A beguiling mix of beautiful animals, guileless youngsters and down-to-earth charm, “The Wild Ponies of Chincoteague” neatly encapsulates the pleasures of Easton’s annual Chesapeake Film Festival.
Directed with restraint by festival alum Kurt Kolaja and Tod Mesirow, “Wild Ponies” follows the annual roundup and auction of wild ponies on Virginia’s Chincoteague Island. At the same time, the hour-long film offers a meditation on rural charm and resilience, with a healthy dose of heart-tugging youthful innocence.
Like much of the Chesapeake Film Festival itself, celebrating its 10th anniversary this weekend at venues in Easton and Cambridge, the documentary seems particularly attuned to what makes Eastern Shore life so distinctive. Over the years, many of the most memorable films to come out of the region’s cinematic landscape — from Easton native Doug Sadler’s 2005 “Swimmers,” to the numerous environmental-centric documentaries that have been featured (including a day-long slate of them this Saturday), to Kolaja’s earlier look at the Kent County Marching Band, “Band Together” — have seemed particularly at home here.
Beautifully shot and unabashedly upbeat, “Wild Ponies” finds its inspiration in the animals themselves, descended, according to legend, from the equine survivors of a 16th-century Spanish galleon that sunk off the Atlantic coast. But its beating heart can be found in teenager Sabrina Dobbins, who desperately wants one of those ponies — because she’s a horsewoman through-and-through, and because they offer her a respite from the depression she battles.
There are no hard-edges in “The Wild Ponies of Chincoteague,” and there are some who might find fault with that. But Kolaja has always been a gentle, good-hearted explorer of the region in which he grew up. It’s a land and a people he clearly loves, and with films like this, it’s not hard to understand why.
“The Wild Ponies of Chincoteague” screens at noon Saturday at the Talbot County Free Library, 100 W. Dover St. in Easton (free); at 6:15 p.m. Sunday at the Cambridge Premier Cinemas, 2759 Dorchester Square ($12); and 8:30 p.m. Sunday at the Easton Premier Cinemas, 210 Marlboro Ave. ($12). The 10th Chesapeake Film Festival, offering a mix of feature films, documentaries and shorts, runs Friday through Sunday at venues in Easton and Cambridge. chesapeakefilmfestival.com.
The return of ‘Sylvio’
“Sylvio,” one of the quirkier pleasures of this year’s Maryland Film Festival, returns to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway, 5 W. North Ave., this week.
This tale of a passive-aggressive gorilla seeking life’s simpler pleasures, and having an existential crisis while pursuing them, was shot in and around Baltimore by co-directors Albert Birney, who is from here, and Kentucker Audley. The two first met at the festival, about six years ago.
“Sylvio” is a piece of absurdist cinema (what else do you call a movie with a necktie-wearing, hoops-shooting gorilla as its hero?) with a gentle heart at its center. And a tale from its making illustrates how serendipitous artistic inspiration can be.
Many of the film’s most sublime moments involve a hand puppet named Herbert Herpels — a character that comes to life during a dream sequence after Sylvio has an unfortunate encounter with a deer while driving on Interstate 83. For that scene, Herpels is portrayed by an actor who is the striking image of the puppet. But Birney insists the puppet came first, and the actor “magically appeared” at an open audition.
The puppet’s origin is nearly as extraordinary. He was purchased for $15 at a Delaware thrift store, Birney told an audience at the festival back in May. “I bought him, and he’s been my muse ever since,” he said.