Film For Everyone: How to Navigate the Maryland Film Festival

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed’s Picks and Suggestions for the ever-growing Maryland Film Festival

According to Eric Allen Hatch, Director of Programming at the Maryland Film Festival, “We make an effort to imagine every possible audience member and deliver something that would entice them to spend their day with us.” The MD Film Festival was founded in 1999 and has returned to Baltimore every May since, with an incredibly varied assortment of international, national, and local short and feature-length films.

Its motto, “Film for Everyone,” adopted in 2009, drives the choices of the curatorial staff. However, given the cornucopia of cinematic plenty that the festival consistently offers, perhaps “The World Comes to Baltimore” would make a similarly appropriate slogan. With work of all genres – traditional narratives and documentaries, experimental hybrids of both, films of high concept and personal statement, thrillers, comedies, and more – the MD Film Festival presents local residents with a collection of movies that truly does provide something for everyone.

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 11.12.28 AMJed Dietz, Eric Allen Hatch, and Scott Braid at the 2015 MFF

The festival opens on Wednesday, May 4, at 8pm in MICA’s Brown Center (doors open at 7pm), with a collection of five short films, rather than a feature, as it has done for a number of past years. As Festival Director Jed Dietz writes in this year’s program, both hosts of the opening-night program, Lauren Wolkstein and Zach Clark, are alumni of festivals past, and each have work in this year’s lineup (though not that night): Wolkstein directed one of the segments in the omnibus film Collective: Unconscious, and Clark is here with his feature Little Sister.

Part of what can be exciting at MFF is to watch, over time, the creative development of particular filmmakers who return at regular intervals. Our local festival may be neither Cannes nor Sundance (though films that have played at those festivals play here, as well), but like them it seeks to mentor and nurture the careers of the next generation of filmmakers (though being an alum does not guarantee acceptance). This is where the opening shorts come in, highlighting the importance of these calling-card pieces in the aesthetic evolution of the artists to come.

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 11.11.34 AM

The festival closes, on Sunday, May 8, at 7pm – again in MICA’s Brown Center – with a feature, as it always does. As Hatch states, “with our closing-night film, we’re looking for a title that reflects the quality and sensibility of our programming while also delivering something of specific extra interest to our audience.” The film this year is Joshua Locy’s Hunter Gatherer, starring Andre Royo (“Bubbles” on The Wire).

I was fortunate to not only see the film at this year’s SXSW festival, but to meet the director and his principal cast, as well. It’s a very strong film – the director’s debut, in fact – that tells the story of one man’s struggle to get his life back on track after prison. Both Locy and Royo will be in attendance at the screening, as will co-star George Sample III and producer April Lamb. Another exciting aspect of the Maryland Film Festival is that so many of the filmmakers – cast and crew – come to Baltimore for their screenings, affording all of us a unique opportunity to meet, and mingle with, the talent responsible for these great films.

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 11.11.12 AM

Between that first Wednesday and the final Sunday, viewers can choose from over 40 features and 80 shorts, scheduled, starting on Friday, from morning till night (on Thursday, the screenings begin after 4pm). In addition, starting on Friday, May 6, in the Tent Village (The Ynot Lot on W. North Avenue, which is a different location than in years past), the festival has programmed a number of panels and other events that offer attendees the chance to hear from filmmakers and film specialists on a variety of topics.

Bathrooms (Porta Potties) are available in the Tent Village, as they are in all screening venues (where they are not Porta Potties). Those venues range as far south as the Walters Art Museum and as far north as the Baltimore Museum of Art, with Baltimore’s Station North Arts District serving as the geographical center (more or less). For a complete list of venues with instructions on parking and local transportation, check out the festival’s “How to Festival” guide, which includes information on ticket purchases, as well as food options in the area.

With so many films being screened, how does one choose from among them? The festival’s website can help with that, but here is a personal and more succinct list of suggestions who want to experience the highlights but not necessarily spend all weekend.

Celebrity Sightings

bal-john-waters-endorses-deray-mckesson-for-baltimore-mayor-20160329John Waters and DeRay McKesson

For those who enjoy seeing local celebrities, both filmmaker John Waters (Hairspray) and civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson will play guest hosts this year (actually, Waters hosts every year): Waters, on Friday, May 6, at 7pm, in MICA’s Brown Center, presents Terence Davies’ 2011 film The Deep Blue Sea, starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston; Mckesson, on Saturday, May 7, at 5pm, also in the Brown Center, presents Boaz Yakin’s 1994 film Fresh, starring Giancarlo Esposito and Samuel L. Jackson.

Another great film from the historical archive, the newly restored 1924 silent French science-fiction masterpiece L’inhumaine, will play on Sunday, May 8, at 11am, also in the Brown Center, with live musical accompaniment by the Electric Alloy Orchestra. This last event is a very popular festival tradition, and always well attended. For any screening for which tickets might sell out, I recommend buying them early.

unspecified-5Still from Hotel Dallas

Best New Films

From among the vibrant crop of yet-to-be-released films, there is sure to be a “film for everyone.” Beyond Hunter Gatherer, I recommend two other films I saw at SXSW: Trapped, a documentary about the battle for abortion rights in the American South; and A Stray, a fictional narrative about a Somali immigrant in Minneapolis who must step out of his comfort zone when his path crosses that of a stray dog.

I’ve also seen (and will soon review, for Hammer to Nail), the following: Donald Cried, a uniquely off-beat film about a Wall-Street financier who returns home to Rhode Island after the death of a family member and is forced to deal with the baggage he left behind; Hotel Dallas, a crazy, experimental hybrid documentary about the popularity of the American television series Dallas in 1980s Romania; Orange Sunshine, a more traditional documentary that is a thorough historical portrait of the “Brotherhood of Eternal Love,” the group of California hippies that sought a global “psychedelic revolution” by dealing LSD; Salero, a breathtakingly beautiful meditation on the world’s largest salt flat, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni, and the people who live and work around it; and SHU-DE!, a documentary from local filmmaker Michael Faulkner that follows Baltimore beatboxer Shodekeh as he travels to Tuva, in Southern Siberia, to meet and perform with the throat singers native to the region.

According to Hatch, the festival loves “to program films that were made in Maryland or have strong local ties, while at the same time we emphasize that we’re a festival with an international programming scope that takes place in Maryland.” SHU-DE! perfectly fulfills both of these objectives.

unspecifiedStill from High-Rise (also top image)

Potential New Films

Of the films I have yet to see, there’s a lot that looks interesting. Most films screen twice, though a few (like the special guest-hosted events, the silent film and the closing night) only play once. Look closely at the film schedule to plan your week in the way that makes the most sense to you.

I am particularly excited about the following: Cameraperson, a documentary about the work of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (Citizenfour, The Invisible War), made by Johnson, herself; Chevalier, a comedy from Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari about the shenanigans of six men on a luxury yacht in Aegean Sea; Do Not Resist, a documentary about police brutality; High-Rise, a dystopian nightmare based on the 1975 novel by J.G. Ballard; The Love Witch, director Anna Biller’s take on 1960s Technicolor melodramas in which a modern-day woman uses witchcraft to seduce men; Morris from America, starring Craig Robinson (Darryl on The Office), which details the comic misadventures of a 13-year-old American in Germany; and Under the Shadow, an Iranian horror film set in Tehran in the 1980s.

Kate Plays Christine, by filmmaker Robert Greene, who was just at the festival two years ago with another film, Actress, pushes the boundaries of hybrid fact/fiction documentaries: actress Kate Lyn Sheil (Green) stars as herself, preparing for the role, in a new film, of Christine Chubbock, whose on-screen suicide inspired the 1976 movie Network … except that no such film is actually being made. Is it a documentary? Docufuction? Meta-documentary? I look forward to seeing the movie and making up my own mind.

Screen Shot 2016-05-02 at 11.18.55 AM

Short Films

There are plenty of short films, as well, grouped into categories such as “Animated,” Avant-Garde,” “Comedy,” “Documentary” and “International.” There are also less (or more, depending on your point of view) descriptive categories like “Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes” and “WTF Shorts.” Says Hatch: “With the names of the programs like ‘Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes,’ we’re basically just trying to be a little more imaginative with our titling than, say ‘Shorts Block D.’

So you see some programs like ‘Comedy,’ ‘Animation’ and ‘Avant-Garde’ each year, some that come and go like ‘Genre’ and ‘Shorts Quartet,’ and some that exist just for one year. Our ‘WTF Shorts’ program has become an annual tradition and one of our signature events, going back to my first year with the festival. We always challenge ourselves to add a subtitle to that program that references cult, psychotronic, or transgressive cinema, to reflect its irreverent tone.” The subtitle of that last category this year is “Every Short for Itself and WTF Shorts Against all.” Film for everyone, indeed!

So no matter what your preference or when your availability, this year’s Maryland Film Festival is sure to be screening something that will appeal to you, at least once. So come on down to the corner of Charles and North Avenue, where the Ynot Lot marks the site of festival headquarters (during the festival) and check out what’s on offer. If you haven’t already, mark your calendars: May 4-8 … when the world comes to Baltimore.

The 2016 Maryland Film Festival runs May 4-8. For more information, including online ticket purchases, visit the festival website.

Author Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a filmmaker, film critic and Chair of the Department of Film & Moving Image at Stevenson University.

Images courtesy of the Maryland Film Festival

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