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IFFBoston 2011: Nightfall

IFFB ’11 also screened a trio of films about what happens after the sun goes down.

The two designees for this year’s festival-within-a-festival IFFBoston After Dark were The Catechism Cataclysm and Stake Land.  The former is a quirky comedy that gradually turns dark and surreal. Starting with a peppy, lonely priest using a misremembered friendship to emotionally coerce his childhood idol onto a canoe trip, we meander to a finish that includes campfire stories with two giggling panda-headed Japanese schoolgirls, a looming enforcer with one of two names, and spontaneously exploding body parts.

The latter, Stake Land, puts us in a world that was waiting for the new Messiah, but Death came instead… came with teeth. By placing their patchwork of protagonists in a two-front war with vamps and death-cultists, co-writer/lead Nick Damici and co-writer/director Jim Mickle create the space to launch new kinds of threats into this coming-of-age in the undead apocalypse.

IFFB vet, Ian Cheney (King Corn, The Greening of Southie) brought his latest effort, The City Dark.  This time, Cheney takes a look at light pollution and the effect of losing the night sky.  What does it mean when two-thirds of humanity now lives in a luminous fog?  It turns out that, in a very real sense, it’s lethal for both man and beast.  Baby turtles following the city’s glowing false horizon get lost on the way to the ocean.  Without their star map, one billion migrating birds die each year in the US alone from striking buildings.  Three new studies show that, due to the inverse relationship between light exposure and tumor-suppressing melatonin levels, the artificial light of shift work escalates the risk of breast cancer.

Besides the physical impact, there is a psychological toll as well.  While staff at New York City’s Staten Island Observatory have only seen the Milky Way twice – during blackouts – and true night no longer comes to nearby Jones Beach, across the country in the roughly Boston-sized city of Tucson, one can see the Milky Way from downtown.  New York’s severed connection to the natural environment is evidenced by inner-city Boy Scouts on a camping trip.  Experiencing an ink-black sky filled with stars for the first time, an awe-struck “It reminds me of the Hayden Planetarium!” reveals their only prior frame of reference.  Part of growing up is, as noted by well-known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, “realizing that you’re not the center of the Universe.”  Or at least it should be.  “The night sky resets your ego.”

In one of the memorable Q&A moments, an oncologist whose study was one of those cited in the film came forth to not only applauded Cheney’s even-handed use of the data, but also thought that everyone possible should see The City Dark for their own health.  A follow-up question asked “Is there any data on people who check their cell phones during a movie about light pollution?”

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