Noise An Arts Blog

Blood, Rats, Spirituality: A round-up of Maryland Film Festival 2017

City Paper

Most film festivals—scratch that, most festivals, period—are incredibly isolating experiences. Not that I’ve been to very many, but I’ve spent most of the ones I have been to sleepy and lonely, often in a corner pretending to vigorously check my phone while also trying not to drain my battery. I spent one festival stalking Elijah Wood wherever he went. Another one I spent crying and vomiting in my hotel room due to extreme jetlag. I didn’t want a repeat of either at Maryland Film Festival, but my journey from New York City to Baltimore immediately became a comedy of disastrous errors, with messed-up train and hotel reservations, and one explosive nosebleed on the train ride in between that left me looking like the victim in a rip-off Agatha Christie murder mystery. Let’s just say it was a traumatic start to the weekend.

But there was an immediate feeling of comfort as soon as I arrived to Baltimore, a feeling that would be confirmed in subsequent days. I grew up in Maryland (Rockville, specifically) for a couple years, so it already weirdly felt like homecoming—even though Baltimore itself wasn’t a familiar stomping ground. By my last day, it became familiar.

“For filmmakers and audiences alike, it helps that we have a very walkable campus located in an arts neighborhood that gives people a taste of Baltimore at its best: friendly, diverse, unpretentious, and surrounded by great food, night life, visual art, and other cultural offerings,” Eric Allen Hatch, MdFF’s Director of Programming, wrote over email, after the festival wrapped. “To visit Maryland Film Festival is, we hope, to experience our city as Baltimoreans do on a particularly nice day.”

For the first time in its 19-year run, the Maryland Film Festival has a home base at the newly renovated Parkway Theater, a 102-year-old building that’s preserved much of its antique décor on the walls and ceiling. The Parkway will continue to show independent films when not housing the Maryland Film Fest screenings. Sitting down for my first feature film there (Barry Levinson’s Bernie Madoff biopic, "The Wizard of Lies"), an old married couple next to me struck up conversation. The husband, in his sixties or so, said he used to come to the Parkway back in the ’70s. His lovely wife inquired about my work and voiced her concerns about NEA funding, and what that would mean for films and other arts going forward. It was encouraging to sit next to strangers who genuinely love and care about art and want to support its future.

At Maryland Film Festival, there’s a rare lack of divide between talent and press, and even patrons.

“I think filmmakers relax here in a way they might not be able to elsewhere since we’re a festival structured without juries or awards,” Hatch wrote over email. “Everyone can enjoy each other’s work in a non-competitive atmosphere, and new friendships and collaborations often emerge. People also appreciate that we focus on emerging voices, and strive to offer a level of hospitality that reflects how much we love these incredible movies.”

The program really does feel thoughtfully curated, with intent to highlight different, curious, and interesting perspectives in independent cinema. I didn’t love everything I caught, but I found something worthwhile in each of them. Some films I went in with certain expectations; for instance, "Golden Exits" I went to see because I’m already a fan of Alex Ross Perry, and Matías Piñeiro’s "Hermia and Helena" I saw because I had heard great things about it from previous festivals it played. I had also heard a lot of praise for Dustin Guy Defa’s "Person to Person," and it ended up being one of my favorites from the fest. Shot on warm, textured 16mm by DP Ashley Connor, the film captures several slices of eccentric New Yorkers’ lives with highlights from Michael Cera (as a metal head crime reporter) and Tavi Gevinson (as an angsty teen). And of course, watching the notorious 1981 film "Roar," hand-picked by the one and only John Waters, was a highlight. Waters introduced the film and stuck around for a Q&A afterwards to discuss this “family snuff film,” starring director Noel Marshall himself, alongside his real wife Tippi Hedren, his real daughter Melanie Griffith, and real lions and tigers. The film is truly bonkers, but it was a hazard to make (Griffith needed reconstructive facial surgery after getting clawed by a lion in one scene).

But what I really cherished are the completely new-to-me discoveries I made. On opening night’s program of shorts, I was especially tickled by Nathaniel Truesdell’s "Balloonfest," a 6-minute found footage documentary about a stranger-than-fiction event in 1986 during which 1.5 million balloons were released in Cleveland, Ohio, to set a world record—wild, right? Over the course of my four days there, I had the pleasure of getting to know—dancing with, partying with, Ubering around with—director Ashley McKenzie. After catching her impressive feature debut "Werewolf," I’m certain she’s a one-to-watch. Her portrait of homeless youth and their bumpy road to recovery from drug addiction stars two non-actors and is marked by McKenzie’s strange sense of mise-en-scène, muted color palette, and playfulness with reflective surfaces.

The documentaries were especially strong this year, including a powerful Ferguson film called "Whose Streets?" (directed by Sabaah Folayan) and my favorite, Lana Wilson’s T"he Departure," an otherworldly yet deeply human film about a Japanese suicide counselor. Then there’s Theo Anthony’s "Rat Film," a smart and essential Baltimore film about the city’s rat infestation informed by its history of segregation.

And then there were panels held daily, including one I moderated called “Spirituality in Cinema: How is Cinema an Act of Devotion?” On my panel I spoke with "Thou Wast Mild and Lovely" director Josephine Decker (also a co-host of opening night), animator/filmmaker Karen Yasinsky, and film composer Brian Mcomber ("Krisha") about how the acts of making and watching films are like religious rituals. Decker said that she finds spirituality in “letting the mystery of the film remain a mystery,” a sentiment I found myself thinking about as a viewer while watching films at the festival.

While the filmmakers and types of stories told at Maryland Film Fest are so creative and varied, there was still a noticeable lack of diversity in the festival’s attendance. And it’s not that I didn’t feel welcome there—because I really did—but this is reflective of a bigger issue in the arts, especially in film. It’s always an overwhelmingly white crowd—and made even more startling when it takes place in a city like Baltimore. I thought the selection of films did a good job showcasing many female, queer, non-white voices and topics (see: "Beach Rats," "Lemon," "The Blood Is at the Doorstep," "Whose Streets," "Princess Cyd," etc.), but I had hoped that would reflect in person, too. As Maryland Film Festival continues to foster diverse voices, I hope we’ll see that kind of diversity in its crowd, too.

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