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Maryland Film Festival 2013 continues event's expansion

It used to be that the Maryland Film Festival was just a cool neighborhood event for Courtney Knipp — a bunch of obscure movies being shown just up the street from her home in Mount Vernon.

Not anymore, not with thousands of film fans massing in and around the Charles Theatre, watching movies — 127 this year -— and comparing notes with hundreds of filmmakers from all over the world. This tiny corner of the Station North Arts District becomes the center of the film universe for one weekend every May.

And that is so cool by Knipp.

"I have always been someone who loved to go to the movies," says Knipp, a self-employed print editor who now lives in Charles Village and guesses this is her eighth MFF. "The fact that there was a film festival just down the street from my house, that was great. But I think this is a really good festival, and I love being here with all the people."

In its 15th year, the festival continues to grow and prosper. With a fifth day added for 2013 — it opened on Wednesday, a day earlier than in previous years — this year's edition is on track to draw a record audience, said MFF founder and director Jed Dietz.

"Our online sales are up 48 percent over last year," Dietz said, "and frankly, we're trying to figure out why that happened."

Maybe it was the extra day, he said, or maybe it's just the cumulative effect of good word of mouth.

Perhaps it's the record number of films with Baltimore and Maryland connections bringing in lots of friendly audiences: three of the hottest tickets this year have been to Maryland Institute College of Art grad Lotfy Nathan's "12 O'Clock Boys," a documentary on West Baltimore dirt-bike gangs; "Hit & Stay," a documentary on the Vietnam-era anti-war movement from local filmmakers Skizz Cyzyk and Joe Tropea; and native son Matt Porterfield's third feature, "I Used to be Darker," a family drama set in Baltimore and Ocean City.

"This year in particular, they've got one of the best line-ups they've ever had," said Eric Bannat, a co-producer on "I Used to be Darker." "And this festival has always been very very filmmaker friendly."

Then again, maybe it's just because the MFF has got some seriously good mojo working.

"It's a good crowd, they ask good questions...I think it's a very nice festival," said Jem Cohen, in Baltimore to host a screening of his latest film, "Museum Hours."

The New York-based Cohen said he was especially impressed with the festival's "low key" approach. There is no competition for prizes and Hollywood agents aren't scouring the schedule for their next big release. The idea is for everyone, filmmakers and film fans, to just come, watch, learn and enjoy themselves.

"All festivals shouldn't be hype-driven freak-outs, full of industry-market frenzies," Cohen said.

While the weekend's emphasis was on films outside the mainstream, the sort of movies that will never show up at the local multi-plex, the weekend was not without big names.

Local favorite John Waters introduced a Friday-night showing of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise: Faith," then spent much of Saturday attending other festival films. Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait showed up for the festival's Wednesday-night opening, and was scheduled to host a late-night screening of his latest film, "Willow Creek," on Saturday. Author and New York Times columnist Frank Bruni hosted a Saturday-morning screening of Sidney Pollack's 1981 cautionary tale about journalistic responsibility, "Absence of Malice."

Throughout the day Saturday, despite occasional rain showers and the constant threat of even more, hundreds of people milled about the festival's three venues: the Charles Theater, MICA's Brown Center and the Windup Space on North Avenue.

With most of the filmmakers present to discuss their work afterward, conversations often spilled out into the hallways and streets. Panel discussions about women in film, watching and making films on the Internet and making films outside of the New York-Los Angeles axis took place in a tent village across the street from the Charles.

"It's awesome," said Dina Kelberman, an artist living in Hampden attending her second festival. "It's fun just to be here."

The 15th Maryland Film Festival concludes with a full slate of movies Sunday, including the 1925 silent dinosaur adventure, "The Lost World," with live musical accompaniment (11 a.m. at the Charles) and second screenings of "12 O'clock Boys" (5 p.m. at the Charles) and "I Used to be Darker (2 p.m. at the Charles). Information, including a complete schedule and ticket prices: 410-752-8083 or mdfilmfest.com.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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