Film Forum sails out of the mainstream to explore the indies

April 23, 1995|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Sun

Jeff Schmale wasn't out to make the great American movie. He only wanted to make a little experimental film about two of his favorite obsessions. The rapid-fire editing scheme and mixture of live action and animation in his 51-second "Coffee/Cigarettes" gets across just how avidly he and his girlfriend indulge in these habits.

"I thought of my film as a tribute to two of the most popular vices among the American people and two that I share," says this 23-year-old independent filmmaker from Bel Air, who acquired his 20-cups-a-day coffee addiction from his job in a convenience store and his filmmaking savvy from Towson State University, where he received a mass communications degree in January.

Mr. Schmale's filmmaking is nurtured by more than coffee. Like his creative compatriots, he finds support and inspiration in Baltimore's thriving independent film and video scene. Some of its best examples, including "Coffee/Cigarettes," will be showcased in the Baltimore Film Forum's screening of winners of its Independent Film and Video Makers Competition Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's the closing event of the 26th annual Baltimore International Film Festival.

Mr. Schmale estimates that his movie cost all of $50 to produce, about the amount spent to style a few locks of Sharon Stone's hair in the typical Hollywood movie. Like other independent film- and video-makers, Mr. Schmale is working way outside the studio system. He's banking on his collegiate training, short film production and screenings at alternative venues to translate eventually into a career.

"I hope to be working in filmmaking and not in the convenience store," he says with what sounds like coffee-fueled ardor.

In addition to Mr. Schmale's winning film in the experimental category, the other Film Forum winners are Susan Hadary Cohen and William A. Whiteford's 37-minute "Bong and Donnell," about the friendship between a disabled Philippine-American youth and his African-American best buddy, which copped both the documentary and Best of Fest awards; and a first-place tie in the dramatic category between Jonathan Cordish's 20-minute "Lost Mojave," a Sam Shepard-esque story about a boy living in a desert community, and Kevin Brian Kohlhafer's 20-minute "Deven's Room," inspired by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. No prize was given in the animation category this year because there was only one entry.

Showing out of competition are Darryl L. Wharton's four-minute in-the-street impressionism of "Why You Run Away?" and Jon Jolles' award-winning, humorously autobiographical, eight-minute "Your Montana Vacation Tour of the World's Wonders Starts With This Coupon."

Surveying the 43 entries from which these winners were selected by a judging panel, independent competition coordinator Caroline Castro says, "There was a huge range of subject matter, much of it difficult. Easily 70 percent of what we saw was done on video, and a lot of it by students. They have this incredible personal need to use a video camera to make a statement, and their really subjective visions came through."

Victoria Westover, executive director of the Baltimore Film Forum, adds that these kinds of independent, subjective visions have always been an important part of her organization's mission. Although the annual independent competition was "put hiatus" last year because of a tight budget and limited staff, she says it was reinstated for this year's festival because "The Film Forum needs to be a place that shows their work. It's something that sets us apart from other film societies."

This year's independent competition was restricted to Maryland film- and video-makers, but Ms. Westover says next year's will return to the tradition of being open to filmmakers from across the country.

The festival's winning films will be included in a new weekly series, "Independent Eye," being launched on Maryland Public Television May 4. That sort of statewide airing is a godsend for filmmakers, who spend as much time trying to get their work seen as they do making it.

And for students just out of the programs at two local training hotbeds, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Towson State University, such exposure is what takes them from convenience-store blues to screen glory.

"So many students do stay in the area, working in television, or in film, usually free-lance, and they find the business can be a rough,arduous road in order to get established," cautions Vin Grabill, 46, an associate professor of video art at UMBC. He's also president of a regional networking organization called the Association of Maryland Area Media Artists, which publishes a ,, newsletter and has an annual Traveling Film and Video program.

Moving toward success

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