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At the Maryland Film Festival, Local is Global

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The 2021 Maryland Film Festival will open this week, not to packed crowds at the SNF Parkway Theatre, but to outdoor gatherers, virtual after-partygoers, and a parking lot of audience members watching films from their cars. While the annual festival is the theatre’s flagship event, the Parkway has offered year-round programming since it reopened under its current model, a partnership with the film programs of Johns Hopkins University and MICA, in 2017.

Executive director Sandra L. Gibson considers the festival “both a springboard and a culminating point” for the independent film community in Baltimore, which has been hampered by the coronavirus pandemic’s effects on both cinemas and productions themselves. Though the festival remains mostly virtual this year, as it was last year, it feels more celebratory than consolatory, with a slate of genre-bending offerings that work as well in the digital world as they do on the big screen. 

The festival is offering both a Family Pathway and a Baltimore Pathway this year, the latter an indicator of films made in and about the city with six selections through the weekend. Standouts include experimental police-surveillance documentary All Light, Everywhere by Theo Anthony and the futuristic, psychedelic Strawberry Mansion by Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, both of which brought the Baltimore-based filmmakers to this year’s virtual Sundance Film Festival. 

 

While the national attention directed at the two films is a point of pride for the Parkway team, they’re eager to shine a light on the whole Baltimore Pathway series, including Kirsten D’Andrea Hollander and Nikiea Redmond’s Anatomy of Wings, a documentary about a group of Black middle school girls making a documentary about themselves. 

Parkway artistic director Christy LeMaster is attracted first to films that speak to the realities of everyday life, and was excited to find a broad group of like-minded creators in the city she moved to last summer. The balance of local talent and flavor and engagement with the international film community is something that LeMaster and the festival’s programming team, including program associate Eric Cotten and screening committee member Garrett Stralnic, strive for. 

“Something I’ve believed for a long time is that local is global is local,” LeMaster says, adding that the goal of the festival isn’t just to showcase local artists, but to connect them to opportunities in the wider world of film, and to bring new works to audiences who may not otherwise find similar fare at movie theatre chains. 

LeMaster’s approach to film programming accounts both for a distinctive style or character of the city as well as choices that push the boundaries of stylistic norms. The lineup this year includes both down-to-earth documentaries like Maisie Crow’s At the Ready, a look inside a southern Texas high school that trains students to become law enforcement officers, and immersive narratives like Jane Schoenbrun’s We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, a story of ASMR-filled internet games and conspiracies told through a teenager’s video diary. Both premiered at Sundance, and are complemented by entries like Baltimore is Burning, a series of three shorts that follow local queer drag, ballroom, and hip-hop performers. 

 

Among other Baltimore films included in the MdFF are Strawberry Mansion (Kentucker Audley & Albert Birney) and All Light, Everywhere (Theo Anthony)
“There’s this fallacy that there’s one monolith audience, and it’s just not true . . . I think of movies as ideas that are looking for their conversants.” 
Christy LeMaster

LeMaster rejects the notion that programming films for niche or affinity audiences fills the role of social advocacy—or even that queer audiences should be seen as niche. “There’s this fallacy that there’s one monolith audience, and it’s just not true,” she says. “I think of movies as ideas that are looking for their conversants.” 

To that end, the Parkway doesn’t pigeonhole works like Baltimore is Burning into specific categories, but listens to community members who want to see their stories onscreen. This work is less about top-down advocacy, Gibson says, but more about “community responsive” programming that regards city residents as contributors on equal footing with the Parkway’s artistic staff.

This eclectic approach to audience cultivation speaks to the fact that the Parkway’s core audience is a blend of multi-hyphenates: Cinephiles and filmmakers, arts administrators, college students, and anyone drawn to the Station North arts scene. “We like to say we’re two to three crews deep in Baltimore,” Gibson says of the city’s filmmaking community. “We’re finding more and more the last couple of years that those crews have had to go outside of the city to get work.” 

In looking to the future, then, the Parkway wants to transform into an artist-focused hub of creation, not just a theatre that projects movies for static audiences. Gibson hopes that new mayor Brandon Scott will be open to working with institutions like the Parkway to help strengthen the city’s arts communities in the wake of the pandemic; Mayor Scott named an arts and culture committee to his transition team in 2020, but it’s unclear what the committee’s role is now that Scott’s first 100 days are up, or if the Scott administration implemented any of their initial recommendations. 

Gibson thinks Baltimore could benefit from expanded arts programming such as drive-in movie theatres, which saw a resurgence in popularity across the country over the past year as indoor theatres stayed shut. As a preview of what this could look like, the festival will screen two Russian films curated by local legend John Waters at the Druid Hill Park Mansion House lawn on May 21, dubbed “Russian Shock Night at the Drive-In.” 

 

Festival schedule

As we move into a post-COVID future, the Parkway team isn’t ruling out the possibility of digital or outdoor film screening options after this year’s festival. Though LeMaster describes herself as “desperately excited” to return to the movie theatre, she and Gibson plan to take the pulse of the community and incorporate a mix of art intended for virtual audiences with films meant to play theatres in the Parkway’s upcoming programming. “We’re looking to the Parkway’s future as a participatory mix of socially engaged art house and a real, accessible center for moving image art,” she explains, positing the Parkway somewhere in between contemporary art museum and traditional theatre. 

The ideal is for the Parkway to restore the role of the cinema as a public forum, one where citizens can engage with on-the-ground issues and see their questions reflected back at them through art. It’s a lofty aspiration in an industry bogged down by funding wars and big media conglomerates, but if this year’s MdFF lineup is any indication, the Parkway is uniquely situated to get there with grace and grit.

 

*****

The Maryland Film Festival runs from Wednesday, May 19 through Thursday, May 27. Find the full schedule and ticket links here.

 

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Brandy Creek as the director for the Baltimore is Burning program; she directed the Children of Paris short within that program.

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