Inaugural Columbia Film Festival sees itself as a salute to Maryland filmmakers

Dan Franko in "The Recursion Theorem."

They're calling it the inaugural Columbia Film Festival, but maybe a better name would be the Made-in-Maryland Film Festival.

"Oh, yes, it was a very conscious decision to have Maryland filmmakers in there," said Robert Neal Marshall, a filmmaker and the marketing and communications director for the Columbia Festival of the Arts, the parent organization for next weekend's festival, running June 24-25 at Howard Community College.


Though the program schedule incorporates films from outside the state, he notes, including some from Asia, this year's festival is envisioned as "a salute to Maryland filmmakers."

Presented as part of the annual Columbia celebration of the arts, a Howard County staple since 1989, the film festival draws on several moviegoing experiences that have called Columbia home in recent years. Since 2013, the Festival of the Arts has been presenting a collection of short films from the Sundance Film Festival, Marshall says (a tradition that continued earlier this month). And last year, the arts festival helped support the first-ever Maryland Student Film Festival, showcasing the work of area high school and college students.


As arts festival organizers were brainstorming new possibilities, the idea of expanding on those events and creating a larger and more inclusive festival seemed like a natural, Marshall said.

"We talked about how successful film seems to be, how it's a topic of interest for our audiences," he said. "We showcase lots of different elements of the arts, so adding this one fit."

The Columbia festival's Maryland-centric focus should help set it apart from the competition.

Maryland has no shortage of film festivals. There's the Maryland Film Festival, Hopkins Film Festival, Baltimore Jewish Film Festival and LGBTQA Film Festival, all set in Baltimore, plus others in Annapolis, Easton (Chesapeake Film Festival), Hagerstown (Maryland International Film Festival), Bel Air and Silver Spring (the AFI Docs documentary festival).

Although Maryland-based films certainly find their way into each, none is as focused on the Free State as the Columbia festival.

Bringing together the Maryland films with movies from outside filmmakers, and showcasing them during the long-established Columbia arts festival, should give the new forum for film an identity it can build on, said Todd Olson, executive director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

"It seems a natural choice to include local Maryland filmmakers," he wrote in an email. "What will hopefully set us apart from other Maryland festivals will be the unique selection of films not seen elsewhere, plus the tie-in with a larger arts festival."

This year's inaugural festival includes several components. Next Friday's programming, which begins at 8 p.m., features seven short films, ranging in length from 3 1/2 minutes (Zoe Miller's "Le Couteau," a study in contrasts that marks the 16-year-old self-taught filmmaker's first narrative short) to 28 minutes (Ben Sledge's "Twilight Zone"-inspired "The Recursion Theorem"). Four of the films are from Maryland directors.


The programming on June 25 starts off with student films, 10 in all, ranging in length from 34 seconds (Tyler Hueffmeier's "11th Hour") to 13 1/2 minutes (Andrew Skidmore's "Jack of All Trades"). The festival's first feature-length offering, Maryland director Mike Finazzo's "Wits End," the story of a stand-up comedian struggling to make a name for himself, is set for 11:30 a.m. That will be followed at 1 p.m. by a program of four short films (including two that fit into the Columbia arts festival's Asian-influenced "Silk Road Stories" theme).

The festival wraps up with a pair of documentaries: Phil Furey's "Since the Bombing of Pan Am Flight 103," a look at how families have dealt with both the tragedy of that 1988 terrorist attack and its frustrating, bureaucracy-tangled aftermath, and Wayne Hepler's "Taking Back the Airwaves: The Story of the Radio Pirates," featuring interviews with the men and women who helped bring rock 'n' roll to a resistant Europe in the early '60s.

Here's a look at five films playing the inaugural Columbia Film Festival, and the Maryland-based filmmakers responsible for them.


A scene from "Lightyears," playing at the Columbia Film Festival.

Matthew Myslinski, born and raised in Ellicott City, is a 20-year-old University of Maryland, Baltimore County student whose short film "Lightyears" was screened recently at a venue no less eminent than the Cannes Film Festival (shown independently, not in actual competition). Although he is equally happy in all genres, the "dark, cerebral science fiction" he admires in the British TV series "Black Mirror" influenced this alien abduction piece, says Myslinski, who wrote and directed it — and handled matters when police were called twice by worried onlookers during filming. Watch closely for local sites that might be recognizable: the UMBC campus, Miller Library in Ellicott City and an Arbutus doctor's office. You won't, however, see the late Enchanted Forest, the subject of an earlier Myslinski documentary called "Disenchanted." — Lane Page

Screens during the Maryland Student Film Festival shorts program, June 25, 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m.


'Cordially Invited'

"Cordially Invited" was created during the 2013 Baltimore 48-Hour Film project and will be screened at the Columbia Film Festival.

Screenwriter Jamie Nash of Ellicott City scripted this film, chosen "Best of Baltimore" in the 2013 Baltimore 48-Hour Film Project. In that contest, teams — Nash's numbered about 20, many of them professional filmmakers — draw a genre and have a weekend to write, shoot, edit and score their opus, which must include three given elements. For this dark comedy, Nash had to use the line "I'd like to introduce you to a friend of mine," include cupcakes and work in a character named Abby Tuesday. It sounds wacky, but "the hardest thing in writing is the blank page," Nash says. "If you can box it in, not have a bazillion iterations, you can get started." The 44-year-old former software engineer lives in Howard County and telecommutes with the West Coast. "I've never even seen my agent," he says. — Lane Page

Screens June 24, 8 p.m.-10 p.m.

'The Recursion Theorem'

“The Recursion Theorem” will be screened at the Columbia Film Festival.

This film is writer-director-producer Ben Sledge's homage to "The Twilight Zone" and other spooky 1950s-1960s TV anthologies whose reruns he loved — and still does. The Gaithersburg resident, a 39-year-old videographer, photographer and designer, wanted to capture their tone and feel, offering social consciousness along with entertainment — a message in a minimal setting. With a limited budget, he wanted to write something he could produce well with a new crew. Searching the area for an appropriately classic setting to create the retro atmosphere, Sledge found them unaffordable, so he built his own set, a la "House of Cards" and "Veep," in a warehouse in a commercial area. "I worried about the screaming and warned the neighbors," he says, "but it was so sad. I learned that no one cared." — Lane Page

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Screens June 24, 8 p.m.-10 p.m.


'My Brother Is a Zombie'

Russell Yaffe, 27, is the writer-director-editor behind "My Brother is a Zombie," which is screening at the Columbia Film Festival.

This film was inspired by Russell Yaffe's notion of a zombie kid at the family breakfast table, and the writer-director-editor ran—or maybe that's lurched—with it. Yaffe also turned the concept into a literal nostalgia trip from New York back to the Bethesda neighborhood where he grew up to film this tale of a suburban preteen girl and her zombie younger brother. Half his crew was local; the New York half got "the Bethesda experience," sleeping in the family basement during weekend filming. The vignette-filled piece is a departure for the 27-year-old film editor, who has worked on the Disney live-action film "Queen of Katwe," to be released this fall, and a comedy Web series. "I usually like interpersonal drama," he says. But in fact, there is some of that here, too. — Lane Page

Screens June 24, 8 p.m.-10 p.m.

'Taking Back The Airwaves: The Story of the Radio Pirates'

A group of pirates stand on the Radio Caroline, a British radio station founded in 1964. From "Taking Back the Airwaves: The Story of the Radio Pirates," showing at the Columbia Film Festival.

In his directorial debut, Wayne Hepler, 58, tells the story of the radio pirates who disrupted the airwaves in England and the Netherlands in the 1950s and 1960s. The mass-communications professor at Harford Community College had been researching the radio pirates while on sabbatical, with no intention of making a film, but his project blossomed into a documentary. Hepler found their tales extraordinary, such as enduring a fire on a ship in the middle of the North Sea. "Taking Back The Airwaves" is a nuanced account of those who, in the face of government monopolies, decided to bring rock music to the masses by operating offshore radio stations without a license. "The film has a lot to do with the modern-day shedding of falsehood," says Hepler. — Christiana Mbakwe

Screens June 25, 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m.