Baltimore's culture catalyst for 25 years


The Baltimore Film Forum celebrates a quarter-century as a cultural catalyst with its annual film festival this month.

The 25th Baltimore Film Festival will open at the Senator Theatre Wednesday with a screening of "The Scent of Green Papaya," winner of the Camera d'Or at the 1993 Cannes Film Festival, and will continue at the Baltimore Museum of Art until April 30.

The festival's goal, says forum director Vicki Westover, is "to increase people's knowledge of the world and deepen their sensibilities."

In addition to "The Scent of Green Papaya," which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, festival highlights include "Sunday's Children," a collaboration between Ingmar Bergman and his son Daniel, and a restored version of Federico Fellini's surreal circus epic "La Strada."

The festival, which focuses on foreign and independent films, also features a series called "New Documentaries -- Four Lives on Film." Documentary subjects include Nazi-era filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl; Diane Starin, a blind woman; beat poet Allen Ginsberg; and Sylvia Motta, a Colombian caught in a strangely businesslike kidnapping.

There will also be an international animation feature and selections from Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival.

The festival was founded in 1969 as a way of bringing films to Baltimore that otherwise would go unseen. All 46 of the festival's short and feature-length films are Baltimore premieres, a tradition established at the beginning. Many of the films will be accompanied by introductions by filmmakers, question-and-answer sessions, and wine and cheese after screenings. The opening-night showing of "The Scent of Green Papaya" will be followed by a reception sponsored by Donna's Coffee Bar and Restaurant.

The festival offers films of refinement and sophistication. But Ms. Westover says booking the series isn't always pretty.

"It's like buying a used car," she says. "You don't want to beg, but you need to convince them that it's worthwhile for them to give you the film." The result, she says, is a festival that compares favorably to those in larger cities.

A festival director cannot afford timidity, she says. Arguments with distributors are common. Sometimes Ms. Westover lobbies hard for a film.

Negotiations for "Green Papaya" took several weeks, with the pendulum swinging in the forum's favor only after a vigorous late-night conversation with the film's distributor. After numerous letters, faxes and phone calls went unanswered, Ms. Westover finally got a call at 10 o'clock one night.

She says she had to clarify several issues, since the distributor didn't know the Baltimore market, had little knowledge of the Film Forum, and was confused by the changing status of the Charles Theater, which also shows art films but had recently closed for several months while awaiting new management.

"And at the end of that conversation, which was incredibly lengthy, it was a maybe," says Ms. Westover. The next day, she persuaded the distributor of "Green Papaya" to bring the film to the festival.

Ms. Westover considers the effort worthwhile. She now has a beautiful film with an unusual visual feel and strictly choreographed lighting, color and camera movement to open the festival.

"Green Papaya" was made by Tran Anh Hung, a Vietnamese expatriate who filmed the movie in France because he was not allowed back into his native country. To conjure the image of 1950s pre-war Vietnam, he relied entirely on sets, with no landscape or outdoor shots.

The film follows the emergence of a young servant girl into womanhood, and captures a lost Vietnam in which native tradition is gradually overshadowed by French influence.

"You have to take a deep breath and relax, because nothing happens in this movie," Ms. Westover says.

The film tracks the girl's "simple day-to-day pleasures, . . . watching an ant, serving a papaya. The camera lingers on her each time she discovers something beautiful. When people say the film is about nothing, they're really not looking at it," she says.

The film is especially fresh since American's images of Vietnam are almost exclusively those of a war-torn country full of dangerous jungles and ruined villages.

This year's festival concentrates on emerging filmmakers, Ms. Westover says, adding that there are no themes or messages intended by the selections; the aim was for the festival to present old and new, celebrated and obscure. Even if the board had used a master plan, she says with a laugh, a film festival is not something to predict and control -- especially not in Baltimore, and especially not when it's festival season all over the country.

Bringing some films to town can be tricky. "You don't just create a list, pick up the phone and book the films," she says. For this year's festival, a programming board of four -- Ms. Westover, festival coordinator Rebecca Aaron, Marc Sober and Harold Levin -- drew up a wish list of nearly 200 films, based on reviews, directors they like, films with a buzz in the festival circuit or timely subject matter.

The board tries to stay away from films that will have a commercial release. "It has as much to do with what's on the market now . . . as [with] what isn't."

The vogue for violent movies -- not just Hollywood blockbustersbut art-house films such as "Bad Lieutenant" and "Reservoir Dogs" -- has inspired festival planners around the world. But Ms. Westover says she chose to steer clear of bloodier offerings.

After 25 years, the forum has survived into an era in which independent film is both artistically vigorous and commercially imperiled.

Ms. Westover sees her job as bucking trends -- those at play both in Hollywood and in independent and foreign film -- and bringing in pictures that otherwise wouldn't show in town. The forum, she says, aims "to provide a venue for alternative voices and visions."

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