In the swim, but not in the mainstream; Unconventional moviemaker Michael Shamberg, director of 'Souvenir,' has down-to-earth ideas about art films.


When people talk about Baltimore filmmakers, the names Levinson and Waters are the first to spring to mind.

But Baltimore is also home to some significant and influential filmmakers who have chosen to work outside the commercial mainstream of their better-known peers. While Barry Levinson and John Waters put Baltimore on the map by representing the city in their own ways, artists like Rob Tregenza, Martha Colburn and Skizz Cyzyk make films that have put the city on quite another map: as a place to make experimental work that challenges conventional notions of narrative.

Michael Shamberg is firmly in the latter tradition. Shamberg, 46, grew up in Pikesville, attended college in Pennsylvania and pursued sculpture, video and related disciplines in New York and Europe before returning to his hometown last spring. His directorial debut, "Souvenir," a feature-length drama starring Stanton Miranda, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Christina Ricci, was shown at the Maryland Film Festival.

Although Shamberg wrote and directed "Souvenir," an elliptical meditation on the nature of memory, identity and loss, he describes himself primarily as a producer. In this capacity he has made videos with artists as varied as Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Tony Shafrazi and the bands New Order and R.E.M. Shamberg also has helped produce the work of such filmmakers as Jonathan Demme, Kathryn Bigelow, Robert Breer and Henri Alekan.

Shamberg has three more film projects in the works, but for now he is dedicated to getting "Souvenir" before audiences. The film made its premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August 1998, has played eight festivals in Europe and the U.S., and will travel to Barcelona, Helsinki, Ireland and Japan over the next several months. And, of course, Shamberg is hoping for theatrical distribution for the film. In the meantime, he says, "I've been living very much hand to mouth and carrying a tremendous amount of debt."

The Sun caught up with Shamberg just as he was returning from a film festival in Maine, and just before he was departing for New York, where he and his companion, Miranda, the star of "Souvenir," still keep an apartment.

Q. Did you study film in college?

A. I went to Villanova University for two years and studied economics. I really didn't know what I wanted to do. ... My second year there I met someone who introduced me to art courses that were going on at the sister college, Rosemont. And I took a couple and it transformed my life.

My next big moment of discovery, the thing that changed my perception of reality once I was studying to become an artist, was going to an Amos Vogel program at the Annenberg Center and seeing Michael Snow's "Wavelength" with Stan Brakhage's "The Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes," and that was it.

Q. You attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, spent two years working with the video department at the alternative art space the Kitchen in New York, and served as New Order's video producer. Why didn't you have the impulse to direct sooner?

A. There were a couple of times I had ideas for a music video, but I had no desire to direct. I didn't want to learn the craft of filmmaking for other ends than my own needs as an artist. We see it in someone like David Fincher or Ridley Scott, who have come from commercials and music videos, that if you learn to create images and edit images together with those restrictions and to satisfy the needs of others, when you go to do your own work, that's going to filter into it. It can't help but filter into it. And I have no interest in doing that. Yet I was learning a lot by producing those things.

Q. What made you decide to direct "Souvenir"?

A. I had been writing a few things over the years, shorter pieces, and this was a story that, when I came to the end of writing it, I knew that I wanted to make this film. I think it's maybe because the piece was the most developed, which gave me the most confidence to make it. I met with a few producers in Paris, where I wrote it, and no one responded. I decided that since I had no track record and because the script was not a traditional narrative, that basically I would have to do it on my own.

Q. You shot "Souvenir" in Paris. Why Paris?

A. Every chance I had when I was making music videos, I'd go there and spend time alone. My first filmmaking community was in Paris. Maybe 15 years ago I met Olivier Assayas [the director of "Irma Vep"] and his brother Mischka, and through them I knew a lot of filmmakers. Olivier was still working for [the French film journal] Cahiers du Cinema and starting to make films. And over the years that was my passion, going to Paris and looking at films and spending time with my friends talking about films and watching them make films.

Q. It seems crucial that you landed in Paris rather than the filmmaking community in New York.

A. I guess I never felt there was a filmmaking community in New York, and I still believe there isn't one. You don't see Hal Hartley hanging around with Jim Jarmusch. It's really sad. And most of those people, come to think about it, have their communities outside of New York. Hal Hartley is loved in France, Jarmusch has his friends in Helsinki or wherever. I guess I feel much more of an affinity to filmmaking coming out of Europe, Eastern Europe and now Asia, than I do out of America. ... My community is the art community in New York. I'm very, very close to that. Recently when I did a fund-raising event I did it at a gallery, and a lot of artists came and supported it.

Q. What do you think of the state of exhibition for art films right now?

A. What's happened in America is that film festivals have filled the need and replaced the cinemas that used to show us all the films from around the world. But to go to a film festival is usually more expensive, and the film only shows once or twice. The need is the need we find everywhere, and that is a venue to show work. Here, the Charles having five theaters, they can show a hit movie and make money and finance showing work that's more experimental. I would like to see them become more aggressive showing work, not just another new European film that gets a little release here, but work that actually digs back to the cinema, gets back to ... some of the structuralists, to show people that there's more to cinema than what they're seeing. Even new young filmmakers today, one of the great problems is they have no sense of history.

Q. What needs to happen?

A. We've got to find other ways to get the films out there. Because there is an audience for this. And it would be really sad if that audience wasn't allowed to see the work. ... I would like to go into high schools and get those kids as guests to come to the Charles. The Charles should do that, bring them in and let them have a class that lets them talk about the film.

I went by a class at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and talked to students about my film, and some of the students came to the film. We've got to want to do that. John [Standiford, of the Charles] has got to want to do that. The Film Festival's got to want to do that. You need to get into the grass roots and call on the community that could be interested in seeing the work. We've got to reach out beyond just the people who go see Hollywood films. We've got to get to the other creative communities. ... It seems like there are filmmakers and artists here, and it would be really great to pull them together.

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