The Chesapeake Film Festival's artistic director, Doug Sadler, is also a gifted feature-film director who came of age on Maryland's Eastern Shore and has gone on to make movies there. You could say that Sadler is to CFF what Michael Moore is to Michigan's Traverse Film Festival. But Sadler's sensibility is infinitely more complex.
Sadler's "Swimmers," the closing night film at 2005's Maryland Film Festival, put the unexpected humor and intimate emotionality of Carson McCullers — and the lived-in, working-class detail of director Mike Leigh — into a quintessential Eastern Shore story about a young competitive swimmer (Tara Devon Gallagher), her hard-drinking oyster-gathering father (Robert Knott) and a mother ( Cherry Jones) who goes into mission mode when the girl needs an operation.
Sadler has put the same mix of grit, sensitivity and artistic exploration into his festival programming. This year it starts with a documentary about the graffiti master turned painter, " Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Divine Child," and ends with "On Coal River," a documentary about residents of West Virginia's Coal River Valley, who attempt to protect their community from the ravages of a coal company.
Sadler said in an e-mail interview that the 2010 festival has a greater scope and depth than previous events.
"We've grown significantly — both in quality and quantity," he said. "This year we attended more film festivals than ever before to seek out the best in new film, including Sundance, SXSW and the New York International Children's Film Festival, as well as the Maryland Film Festival. We've added more films, more venues and are bringing in far more filmmakers than ever before. We always try to encourage discussion by having a Q&A with a filmmaker or a panel."
His overriding goal remains including as many great movies as he can, whether hits from the festival circuit, like "Putty Hill" (by Baltimore's Matthew Porterfield), or movies that played on Baltimore art screens but never made it to the Eastern Shore, like the Ozark-clan quest movie, "Winter's Bone," with Jennifer Lawrence, and the acclaimed real-life rock movie "The Runaways," starring Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett and Dakota Fanning as Cherie Curie.
At the same time, Sadler said, "Our local and regional support has increased, and we've continued to build our local audience." He loves to introduce films with regional connections. The festival's first attraction, in 2009, was " Flash of Genius," starring Greg Kinnear as an automotive innovator who spent most of his later years near Oxford. Baltimore's Marc Steiner will lead a discussion on energy after "On Coal River."
"We're very excited about Marc Steiner's participation," Sadler said. "He has such an ability to make issues resonate and fully explore complex topics in an interesting, informative way. The three films he'll be focusing on in the context of our … energy panel [the others are "A Sea Change" and "Gasland"] highlight different aspects of national problems that are also very local." The specifics may vary, but Sadler trusts that the environmental "themes and challenges" will resonate with viewers concerned about the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
Lest this sound too heavy, "we're somewhat eclectic, with free animated films for kids and classics, as well as cutting-edge films like 'Dogtooth.' "
For example, nowhere else this weekend will you get a chance to bring your kids to the delightful Oscar nominee, "Wallace and Gromit: A Matter of Loaf and Death," which the CFF will show as part of "Party Mix," a free 78-minute program of "cool, zany and funny shorts" from this year's children's festival in New York.
Speaking of ideal family fare, at noon Sunday, I will be hosting a screening of Victor Fleming's 1937 version of Rudyard Kipling's "Captains Courageous," starring Spencer Tracy as the Portuguese fisherman who rescues spoiled young Freddie Bartholomew after he falls off an ocean liner. (It won Tracy his first Oscar.) Yes, this robust, tender tale of tough love on a Gloucester fishing schooner is my favorite film this weekend.
Among this festival's coups, said Sadler, are the chance "to showcase both the Grand Jury Prize winners from Sundance this year — 'Winter's Bone' and 'Restrepo' (Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington's documentary about a U.S. platoon in Afghanistan)." Then there's " 'His & Hers,' from Ireland," an intimate tapestry of a movie dedicated to the proposition (according to the tag line) that "A man loves his sweetheart the most, his wife the best, and his mother the longest." Sadler said, "It's such a unique, warm, human film, I was particularly pleased to get it."
It's fitting that Sadler and company have been able to "bring in original Basquiat artwork" — a group of signature drawings — "for our opening night event with 'Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child.'" Basquiat's art spanned the streets and downtown galleries. So do the movies in the third Chesapeake Film Festival.
If you go
The Chespeake Film Festival opens at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Academy Art Museum, the Avalon and the Tidewater Inn in Easton. The rest of the festival unfolds at venues in and around Easton, 9:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturday and 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available at the box office or at cheseapeakefilmfestival.com.