A Curated Preview of the Maryland Film Festival by Christopher Llewellyn Reed

The Maryland Film Festival (MdFF), founded in 1999 by Festival Director Jed Dietz, is back, just as it is every year during the first week of May. With 95 shorts and 40 features, it feels especially robust in 2018, providing a plethora of exciting content for all to enjoy.

Just a year ago, the MdFF opened the doors of the newly renovated Parkway Theater – at 5 W North Ave, on the corner of Charles Street and North Avenue, in Baltimore – as the 2017 festival began, to general delight. Since then, the theater has continued screening ultra-indie films on a regular basis, bringing additional viewing options to Charm City beyond the blockbusters and mainstream independent offerings available at the region’s other cinemas. Running from Wednesday, May 2, through Sunday, May 6, this year’s MdFF is, as always, a must-attend event, and a great introduction, if you haven’t yet visited, to this revitalized corner of Baltimore’s Station North Arts and Entertainment District. Check out the online film guide, make your choices, and prepare for a profoundly cinematic good time.

Yet again the MdFF’s programming team, headed up this year by Scott Braid, have put together an eclectic mix of terrific fiction, documentary and experimental films, and programming consultant Meg Rorison has organized a similarly engaging group of panel discussions (one of which, in the interest of full disclosure, will be moderated by yours truly).

The venues are all within easy walking distance of each other, from the main box office and headquarters located in the bank building on the northeast corner of North and Charles (cater-cornered from the Parkway), to the food vendors in the Ynot Lot directly across North from the Parkway, to the VIP lounge in the Windup Space next to that, and the panels held in Red Emma’s at 30 W North Ave., just down the block. Beyond the Parkway, the three additional screening locations all belong to the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA): the MICA Lazarus Center (131 W North Ave), the MICA Brown Center (1301 W Mt Royal Ave), and the MICA Gateway (1601 Mt. Royal Ave.). Parking is available in various lots in the neighborhood, as per the map at the back of the festival program. Bathrooms are available in all screening venues.

So, what’s on the 2018 docket? Let’s take a closer look. As usual, the MdFF kicks it all off with a screening of short films, to be screened at 8pm on Wednesday, May 2, at the Parkway. This year, the program features 6 films, and will be hosted by noted cinematographer Bradford Young (Selma, Arrival, Solo: A Star Wars Story), who in 2016 collaborated with performer Common to direct a 20-minute music video set in Baltimore. Here is the program:

 

If you like short films, remember that there are many more beyond the first night, organized into 10 separate groups, by theme. Each set (other than the opening one) repeats at least once throughout the five days. In addition, there are 6 more shorts that are programmed to play next to a feature, as noted further below. First, however, here are the shorts-only blocks, linked to their entries on the MdFF’s website.

And then there are the 40 feature films, almost all very recently produced (except for three special screenings), with a few North American premieres among them. What follows is a complete list, with occasional annotations. If I have previously seen the film and reviewed it at Hammer to Nail (where I am lead film critic), then I link to my article there; otherwise, I mostly link to the film’s IMDb page (unless there is no entry there, in which case I link to another site with info on the film). My recommendations have an asterisk before them (with explanations later in this article), though as the festival’s slogan – “Film for Everyone” – declares, there should be something in the program for every taste. Given that many of the films will have someone connected to the production in attendance at the screening, any choice one makes should lead to an exceptional experience.

 

 

Of the films asterisked, above, I have seen all but Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, A Page of Madness, The Miseducation of Cameron Post and I, Olga Hepnarová, so let’s start with those, and why I recommend them. Morgan Neville’s film, which premiered at Sundance, is about the late, great Mr. Rogers, and that’s all I need to know: that and the fact that Mr. Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) is a pretty darn good filmmaker are enough for me. As for A Page of Madness, it is always a treat to watch the live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra, creating a life experience like no other at the festival. The Miseducation of Cameron Post, from indie auteur (Appropriate Behavior) and actress (Creep 2) Desiree Akhavan, takes on the absurdity and cruelty of gay-conversion therapy, and won the Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic at Sundance; I am therefore intrigued. As for John Waters’ Friday-night pick, what’s not to like about an opportunity to see our local twisted cinéaste present one of his favorite recent films? Count me in!

Recommendations:

And now we come to the rest of my recommendations, all of which I have previously seen, some via preview screeners, and others at earlier festivals. A number of them are set in Baltimore. Let’s begin there: This Is Home is a powerful documentary, from Alexandra Shiva (How to Dance in Ohio), that profiles a group of Syrian refugees as they struggle to adapt to their new lives here; Sollers Point, from native son Matthew Porterfield (Putty Hill), is a beautifully realized narrative about a young man unable to get his life in order after a stint in prison; Sickies Making Films, from another local, Joe Tropea (Hit & Stay), offers a comprehensive, entertaining documentary history of Maryland’s film-censorship board, the longest running one in the country; Charm City, another documentary, this one from Marilyn Ness (Bad Blood: A Cautionary Tale), delivers an in-depth look at Baltimore’s rising murder rate and how the residents of one community – Rose Street – work to combat it; and finally, the closing night film, All Square, from John Hyams (Dragon Eyes), which won an audience award at SXSW, stars Michael Kelly (Doug Stamper on Netflix’s House of Cards) as a numbers runner in Dundalk who decides to take bets on Little League baseball (not such a good idea). For those in the mood for varied takes on our fair city, watch all of them.

Beyond the Baltimore stories, I also recommend On Her Shoulders, from Alexandria Bombach (Frame by Frame), a searing documentary that follows ISIS-kidnapping survivor Nadia Murad as she travels the world raising awareness of sexual trafficking and the genocide against her people, the Yazidi. Then there’s Jenny Murray’s brilliant feature-documentary debut, ¡Las Sandanistas!, about the female fighters who made the Nicaraguan revolution possible, and whose contribution has since been minimized by the men who took power. Veteran filmmaker Paul Schrader (Affliction) shows he’s lost none of his storytelling power with First Reformed, one of his strongest efforts in years, in which Ethan Hawke (In a Valley of Violence) plays a disillusioned protestant minister determined to right the wrongs of the world, no matter the cost (I call it “Taxi Priest,” or “Priest Driver”). Finally, speaking of religious figures, Michael Tully (Ping Pong Summer) – born in Maryland, but now living in Austin, TX – goes to Ireland with his supernatural thriller Don’t Leave Home, in which the past sins of a former priest haunt the present. That’s it for the films I’ve seen or have high hopes for, though I am sure more great films await me (and you).

As mentioned, there are panels, too. The current slate, as of this writing, includes the following (all at Red Emma’s):

FRIDAY, MAY 4:

  • 2-3PM: Ethics in Documentary Filmmaking (moderated by filmmaker Jonna McKone, with Khalik Allah, Meryam Bouadjemi, Penny Lane and Leilah Weinraub)
  • 3-4PM: The State of Black Women in Film and TV (moderate by filmmaker and journalist Nia Hampton with Brittany “B.Monét” Fennell, Lisa Snowden-McCray and Safiyatou)

SATURDAY MAY 5:

  • 12PM: 13th Annual Baltimore Screenwriters Competition Winners Announcement 
  • 2-3PM: Making Films In and About Baltimore (this is the one I moderate, with Theo Anthony, Marilyn Ness, Matthew Porterfield, Alexandra Shiva and TT The Artist) 
  • 3-4PM: Low Budget Filmmaking: An Open Discussion (moderated by producer/director Matt Grady, with Eugene Kotlyarenko, Sarah Winshall, Michael Tully and Charlie Birns)

SUNDAY MAY 6:

  • 2-3PM: Discussions in Sound Design (with Bonnie Jones, Alena Lodkina, Alex Silva and Neil Cloaca Young) 
  • 3-4PM: Baltimore Film Fatales Presentation (the Baltimore chapter of Film Fatales invites all female-identifying filmmakers to a meet-up and screening of members’ work)

 

All of that should be more than enough to keep even the most intrepid cinephile busy. For those of you who are official “Friends of the Festival,” remember that you have the ability to see free films before 6pm on “Friends of MdFF Friday” (May 4th), pending availability. Check out the festival’s “how-to” guide for more details, as well as for all the information you need to find your way around during the five-day event. For information on schedules and tickets, just go to the main website and navigate from there. But don’t wait, as movies will sell out. See you around the Parkway!