For five days ending Sunday, thousands of film fans and scores of filmmakers watched movies together at the 15th Maryland Film Festival. From three-minute comedic shorts promoting horror films to gripping documentaries about the rise of Napster and cutting-edge narrative features about the relationship between a teacher and one of her students, the festival offered local cineastes the chance to lose themselves in the boundless possibilities of film.
Audience support for the annual festival "is getting clearer and more enthusiastic," MFF founder and director Jed Dietz said. While final attendance figures have yet to be tallied, he noted that online sales increased 48 percent over last year. And while walk-up sales Friday-Sunday seemed about equal to last year's record-setting numbers, when some 22,000 movie lovers made the trek to the Charles Theater and its environs, the addition of a fifth day to this year's festival virtually guaranteed a new attendance record, he said.
It was heavenly
The most beautiful and transcendent moment of the festival may have come Thursday night when a gospel singing group from New Orleans transported audiences with its a cappella rendition of the most tuneful version of "The Lord's Prayer" ever.
The occasion was a screening of the wonderfully spiritual and rapturously engaging documentary "...By and By," from Baltimore directors Matthew T. Bowden and Joe Compton. It looks at several gospel-singing families joyously proclaiming their faith and, without complaint, working past the challenges of post-Katrina New Orleans. The film's soundtrack is impressive enough, but afterward members of the Electrifying Crown Seekers, led by James Williams Sr., stood beneath the screen and took vocal flight with "The Lord's Prayer." Never have those words sounded so heavenly.
John Waters' pick
Baltimore's most proudly unregenerate bad boy, John Waters, on Friday proved what a civic treasure he is.
As he has every year since the MFF began in 1999, Waters introduced a film of his choosing, and this year's may have been the most outrageous yet. "Paradise: Faith," the middle film of a trilogy from Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, stars Maria Hofstatter as a woman whose insular world of Catholic piety is knocked for a loop when her paraplegic Muslim husband returns home unexpectedly. To say the movie is unabashedly blasphemous hardly does it justice.
"I'm surprised there weren't pickets," Waters said, most likely not kidding.
The crowd loved it, laughing, clapping, peppering Waters and Hofstatter, who joined him for the post-film Q&A, with questions and compliments.
It was just Divine
If there's one film at this year's MFF that absolutely needs to be seen in Baltimore to be properly appreciated, it was director Jeffrey Schwarz's "I Am Divine," a look at John Waters' drag-queen muse that made a convincing argument for Divine's place among the most original and fiercely talented actors of the '70s and '80s.
At one point on screen, Waters talked about how he and Divine used to steal drugs — including LSD — from Sheppard-Pratt hospital. The audience laughed heartily, to the point where the next couple lines of dialogue were drowned out.
Waters, interviewed after his Friday-night hosting stint, said the film showed the Divine he knew and not just his friend's onstage persona.
"I thought it was a joyous tribute," he said. "It captured what he was really like."
Sound of silence
New technologies are nice and all that, but it's great to see there's still magic to be had in the old ways — as the MFF proves every year with its Sunday morning silent feature.
For most audiences, asking them to watch a silent movie is asking them to exercise muscles they no longer have. But when the three-piece Alloy Orchestra provides live musical accompaniment to a silent classic, as they've done at many past festivals and did again at this year's ... let's just say that, for an art form that's considered all-but-extinct, silents do OK.
This year's offering, 1925's "The Lost World," came to vibrant life, thanks to the by-turns spry and thundering musicianship of the Alloy. Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tale of dinosaurs in the Amazon (and later, tragically, in London), the film offered pioneering stop-motion animation that still enchants despite its choppy narrative and racist overtones.
Fear of butterflies
Dara Bratt, director of the opening-night short "Flutter," told a little white lie during the post-screening Q&A.
The director of one of the evening's best short films, a visit with a shy, introverted butterfly collector ruminating on the perils and pleasures of his hobby while scouring a Vietnamese field for rare specimens, had a tougher time making the film than she let on.
Bratt told the nearly sold-out audience at MICA's Brown Center about the difficulties of filming in Southeast Asia. But afterward she admitted:
"My real biggest challenge was, I have this fear and phobia of bugs."
Fortunately, she (barely and temporarily) got over that fear, for along with "The Cub," director Riley Stearns' deadpan look at the advantages and disadvantages of leaving your daughter to be raised by wolves, "Flutter" proved a clear audience favorite.
Baltimore's sincerely weird
Bobcat Goldthwait may have a new job waiting for him, as a goodwill ambassador for the MFF and Baltimore film audiences.
The one-time stand-up comic made his third trip to the festival with a tantalizingly horrific take on the Bigfoot story called "Willow Creek." While the film was a change of pace from the much-loved comedies he's brought before, including last year's "God Bless America," he said he had no qualms about bringing it to Baltimore.
"You guys have become a lot like a family to me," he told Saturday night's audience, adding: "The weirdness here, it's in the water or something. It's just so sincere."
A Brute Force renaissance
Brute Force came to the Maryland Film Festival this year. How cool is that?
We mean, of course, the singer infamous for his banned 1969 single "The King of Fuh," a favorite of Beatle George Harrison that was one of the first singles released on the group's Apple Records label.
Brute, who once was a member of the Tokens ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight"), has dwelt largely in undeserved obscurity. But thanks to Ben Steinbauer's 15-minute documentary, "Brute Force," which played the MFF Friday afternoon, the man born Stephen Friedland is undergoing something of a renaissance.
Slash and film
The local premiere of Baltimore native Matt Porterfield's "I Used to be Darker," his third feature, turned into something of a "True Confessions" moment.
During the Q&A, Porterfield addressed one especially destructive scene. In it, the film's young protagonist, played by Deragh Campbell, vents her frustrations with a boyfriend's fecklessness by attacking some wall hangings in his parents' Ocean City condominium with a pair of scissors.
Porterfield told the audience about going to a prom, and after realizing he wouldn't be getting anywhere with his date, exacting a similar revenge.
"I got to slash the paintings in her parents' condo in Ocean City, Md.," he said. "I'm not saying I'm proud of it, but it worked."