Change is difficult, but there is something important to see in that message,” Ma continued. “There is the question of how much change can we expect of ourselves and others. How do we, as a society, adapt—how do we contend with what seems like a dizzying amount of change? Do we allow our brains to be desensitized to violence? The plasticity of our brains and our ability to evolve is amazing and I have confidence in our ability to change—it doesn’t mean it will happen overnight but we are working with an amazing tool.”
Indeed, Ma is changing his own life. Son of world-renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma and steeped in music from a young age, he nevertheless chose business and politics for the first decade of his career. He confessed that playing music with his father made him nervous.
“I only played with my father twice,” he said, “both times on Mr. Rogers. I loved Mr. Rogers. When my sister and I were young, my father found Mr. Rogers was a safe place for us to be while he was cooking dinner.”
Knowing his son’s fascination with the television show, the elder Ma arranged for his son to appear on the show. “It was an overwhelming experience,” said Nicholas Ma. “Here’s a guy on a 10-inch black-and-white TV screen who could capture a child’s imagination. I was incredibly nervous, but he let me find my own way to him. It was such a lovely gesture for a kid.”
Rogers had an effect on Yo Yo Ma as well. “Years later, in an interview, my father was asked how he learned to be a public person and he said he learned it from Mr. Rogers.” Rogers became Ma’s mentor and taught him that he could use his name recognition as a positive influence in the world.
While Nicholas Ma said he “loved every minute” of his career in business and politics, he said he reached a moment when he asked himself, “What provides me the most meaning? I had always loved film. I felt a little intimidated, but I made the transition four years ago.”
He has worked with director Morgan Neville before, appearing onscreen in The Music of Strangers, a documentary about the Silk Road Ensemble, a peripatetic collective of musicians from 17 countries created by Yo Yo Ma. The ensemble performs music from nine Silk Road countries on Eastern and Western instruments.
Later Neville called Nicholas Ma to see if he would be interested in working on the Rogers project. “I said, ‘A thousand times yes,’” Ma related. He found making the documentary “massively collaborative.”
“To say you sell the idea makes it sound commercial,” he said. “You’re really trying to say, ‘Who’s on board with this journey. Hey, who are the people who see this similarly but differently enough so it is multi-layered.’ That is the beginning of a project like this.”
They brought the idea to the Sundance Film Festival and walked away fully funded. “We were thrust into production almost instantaneously,” he said. “I’m so grateful to have been able to make this film.”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is only one of the treats in store at the film festival. Vickery said, “Once again we have gathered films from around world as well as local films. We are opening with American Animals, which was also a big hit at Sundance. It’s a narrative film based on a true story and is a great opening night film for the audience—kind of funny, kind of poignant, little bit of a thriller.”
Opening night will also bring the Weisz tribute. Over the past 25 years she has won or been nominated for nearly every film industry award. She will appear on the Mahaiwe Theater stage May 31st in conversation with film critic David Edelstein, followed by a screening of her new film, Disobedience. . She’s had such an eclectic, diverse career and her work just gets richer and deeper,” Vickery said.
The Pittsfield MA festival venue will open with Bad Reputation, “which is great fun,” Vickery said. “And for the second year in a row, we are hosting Tea Talks. Charles Randolph, who won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for The Big Short, will discuss Script to Screen, and Academy Award-winning director Cynthia Wade will discuss her new film, Grit.”
Vickery tantalized BIFF-goers by saying Sunday will bring a film she would not name that wowed audiences at the Tribeca Film Festival. “The main character will be in attendance,” she promised.
Finally, there will be a staged reading of selections from Mumbet, the story of a Sheffield slave who heard the words “all men are created free and equal” in the home of her Patriot master, Colonel John Ashley and sought her own freedom, thereby helping to end slavery in Massachusetts. The story is being turned into a movie with actress Octavia Spencer as executive producer. “Potentially, there will be 20 actors on stage, Vickery said. Governor Deval Patrick will give the introduction.”
For more information about the events and films to be screened at BIFF, please click on the link below.