Baltimore filmmakers at the Maryland Film Fest

The city provides community for feature directors and dramatic subject matter for documentary-makers

May 05, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

The 2011 Maryland Film Festival showcases an extraordinary number of movies by filmmakers who grew up in Baltimore or have adopted it as their hometown. Here are a feature director, a documentary maker and a creator of avant-garde fantasy talking about making movies in Mobtown.

Josh Slates' "Small Pond" is about a girl who's floundering in the provincial life of Columbia, Mo. Slates says he filmed it in the summer of 2009 as part of a brief homecoming and sabbatical in the Show-Me State. But he has long made Baltimore home base.

"When I first moved to Baltimore, I was slinging popcorn at the Charles and begged John Waters for a job on 'Cecil B. Demented,' and soon thereafter felt welcomed into a very ingratiating and inventive community of filmmakers," he wrote in an email.

"I can't point to a single sensibility that represents independent filmmaking in Baltimore as a whole, but I think that's because there's room for everyone to express or explore their own idiosyncratic worldviews and obsessions. If there is one trait that local Baltimore filmmakers do share, I believe it is a selfless willingness to assist their peers in realizing their passion projects — not just because it makes Baltimore a more prolific filmmaking community, but because we are genuinely excited to see those passion projects unspool at the Maryland Film Festival and eventually find a larger audience on the international stage."

Richard Chisolm's "Cafeteria Man" follows Anthony Geraci's visionary effort to create healthful menus for Baltimore public schools. Chisolm hopes that it will "meaningfully add to the current national discussion of school food reform and youth nutrition." Chisolm says that documentary makers in Baltimore don't share the same intense communal bonds as its "art-film" directors or even its feature filmmakers. But he's passionate about the city. "We made the film for a national audience from the start, but we always cared about the way in which it would be seen in Baltimore," he wrote in an e-mail. "All three of us (producer Sheila Kinkade, editor David Grossbach, and myself) live here and care deeply about the city and its people."

While doing award-winning work for national and international organizations like PBS and the BBC, Chisolm has always put a premium on integrity. He calls "Cafeteria Man" a completely independent film: "[We had] no editors to please, no deadlines, no sponsors, no product placement, and no stupid TV formulas." Because he used verbal exposition only to support the visual elements that tell the richest and most truthful aspects of the story, the director says, the film's real subtext is in the faces of kids.

Albert Birney, co-director of the avant-garde fantasy "The Beast Pageant," lives and works in Rochester, N.Y. But Birney says, "My family moved to Baltimore when I was 6 and I lived there until I went off to college. My grandmother used to take me out of school early once a week to go and watch new films at the Charles or the Senator. The actual film camera [a Bolex] we shot on [for 'The Beast Pageant'] came from a dumpster behind John Hopkins.

"In my high school film class we visited the set of John Waters' 'Cecil B. Demented.' The day we were on set they were filming a bearded woman drinking whiskey and firing a gun into the air. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Waters was a big inspiration. He didn't wait for anyone to come and give him money. He just started filming on his own."

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