Film festival set for May

Maryland Film Festival wants to keep audience a priority

Program: The fourth annual event has a number of celebrities on the guest list this year.

April 02, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Appearances by Cal Ripken, Julian Bond, Survivor bombshell Colleen Haskell, GQ magazine's critic-at-large Terrence Rafferty, and, as always, John Waters, will highlight the fourth annual Maryland Film Festival next month.

That might sound like a high celebrity quotient. But Jed Dietz, director of the festival, which runs May 2-5 this year, says his first priority is to advocate talented filmmakers, and to program challenging films that can't be seen elsewhere - and in so doing, stimulate the audience.

Of course, every film festival proclaims itself a haven for advocacy and discovery. But not all involve the audience in open-ended exploration. Too many are part of a festival circuit overrun with cliques and coteries, and critics who pay a lot of attention to movies that simply try real hard.

In contrast, the Maryland Film Festival already has an admirable track record for nurturing new directors:

Dietz is proud that at last month's Independent Spirit Awards, director Debra Eisenstadt got the "Someone To Watch Award" for Daydream Believer, an entry at last year's festival. Better yet, its closest competition was another 2001 MFF film, Khari Streeter and DeMane Davis' Lift. In addition, Monteith McCollum's documentary Hybrid, also at last year's MFF, received the "Truer Than Fiction Award."

And to top it off, the live-action short The Accountant, also seen here, just bagged an Oscar.

The Maryland Film Festival programmers, including Skizz Cyzyk and Dan Krovich, judge each potential selection on its individual merits, not as a representative of a school or genre or country. In Dietz's phrase, they resist "ghettoizing any type of movie" - they're eager to showcase a cutting-edge documentary or an avant-garde feature right next to a revival of a wide-screen spectacular.

As part of its commitment to the audience, the festival has a policy of not presenting any film without the presence of filmmakers or other folks directly connected to the movies, their themes or their subject matter. "We turn down films if we can't find a way to create that kind of interaction with the audience," Dietz says.

The festival also enlists personalities from the non-movie world as special guest host-programmers: that's where NAACP chairman Bond and Survivor veteran Haskell will come in.

Bond's best-known contribution to film and TV may be narrating Eyes on the Prize, but he opted to introduce Melvin Van Peebles' seminal blaxploitation film, Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971). Haskell, who interned at the London Film Festival and Washington's Arena Stage, injected Terry Gilliam's gonzo period spectacular, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989), into the schedule.

All of this begs the question: does any given year produce 70-100 films worth seeing?

Dietz, Cyzyk and Krovich say they never program movies simply to fill empty spots in the schedule. Dietz insists that the films this year "are better than ever - you get the wrong idea if you only go by what plays in theaters."

For the festival to keep growing in this eclectic fashion, it can't rely on ticket sales and philanthropy alone; it must attract corporate sponsors. This year, Dietz has landed a few big ones to buttress the festival's estimated $350,000 budget: Comcast has funded and will air a series of festival TV spots throughout its local cable system. And Sundance Channel will be a major screening sponsor.

Most events again will be held at the Charles Theatre, with some shows at the Senator Theatre and at Heritage House. A pass for the entire, four-day festival is $250. Individual tickets cost $10 for most adults, and $8 for senior citizens and students. A "three-pass" for three events costs $20. (Special events may carry an additional fee.) Here are some anticipated highlights of this year's festival:

The Season: A Year With Cal Ripken, a co-production of Major League Baseball and ESPN. The filmmakers miked Ripken and followed him through his tumultuous final months in baseball. This documentary takes the up-close-and-personal concept to a whole new plateau, and its re-editing for theatrical presentation may strengthen the impression of no-holds-barred intimacy - as will the attendance at the festival screening of Cal Ripken and his wife Kelly (a film festival board member).

Those who find that event too wholesome can always listen to John Waters explain his enthusiasm for the X-rated 1969 Argentinian movie Fuego, about a wife who longs to be loyal to her husband - but can't. The film's advertising tagline is "She's a woman on fire!"

Skizz Cyzyk (founder of Baltimore's MicroCineFest and a filmmaker himself) touts Claire, a 60-minute silent movie shot on a hand-cranked camera, which will be accompanied live by the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra. It's about a Southern rural couple in the 1920s who adopt a moon-goddess child they find in an ear of corn.

Dan Krovich singles out Design, a movie with multiple story lines involving voyeuristic photography, alcoholism, various marital crises and, of course, "the mysterious governing power of fate."

One thing is certain: Dietz and company want to entertain you while staying true to their own lights. Dietz likes to quote two questions he heard when raising money for the festival's first edition: "Are there going to be a lot of disgusting movies?" and "Are there going to be a lot of boring movies?" With a smile, he gave the same answer to both: "Maybe some."

A partial schedule of the fourth annual Maryland Film Festival has been posted at www.mdfilm fest.com, and will be updated daily.

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