New filmmakers help keep Maryland tradition alive

COMMENTARY

March 31, 2006|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

A trio of local guys are making good cinematically over the next few days, further evidence of the strength of Baltimore's standing as a still-nascent, but increasingly visible film colony.

In theaters throughout Maryland today - indeed, in theaters throughout the country - Harford County's own Chris Robinson, a respected veteran of the music-video scene, makes his feature-length directing debut with ATL, a drama of depth and sensitivity about a group of African-American kids struggling to come of age on the often-unforgiving streets of Atlanta.

Last night at the Charles Theatre, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his wife, Kendel, hosted a premiere of Doug Sadler's Swimmers, a film that was the toast of last year's Maryland Film Festival. An emotional, elegiac character study of a place, and a people, whose time has passed, Swimmers was shot on the Eastern Shore and marks the second feature for Sadler (following 2001's equally wise and wonderful Riders), who lives with his family in a converted warehouse apartment in Easton. Swimmers opens for real today at the Charles.

And on Tuesday, Baltimorean Derick Thomas' Charm City, a streetwise urban drama set in the neighborhoods of his hometown, will become available on DVD in stores everywhere.

Not bad for guys living in a state that's about as far away from Hollywood (at least geographically) as you can get. But they're only the latest in a long line of area filmmakers who have made their mark, a line that can be traced at least as far back as the movies of John Waters and Barry Levinson.

Their success has been a welcome surprise to the three directors, who didn't exactly grow up with visions of celluloid glory dancing in their heads. "We're from Maryland, so how many filmmakers do you know?" Robinson told The Sun's Stephen Kiehl in a recent interview. "When I was 19 years old, attempting to be a filmmaker, nobody could identify with that. It was like, what are you doing?"

One of those least-surprised by the area's increasing visibility is Jed Dietz, founder of the Maryland Film Festival, an annual four-day feast of all things cinematic that returns for its eighth incarnation May 11 to 14.

To Dietz, Maryland's growth as a springboard for budding filmmakers is easy to explain. A few guys, like Waters and Levinson, did some good work and didn't neglect their hometown, returning often to share their expertise and encourage other aspiring filmmakers to carry on. With mentors like that available to them, it's no wonder that area talent is starting to get noticed.

"You see young filmmakers getting better at what they do," Dietz says, "because they've got people around them who are really good, and they get to interact with them."

And it's not just successful local filmmakers who are acting as mentors. Baltimore's growing reputation, one Dietz and his festival have helped burnish, has brought other talent to the area as well. A recent animators' showcase, sponsored by the festival and the Maryland Institute College of Art, has brought several award-winning artists to town for sessions with students. Last week, David Andrews of Industrial Light and Magic was at MICA. Monday, the showcase wraps up with a visit from Bob Sabiston, whose work with rotoscoping - animating over the top of actual filmed images - has led to collaborations with director Richard Linklater on Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly.

"It's unbelievable, to see this interaction with the students from MICA," Dietz says.

It also helps that Maryland and Baltimore, which fund separate film offices dedicated to attracting film crews to the area, actively support their native filmmakers, says Sadler. "It's great, all the support you get, from the film festival, the film office, etc. You're able to make a splash in a way that you'd be hard-pressed to do otherwise."

None of which is to suggest that becoming a successful filmmaker is simple, or that Baltimore will soon be giving Southern California a run for its money. Especially for directors without major financial backing, filmmaking remains a tough nut to crack.

"It's easier when you have an HBO name behind you," says Thomas, who made his film without big-name backing and stresses that the tough part remains convincing financiers to back you. "When you're just a local filmmaker, you've got to convince them yourself."

So sure, making a film is never going to be simple, and making a successful film is even harder. But every time a Chris Robinson, a Doug Sadler or a Derick Thomas comes along, the process becomes a little bit easier.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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