A GREAT DAY IN BALTIMORE: The 2011 Maryland Film Festival

by tully
May 12, 2011 8:11 AM
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For anyone who was there—filmmaker, industry representative, staff member, volunteer, general attendee—an overriding consensus has already been reached: the 2011 Maryland Film Festival (13 and counting) was one for the ages. Not only am I here to fully support that claim, but I have the photographic evidence to prove it (see below). But first, we must address what makes the MDFilmFest so special.

While this has always been a well run, down-to-earth, smartly programmed affair, the fact that the Maryland Film Festival calls Baltimore its home provides reason number one. I went to college in Baltimore (well, close enough, UMBC), and I grew up rooting for the Orioles and the Colts (I finally stopped caring about the NFL by the time the Ravens came into town). So I have a lifelong allegiance to the city. But that’s not the only reason to like Baltimore (see: pretty much every first-time visitor this year, who was swept off his or her feet). It’s just got a groove like no other. The best way I can describe it is like this. When you’re in Baltimore and standing or walking or driving somewhere, whatever is happening across the street from you at any given moment is guaranteed to be more head-cockingly strange and memorable and bizarre than if you were standing or walking or driving in a similar spot in any other metropolis on the planet. Then, of course, there’s the indescribable Bawlmer accent, which adds volumes of entertainment to the blandest of overheard conversations. Baltimore really is a gift that keeps on giving.

The fact that the festival is technically only a 3.5-day affair (Thursday night through Sunday night) ensures that just about everybody will be there for the duration. Further, Festival Director Jed Dietz’s decision to set that weekend in early May pretty much guarantees that the weather is going to be utterly gorgeous (at least it has been the past several years).

Aside from the programming, which outdid itself this year thanks to the sharp taste of Director of Programming Eric Allen Hatch and Programming Administrator Scott Braid, there are two things that immediately distinguish this festival from so many others. The first is that Dietz and co. are committed to making their opening night celebration very different. No matter the location or the size or the type, the opening night of a film festival is when the spotlight comes out and everyone’s collective focus is pointed in the direction of one screen. Most festivals break out the red carpet and look for the most high profile film they can find. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But not in Baltimore. Typically, short films fly under the radar, yet by making their opening night film a shorts program year after year, the Maryland Film Festival delivers a powerful mission statement. Without being showy, this nonetheless speaks quite loudly. It was so nice to see this year’s host, Washington Post film critic Ann Hornady, praise the excellent lineup: David Lowery’s Pioneer, Zachary Treitz’s We’re Leaving, Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff’s The Strange Ones, and Jessica Edwards’s Seltzler Works. And it was even nicer to then meet those filmmakers on stage, answering questions in front of a packed house and a fully engaged audience.

The second, and perhaps most important, element that makes the Maryland Film Festival such a down-to-earth and communal event is that there is no competition to be found anywhere in sight. Which isn’t to say that festivals that distribute awards are in the wrong, for these types of honors can provide a legitimate profile boost for a small film that needs all the help it can get. But when it comes to a bunch of filmmakers being forced to interact with one another in consistently close quarters, the reality that nobody’s competing for anything cannot help but relieve some pressure. And I’m even talking about those filmmakers who don’t pay any attention to awards.

This year, filmmakers Craig Zobel and Joe Swanberg hosted an all-day event on the festival’s first full day in a tent across the street from the Charles Theater. Called “Filmmakers Taking Charge,” the plan was for filmmakers and programmers and critics and other industry folks to have a genuine discussion about the state of things. The email schedule we received made it sound as if this was going to simply be another staid, by-the-numbers panel atmosphere, but when I arrived in the tent, as promised by Zobel, chairs were in a circle and there was nary a microphone to be found. I’m a firm believer that we go to film festivals to watch films and that nothing practical is going to be fixed in these situations, but I will say that the air in this tent felt honest in a way that I wasn't expecting.

My overriding issue—as a filmmaker, as a film writer, as a viewer even—is to wonder how we can break out of the cinephile circle jerk that so often makes me feel like we’re talking to nobody but ourselves. When I showed up in that tent on Friday afternoon, I expressed my current state of emptiness (at best) and hopelessness (at worst) at the reality of our situation. We were trapped in our own little bubble. Our films were never going to be able to compete with reality television, with advertising, with the multiplex. I tried to not sound too whiny for the truth is that out of all the filmmakers in that room, I was in pretty great shape. My film got into Sundance, it paid itself off in seven months, and it had already been seen by more people than I ever imagined it would. Of course, on the flipside of that, it was hard not to bitch about the blatantly false advertising in IFC’s VOD description of Septien and how, each new time I get an email from someone saying they wish it hadn’t been so falsely advertised and that they wished they'd watched it with different eyes, I couldn’t help but feel that we—I, the cast, the crew—were being deeply insulted. Hopefully I didn’t come off too ungrateful to IFC, because their purchasing of this movie made many peoples’ wildest dreams come true. There was a general sense, from all sides, that by being aligned with Rainbow Media they are now without question the “other guy” and that they are biting off more than they can chew. But I can’t argue with their decision to buy as many films as they want. Lately, everything they’re picking up—at least with regards to Sundance Selects—is pretty damn great.

One of those pretty damn great films is Don Argott and Demian Fenton's Last Days Here, which screened at the festival, and which I had caught in Sarasota. But for me, the Sundance Selects revelation at this particular festival was Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (like Last Days Here, another 2011 SXSW world premiere), which is a very, very special film. In the course of just a few short days, it covers so much ground in its exploration of homosexual identity—beginning with having such flawlessly, deeply realized characters—that I actually think this movie has the potential to become a mini-breakout hit. As a gay friend jabbed to me in Sarasota, “It’s a gay movie for straight boys,” and while I disagree with that sentiment—I know gay boys (and straight gals) who love it too—in some ways I hope he’s right. Weekend probably won’t change the minds of true homophobes and general simpletons, but by making these characters so three-dimensional and their relationship so compelling, it has a piercing, lingering power.

A film I was even more floored by was Mark Jackson’s Without. As I tweeted just after watching it, this incredibly smart psychodrama makes Antichrist and Black Swan look like the silly little boys that they are. Jackson uses the Canon 5D to great effect, but one of the other things that jumps out is how he incorporates technology (specifically the iPhone) into the film in such an organic way. This is one of those films in which its fierce grounding in this very moment in time isn’t distracting but adds to the film's impact. Having said that, none of that praise acknowledges the real reason to see Without, which is the stunning debut performance by Joslyn Jensen. The film's late-inning revelation only confirms the sincerity and humanity of Jackson's purpose and seals the deal. Without is easily one of the most striking low-budget American narratives of 2011.

Aside from the opening night shorts—three of which I had already seen but all of which I really dug (Seltzer Works has inspired me to order my own seltzer deliveries to my apartment in Brooklyn!)—I only watched one other official MDFilmFest entry. (The other feature I watched was a nearly picture locked cut of a friend’s movie, but you’ll be hearing about that later, when it becomes a legit smash at 2012 Sundance—and if I'm wrong about that I will eat my toenails.) Clay Liford’s Wuss was the perfect first feature of the festival for me. It was laugh-out-loud funny, entertaining, and it challenged me as it spun into some ethically murky directions. It also features another standout performance by Nate Rubin, who starred in Liford’s hilarious short film My Mom Smokes Weed.

When everyone checked into the primary filmmaker housing spot, the fancy Hotel Monaco, it was impossible not to notice the party waiting to happen in their closet: yes, these Kimpton hotel rooms came furnished with cheetah- and zebra-print robes. Throughout the day, and at the Lithuanian Hall dance party that John Waters led us to on Friday night, I told people to be in the lobby of the Hotel Monaco at 2:30am wearing those robes. Apparently, nobody believed me, because it was pretty incredible to watch pocket after pocket of shy filmmakers peek out of the elevator’s opening doors thinking that a practical joke was being played on them. This was most certainly not the case. It was all for this glorious purpose:

AGreatNightinBaltimore2011.jpg

Yes, that bearded man in the center is none other than Godard expert and New Yorker writer Richard Brody, who wrote his own gushing piece about the film festival right here. In it, he speaks of a new cinema being created on the margins, defiant and personal and true. Though he doesn’t name any names, from his description of this new form of cinema, I take it that he isn’t talking about Septien.

Which leads us to Septien. Though I didn’t sit through it during either screening, I can say with 100% confidence that our nearly full screening in the big house at The Charles on Saturday evening was as good as it can possibly get. The crowd was incredibly diverse, and word from several trusted insiders was that it has never played better. There was consistent laughter and energy throughout, and hopefully our not-too-drunken Q&A kept spirits up as well.

While almost every screening of Septien has resulted in at least one person expressing genuine thanks for us having taken the plunge, the reactions I experienced in Baltimore helped to restore my faith in the movie itself. It’s not that I thought it was “bad” or anything like that. I had simply become numb to it and lost whatever enthusiasm I had for it. But hearing friends and strangers say such kind things—to my face, in texts, in emails, in Facebook messages—impacted me unexpectedly. In that tent at the "Filmmakers Taking Charge" conference on Friday afternoon, I felt emotionally and creatively zapped. I wondered why any of us bothered. But heading back to New York just a few days later, I felt a new sense of faith and hope. I was rejuvenated and re-inspired to get cracking on the rewrite for my next project, which appears to be off and running (and will be shot in Maryland, no less!). More than that, I was grateful to have been a part of something so special. Maybe nobody outside our bubble understands what we do or even knows who we are, but, by golly, at least we’ve got a fugging bubble. That bubble has never been as big and shiny as it was at the 2011 Maryland Film Festival.

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