Film Forum sails out of the mainstream to explore the indies

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jeff Schmale wasn't out to make the great American movie. He only wanted to make a little experimental film about two of his favorite obsessions. The rapid-fire editing scheme and mixture of live action and animation in his 51-second "Coffee/Cigarettes" gets across just how avidly he and his girlfriend indulge in these habits.

"I thought of my film as a tribute to two of the most popular vices among the American people and two that I share," says this 23-year-old independent filmmaker from Bel Air, who acquired his 20-cups-a-day coffee addiction from his job in a convenience store and his filmmaking savvy from Towson State University, where he received a mass communications degree in January.

Mr. Schmale's filmmaking is nurtured by more than coffee. Like his creative compatriots, he finds support and inspiration in Baltimore's thriving independent film and video scene. Some of its best examples, including "Coffee/Cigarettes," will be showcased in the Baltimore Film Forum's screening of winners of its Independent Film and Video Makers Competition Saturday at the Baltimore Museum of Art. It's the closing event of the 26th annual Baltimore International Film Festival.

Mr. Schmale estimates that his movie cost all of $50 to produce, about the amount spent to style a few locks of Sharon Stone's hair in the typical Hollywood movie. Like other independent film- and video-makers, Mr. Schmale is working way outside the studio system. He's banking on his collegiate training, short film production and screenings at alternative venues to translate eventually into a career.

"I hope to be working in filmmaking and not in the convenience store," he says with what sounds like coffee-fueled ardor.

In addition to Mr. Schmale's winning film in the experimental category, the other Film Forum winners are Susan Hadary Cohen and William A. Whiteford's 37-minute "Bong and Donnell," about the friendship between a disabled Philippine-American youth and his African-American best buddy, which copped both the documentary and Best of Fest awards; and a first-place tie in the dramatic category between Jonathan Cordish's 20-minute "Lost Mojave," a Sam Shepard-esque story about a boy living in a desert community, and Kevin Brian Kohlhafer's 20-minute "Deven's Room," inspired by serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. No prize was given in the animation category this year because there was only one entry.

Showing out of competition are Darryl L. Wharton's four-minute in-the-street impressionism of "Why You Run Away?" and Jon Jolles' award-winning, humorously autobiographical, eight-minute "Your Montana Vacation Tour of the World's Wonders Starts With This Coupon."

Surveying the 43 entries from which these winners were selected by a judging panel, independent competition coordinator Caroline Castro says, "There was a huge range of subject matter, much of it difficult. Easily 70 percent of what we saw was done on video, and a lot of it by students. They have this incredible personal need to use a video camera to make a statement, and their really subjective visions came through."

Victoria Westover, executive director of the Baltimore Film Forum, adds that these kinds of independent, subjective visions have always been an important part of her organization's mission. Although the annual independent competition was "put hiatus" last year because of a tight budget and limited staff, she says it was reinstated for this year's festival because "The Film Forum needs to be a place that shows their work. It's something that sets us apart from other film societies."

This year's independent competition was restricted to Maryland film- and video-makers, but Ms. Westover says next year's will return to the tradition of being open to filmmakers from across the country.

The festival's winning films will be included in a new weekly series, "Independent Eye," being launched on Maryland Public Television May 4. That sort of statewide airing is a godsend for filmmakers, who spend as much time trying to get their work seen as they do making it.

And for students just out of the programs at two local training hotbeds, the University of Maryland Baltimore County and Towson State University, such exposure is what takes them from convenience-store blues to screen glory.

"So many students do stay in the area, working in television, or in film, usually free-lance, and they find the business can be a rough,arduous road in order to get established," cautions Vin Grabill, 46, an associate professor of video art at UMBC. He's also president of a regional networking organization called the Association of Maryland Area Media Artists, which publishes a ,, newsletter and has an annual Traveling Film and Video program.

Moving toward success

The film- and video-makers themselves range from those who are just starting out to others who are making a living with their cameras. A success story is Jonathan Cordish, 28, whose "Lost Mojave" was underwritten by a $35,000 grant from the prestigious University of Southern California film school, of which he is a graduate. The film has been shown in festival sites as varied as Cleveland and the island of Malta.

A Baltimore native now living in Los Angeles, Mr. Cordish also co-produced a feature film, "Midnight Edition," which had a brief release in New York and is now available on video. He and a partner now run the Los Angeles-based Seventh Art Releasing, a distributor of foreign and American independent films.

"It's a balancing act being in both production and distribution," .. Mr.Cordish says of his activities. "They're separate fields, but they do overlap, and there's an interesting blurring of the lines. There is no secret formula [to making it in the movies], but when I give advice, my feeling is that if you're interested in filmmaking, the way to get into the doors is with quality writing. There are thousands of student films every year, and it's hard to rise above the competition, but good writing speaks for itself. One out of a hundred screenplays does get read," and, he adds, having an original sensibility may attract more notice than trying to be commercially safe.

Working as a production assistant on made-in-Maryland movies and recently on a picture in Los Angeles, Darryl Wharton is a 26-year-old graduate of Ithaca College in New York who intends to make it as a director and screenwriter.

"It's great to be actually working in the industry, learning what it takes to create a big feature," Mr. Wharton says. Even so, it still makes economic sense for him to live in his mother's house in Baltimore.

Unlike his school-trained contemporaries, Kevin Brian Kohlhafer, 25, of Dundalk, is a self-taught filmmaker who relied on his community-theater background to assemble a crew to shoot his serial-killer short, "Deven's Room," at the Spotlighters Theater in Mount Vernon.

"I was following the Jeffrey Dahmer trial, and I'm a fan of horror and slasher films," he says, "and I wanted to make a movie that's very artsy and dreamy."

When he gets a break from working as an instructional assistant in special education for the Baltimore County public schools, he says, "the best thing to do weekends is to grab a camera and just do it on my own with my friends."

If these young filmmakers are just setting out on careers, a long-established local filmmaker is Susan Hadary Cohen. Affiliated with the University of Maryland at Baltimore's School of Medicine, she and co-producer William A. Whiteford have made many television documentaries dealing with health and psychological issues. And they've won a few Emmy Awards along the way.

In the case of "Bong and Donnell," they tracked the interracial friendship of two Baltimore youths over a nine-year period, shooting 50 times as much film as they would use in the final cut to ensure that candid moments would end up in the finished product.

"Having the institutional base allows us to get funding, and we're able to stay with a project like that one," says Ms. Cohen, 50, of Annapolis, who laughingly adds that her years of professional credentials "must make me seem like a grandmother to the younger filmmakers."

Mansion for movies

Her institutional digs are a world removed from a favored hangout of local up-and-coming filmmakers, the Mansion Theater, an "Addams Family"-style mansion in Waverly that resembles a Generation X group home.

Among its residents is filmmaker Skizz Cyzyk, 29, a Towson State graduate whose rail-thin build, beard, long hair and backward baseball cap make him right at home here. Every month for the past couple of years, he has been host of an open screening in his living room-turned-theater. Although he asks only for a $2 donation in a can by the front door, he says with mild-mannered unconcern that "not everybody gives." Novice moviemakers who have never had an audience -- whether paying or freeloading -- can show their efforts here, and, as their affable host notes, "there's tons of stuff I want to show."

"Opening our home and saying, 'Whoever wants to come into it can,' is a weird idea," allows one of his roommates, Jon Jolles, 28, a '95 graduate of UMBC whose tongue-in-cheek "Your Montana Vacation Tour of the World's Wonders Starts With This Coupon" doesn't run much longer than its title.

Mr. Jolles' film has been shown at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, and earlier this month won a Rosebud Award in the independent Rosebud film competition in Washington. The film combines first-person narration about a visit to his brother in Montana with found footage, including an old Abbott and Costello movie. It will be shown Saturday with the other Rosebud winners at 1 p.m. at the American Film Institute, at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

With his Rosebud trophy being served up for a visitor's inspection at the kitchen table, Mr. Jolles is tickled that so much national recognition is coming his way. Still, he and Mr. Cyzyk both earn their bread in a more mundane niche of the business: In early Quentin Tarantino fashion, they're both clerks at Video Americain in Roland Park.

"I fetch videos for a living," sighs Mr. Jolles, his slightly built frame giving a mock-mighty shrug. "It's great to watch movies there and stuff, but the way I make a living in the world is to get the box, get the video, take the video to the counter . . . "

There's so much irony in his voice, his sentence trails off under the weight of it. But then this late-night, beer-enhanced kitchen table conversation in a decaying mansion picks up again as he races on about movies he's seen and movies he wants to make.

TO TAKE A LOOK. . .

What: Baltimore Independent Film and Video Makers Competition

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art

When: 7:30 p.m. April 29

Tickets: $6 general admission; $5 for Baltimore Film Forum or Baltimore Museum of Art members, seniors and students

Call: (410) 235-0100 for ticket information; (410) 889-1993 for film information

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