The Best of Baltimore Student Films Returns to the Creative Alliance

by Christopher Llewellyn Reed

Those of us who teach the art and craft of moving-image storytelling recognize the essential role that an audience plays in the creative process. Whether one is making documentaries, experimental films, narratives, personal essays, some combination of some or all of these, or something impossible to categorize, the public reception of the work informs one’s growth as an artist.

For the past three years, Baltimore’s Creative Alliance at the Patterson, a center for art and culture located at the southeast corner of Patterson Park, has hosted a showcase screening of movies by area college students. How it works: Area university film departments submit one or two examples of what they consider the best projects of that year, making for an approximately two-hour highlight reel of what the next generation of local filmmakers holds in store for us.

This year, on Thursday, September 15, at 7pm, the Creative Alliance will present what is now the 4th Annual Best of Baltimore Student Film Festival. This year’s participating schools are Johns Hopkins University, MICA (both the undergraduate and new graduate program), Morgan State University, Stevenson University (in the interest of full disclosure, my own department), Towson University, UMBC, and University of Baltimore.

As Vin Grabill of UMBC says, “My filmmaker faculty colleagues and I strive to provide as many opportunities as possible for our students to exhibit their work, and so the Baltimore Student Film Festival provides just that chance for our students to show their work and gain exposure in a professional setting.” Indeed, such exposure can also help instill the confidence that all budding artists need.

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Julie Simon, of UB, describes it this way: “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for students. Many don’t realize how good their work is until they see it in this kind of forum. The festival encourages them to push harder to the next level.” Not only that, but the opportunity to see what one’s peers at other institutions are doing opens all of our eyes to the future possibilities of the art form.

Joe Kraemer, of Towson University, puts it best: “The Electronic Media & Film Department likes to participate in the Creative Alliance event because it provides a good perspective of the breadth and diversity of film and media works being created by students throughout the greater Baltimore film and arts community. This event showcases the next generation of filmmakers to be unleashed upon the region; the newest and freshest voices. They represent why it is that Baltimore has such a rich and vibrant film and arts community.”

David Warfield, of Morgan State University, adds, “As a Hollywood veteran, filmmaker, and professor I must say that student film screenings are my favorite–more rewarding and more interesting (to me) than most multiplex offerings. The spirit of discovery in seeing young filmmakers work out classical cinematic language and adapting it to their own worldview is exhilarating. There are always glimpses of innovation and the future of visual storytelling embedded in the work of these nascent filmmakers.”

I had the opportunity to talk to both CA Managing Director Gina Caruso and Film Programmer Samantha Mitchell, to hear more this event and how it started. What follows is a condensed and edited digest of both conversations.

unspecified-4Samantha Mitchell and Gina Caruso

Interview with Gina Caruso, Managing Director:

What gave you the idea to start doing this student showcase?

I had previously been a film curator, as well as the Director of the the Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art, a job I had for 5 years, where I was in charge of the concerts and screenings and everything that happened in that theater. So Margaret Footner, Executive Director here at the Creative Alliance, asked me to run the film program, and I agreed to do it, at least for a certain period of time.

And then I attended a meeting at the Maryland Film Office where there were a lot of people talking about tax credits – Nina Noble, producer of The Wire was there, along with others – and how to make Baltimore a film center, and one of the things I said to them was that there are all these colleges and universities in Baltimore that have film programs, and I think it would be really important to showcase the work of the students, so that people who hire other people for crews could come and attend the screening and see who is out there doing this work. Kids need jobs after graduating, so rather than going off to L.A. or New York and leaving Baltimore, maybe this would be a way of keeping them here.

The screening is non-competitive; I didn’t want to give prizes. I’m open to changing that, but I’m also allowing [new film programmer] Samantha Mitchell to take the reins. One of the things that I thought was really important was that each university’s film department has chosen who they think is the best, so it’s not up to us to decide, out of all of those universities, that one is better than the other. And you see, from the submitted films, what is going on at the respective universities: some are working on writing; some are working on production and editing; some are purely working on art and art films and taking risks and experimenting. So I feel like trying to judge in that way is not the point.

Would you ever consider, independent of the showcase – or instead of it – an actual student film festival where the students, themselves, would submit movies?

Absolutely. We would have to make it a little different than this one, and not in competition with it. Maybe it would have to have a specific theme. I feel as if the one we already have is so important, because I think it’s vital for all the colleges and universities to get together and see what’s happening at other places. The first time we did it, we put each institution’s films in a block, playing in a row, and what I noticed was that people would stick around for their college and then they’d leave. And also, I think the tone is different if you mix up the program.

Sure! What have been some of the challenges in getting this set up?

It hasn’t really been that difficult. The only challenges have been technical and getting all of the films to work together. We need to make sure that the formats match and that each submission is in the right resolution, so that the night of the screening, it goes smoothly. That has been one big challenge. The other challenge has been that I want the students to be able to talk about their films, and just managing that Q&A afterwards has been hard, since there are a lot of kids that are up there on stage. Going forward, I would also like to get this sponsored, so that each student who is in the festival night get some sort of monetary award, just by virtue of being in it. I want to build it and make the students – and the professors! – feel honored. When you see what the students are doing, you know what the film departments are doing.

I look forward to another great program this year!

unspecified-5Samantha Mitchell and Gina Caruso outside the Marquee Lounge at Creative Alliance

Interview with Samantha Mitchell, Film Programmer:

How long have you worked for the Creative Alliance?

I started working for the Creative Alliance as Gina Caruso’s intern in 2014. After that, I worked in the box office for a while and then left and came back and have been working as the Office Manager (since October, 2015) and now also Film Programmer (since January of this year).

So tell me about this year’s program at the 4th Annual Best of Baltimore Student Film Festival.

This year, I’ve been spending a lot of time getting to know Baltimore filmmakers, and this experience has been really enlightening, as well, just to see the new talent and the different styles that are coming out of the different schools. It’s been pretty apparent what their focuses are, based on the work submitted. I’m really excited! It’s an interesting mix. We’ve invited the professors and the filmmakers to come, and we’ll be doing a short Q&A at the end, as well.

What else do you have coming up, after the student showcase?

Immediately after that, on Saturday, we’re showing a film, League of Exotic Dancers, about burlesque dancers from the heyday of burlesque who are now getting back into it after many years. We do have a very strong burlesque community that comes to the Creative Alliance. The very next week is our 8th annual “29 Days Later Film Project,” where 29 teams of filmmakers were challenged to make a short film in 29 days.

So, it’s like a 48-hour film festival, only spread out over 29 days.

Right. A little bit less stressful.

Why 29 days?

In tribute to the zombie film 28 Days Later, that the festival organizers, Dean Storm and Dawn Campbell, really like.

Is there a zombie requirement?

(laughs) There is no zombie requirement.

And this is a Baltimore-based film festival?

Yes. And after that, we have some screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, in October. Last year, we did two screenings, which were incredibly popular … they sold out really fast … so we added a few more this year. We’re doing four, altogether.

Are these structured screenings, with a cast of players on stage, or can the audience yell out any lines they want, whenever they want to?

SM: It’s kind of a mix of the two. We have enlisted a drag performer named Betty O’Hellno to be the MC for the screenings, and she’ll have a couple of her queens on stage with her to do things that they have choreographed, but like our other interactive screenings that we do here, we make fan packs and encourage people to stand up and scream at any moment. The packs have newspapers, squirt guns, etc., and really encourage the making of a huge mess.

Excellent! Fun for you! You have four screenings, and after each one, you have to clean up …

Right … We have a “no glitter” policy now … (laughs) … we were finding it under the stage, months later …

(laughs) Well, I look forward to the student showcase, which will hopefully be glitter-free!

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Author Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a filmmaker, film critic and Chair of the Department of Film & Moving Image at Stevenson University.

The 4th Annual Best of Baltimore Student Film Festival will take place on Thursday, September 15, at 7pm. You can buy tickets in advance or at the screening, itself ($10 for non-members, $7 for members … + $2 at the door).

Parking is available on the street (arrive early to find a good spot), or across from the Creative Alliance street in the East Avenue Lot. The cost is $8. Call ahead (at 410-276-1651) to reserve.