BALTIMORE. CHARM CITY. A SCARRED CITY STILL HEALING. It has grit, yet beauty. It’s a city personified as a character — with plenty of character. In short, the perfect setting for a film fest. When you read this, the 2016 Maryland Film Festival will have already begun, but you’ve only missed opening night. There’s still four more days to take in movies inside a unique film festival.
“The challenge when we started in 1999 — what do we do to add to the film community and not just imitate what other [festivals] were doing,” said Jed Dietz, festival director and a founder of the festival. “We have a place where films can be celebrated amongst filmmakers and audiences.”
And that’s just what they’ve done. There’s no competition or award to claw for. Absent are movie executives making deals around the corner. It’s all about the films — experiencing them and talking about them with other film aficionados.
No disrespect to Sundance, but Baltimore is going to do things differently.
The festival has an unmistakable Bal’more flavor to it. That’s evident when you see celebrated hometown auteur and beloved cult cinema figure John Waters holding court with his own movie selection he hosts, a staple of the Maryland Film Festival; this year he picked 2011’s “Deep Blue Sea,” from director Terrence Davies.
But it wouldn’t be a film festival without seeing exciting new visionary material turning heads. One of the wildest at the fest will be “Collective: Unconscious.” Under the direction of Dan Schoenbrun, five New York City-based indie directors wrote their dreams in short, Twitter-like statements, which were then randomly re-assigned to each other to interpret and bring to life onscreen. The gestalt effect of five short films, somehow subconsciously connected, challenged and appealed to Lauren Wolkstein, an Ellicott City native and one of the directors. By phone, she said the process took her out of her comfort zone “to make something that is completely visceral and ethereal.” Her own directed short in the movie titled “Beemus, It’ll End in Tears,” adapted from director Frances Bodomo’s dream, is about a gym teacher during PE class losing his cool when an “emergency” from the outside world approaches. She laughed when trying to describe her dream assignment, which read loosely as this: My PE class and I are stuck in a volcano — we have to avoid getting punished by the volcano master who has a walrus mustache. “It was insane,” she said. Eventually she drew up a composite of a rigid gym teacher whose authority is challenged by a gender-queer student. I’m not going to give anything away, difficult as that may be with a dream, but it’s spectacularly imaginative.
Sharing an observation that cinema is itself dreamlike in some respects, Wolkstein replied, “Cinema has enabled us to transform into this trance state where we’re in between reality and dreams by watching. I think it’s really powerful.”
Another film on the watch list: “Orange Sunshine,” a thriller-documentary (if that’s indeed a category). Director William Kirkley, who grew up in Laguna Beach, California, heard tales in his backyard community about this mythical Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a church founded by surfers and hippies who sought to change the world by turning people onto LSD. Years later, he started digging around, finding clues to the Brotherhood’s existence. After trying to get people to talk about the Brotherhood on film, he found threatening messages left on his voicemail, telling him to abandon the project. I asked Kirkley, at that moment in time, with a pregnant wife, was he at all concerned? He chuckled. “It made me feel I was onto something by that point.” He charged right in with the secretive group: “I met them at a park at Laguna beach — a very public place — talked with them for a few hours. It was an intimidating conversation, but by the end, we hugged and I had their blessing.”
The Brotherhood’s history is utterly fascinating, from its early utopian mission to becoming one of California’s biggest drug-smuggling operations. Certainly there was a dark side to the tale, with tremendous personal casualties suffered along the way. In the end, Kirkley delivers a fairly even-handed account on the so-called war on drugs.
Topical questions are being asked in the documentary “Do Not Resist,” on how military surplus equipment, like tanks and armor, ended up on local police forces. The increased militarization of local police nationwide raises alarm, and the timing of the screening at the festival, nearly a year after riots took place in Baltimore, makes this a raw and simmering documentary to watch.
Check out these and other films at the Maryland Film Fest, which runs through May 8 at Station North Arts & Entertainment district in Baltimore. The schedule and venues for the film fest is available at mdfilmfest.com.
Roy Ghim is a founder of Western Machines, which aims to bring indie music and film to Frederick. He’s a contributor to the FNP blogs Frederick Playlist and Bucket of Rock. He also writes about soccer, having penned for the New York Times’ online section “Goals” and the England-based online soccer publication In Bed With Maradona, as well as blogging about Korean soccer at taegukwarriors.com.