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DocYard Pulls Up At The Brattle For The Summer

"William and the Windmill." (Courtesy, [group theory])

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With help from a library book, a 14-year-old African boy builds a windmill from spare parts. A Berlin-based non-government organization raises money to protect and liberate sexuality and the environment by selling homemade erotic films online. A Georgian youth demonstrates fierce loyalty to his older brother imprisoned for robbery. These are the subjects of three of the six films featured in The DocYard’s 2013 summer series running from June 3 through Aug. 17 at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge.

Kicking off the series is “William and the Windmill,” winner of the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival. In 2001, Malawian villager William Kamkwamba helps save his family from the effects of a drought by building a windmill from scratch. William goes on to speak at a TEDglobal conference, becoming an inspiring example of what disadvantaged youth from underdeveloped countries are capable of accomplishing. The film follows William from age 19, when TED’s Director of Partnerships Tom Rielly becomes his sponsor, until 25, when William enters Dartmouth College. During that time he co-writes a well-received book, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.”

Director Ben Nabors could have pumped up the already high heartwarming and inspirational volume. To his credit, he doesn’t. Rather he explores William’s complicated and sometimes troubled relationships with his sponsors, supporters, and fans. Are they mutually beneficial, a case of noblesse oblige, out-and-out exploitation, or some combination thereof?

Fame, great expectations, endless demands, and William’s own limitations are all sources of stress. The young man tries to keep up with his better-educated classmates; fights being pigeon-holed as “windmill boy;” and struggles to balance the opportunities he knows the West provides him with the love and sense of duty he feels toward his family, community, and country. William’s parents, traditional subsistence famers, want him to marry a local girl, someone they can “send to gather firewood.”

William has hopes he will gain more control over his life after he finishes school. I do, too, and would very much like to see a sequel in five years. The screening of “William and the Windmill” is followed by a Q&A with Nabors. Each screening is followed by a Q&A.

When I asked DocYard co-founders and programmers Sara Archambault and Ben Fowlie about their criteria, they stressed not only quality, a unique voice, and diversity of race, gender and geography, but the filmmaker’s availability for the post-screening Q&A. They, along with DocYard’s third co-founder, Sean Flynn, have created a forum that encourages filmmakers to come together to talk about craft and lovers of independent film to join in the conversation. If you’ve ever been to a screening where half the audience files out of the theater before the Q&A begins, you know it’s no small accomplishment that 99 percent of the audience stays for The DocYard’s Q&As.

Every DocYard series — the biannual series was founded in 2010 — includes at least one legacy screening and a film with a local connection. This summer’s series combines the two in “If It Fits,” a 1978 classic by the late John Marshall, a pioneer of ethnographic filmmaking and an activist known for his work in Namibia recording the lives of the !Kung Bushmen. A Q&A follows with Alice Apley, Executive Director of Documentary Education Resources, the organization Marshall founded.

“If It Fits” follows the 1976 mayoral race in Haverhill, a Massachusetts city that was once a thriving shoe manufacturer — it was called the “Queen Slipper City” — but is now a ghost of its former self. Citizens from across the political spectrum weigh in on the demise of the shoe industry, the prospects for the future, and the burden on taxpayers as the city tries to attract industry. With so many American cities facing these urgent problems, this 35-year-old film is as timely and relevant today as it was then. “If It Fits” is the work of a master.

Jean-Luc Godard said, “All great fiction films tend toward documentary, just as all great documentaries tend toward fiction.” With “Your Day Is My Night,” director Lynne Sachs has created a documentary-fiction hybrid that explores the “shift-bed” experience of Chinese immigrants, ranging in age from 58 to 78 who share a small apartment, and beds, in New York City’s Chinatown. All but one of the film’s characters are non-professionals. In the process of creating this film, stories of extreme hardship and suffering under Mao emerged, becoming part of the fabric of this powerful, poetic and grounded communal work.

Director Tinatin Gurchiani put out a casting call in Georgia (the country, not the state) for young men and women. The result is “The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear” in which she interviews her subjects, then follows several of them outside the interview room to document their unfolding stories. What emerges is a picture of a country that doesn’t hold out much promise for the future of its young people.

For 40 years, Black Panther activist Herman Wallace has been in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary, aka Angola. In “Herman’s House,” Angad Bhalla documents the story of Wallace’s fight for freedom and the friendship that develops between him and a young artist Jackie Sumell, who takes on his struggle and collaborates with Wallace on an art project.

“F… for Forest,” directed by Michal Marczak, features the eponymous group that sells on-line access to erotic films starring its members. The site makes money, but F… for Forest runs into unexpected problems when it attempts to donate it to environmental causes.

John Marshall once told a student, “You want to come away from a film feeling like you’ve met somebody.” With these six films, you will.

Kaj Wilson hosts The Breakfast Film Club at The Coolidge Corner Theatre. She is the former artistic director of The Boston Jewish Festival. Reach her at kajwilson@yahoo.com.

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