Hopkins film festival earning good grades; Hard-working students have added a promising dimension to city's cultural life.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The third edition of the Johns Hopkins Film Festival opens Thursday.

On its face, that doesn't look like a revolutionary statement. But the fact that this entirely student-run film festival has reached its third year, with a more impressive lineup of films than ever, is extraordinary. Extraordinary considering that, with the onslaught of the VCR and the Internet, campus film culture has generally been on the wane since its heyday in the 1970s. What's more surprising still is that such a festival is happening at Hopkins, a school known more for science and engineering than for art and culture.

The Hopkins festival has survived, even thrived, because of the confluence of several crucial factors: a group of creative and hard-working students, an astute mentor, a citywide film culture on the ascendancy and an encouraging number of worthy movies on the film festival circuit.

In fact, two hot commodities on that circuit will make their Baltimore debuts at Hopkins this year: "The Target Shoots First" and "Wadd: The Life and Times of John C. Holmes," both of which took honors at the Slamdance and South by Southwest festivals. Both films were coveted by the Maryland Film Festival, which will launch its second edition April 27 without them.

That the Hopkins kids got there first bespeaks a tenacity and energy that have characterized the festival's organizers since its inception in 1998. Founded by 1995 graduate Gil Jawetz, the first Hopkins festival reflected a gradually emerging film culture on the Hopkins campus.

English professor Jerome Christensen, who also taught film criticism and history, had helped a group of students install a projection booth in a Gilman Hall classroom. In 1995 those students, most of whom were making their own films, started a film magazine, Frame of Reference. That year also marked the beginning of a film and media studies program and the availability of a film minor.

Christensen, now the chair of the English Department at Vanderbilt University, recalls that the same students who came to Hopkins to pursue technical fields turned out to be interested in the gadgetry of filmmaking. With his guidance they began to galvanize what had been isolated pockets of interest in cinema.

"We really had an opportunity to take advantage of these interests in filmmaking and embed them in something like a film culture," he said recently. "Students at Hopkins at that time really needed any kind of culture, literary or film or whatever -- a sort of domain they could call their own."

Put another way, the gear-heads who had started to fiddle around with filmmaking and projection equipment wanted a place to show their own movies. So in 1998 Jawetz and about a dozen other students latched on to the school's annual Spring Fair -- the only time the auditorium in Shriver Hall, the campus's premiere screening site, was free -- and called themselves a festival.

Ever-changing cast

Since the first year, when program highlights included the Baltimore premiere of the Irish film "I Went Down" and the delightful documentaries "Out of the Loop" and "If You Lived Here You'd Be Home Now," the festival has taken on the personalities of its various organizers, who by the nature of college life are a transient lot.

Last year's festival, for example, featured more studio films -- "The Bumblebee Flies Anyway," from The Shooting Gallery, and "God Said, 'Ha,' " from Miramax -- but it also featured such fest-circuit favorites as "Six String Samurai" and the documentaries "A.J.'s Dogumentary" and "A Hole in the Head."

This year, festival director Daniel Humire, a senior majoring in biology, said he consciously stayed away from studio films, and opted not to spend money bringing filmmakers and other personalities to town. "This year, I thought the focus should just be on showing movies and keeping them as cheap as possible."

In addition to local premieres such as "The Target Shoots First" and "Wadd," Hopkins will show films that have played or will play at other Baltimore festivals. Last year's MicroCineFest hits "How To Start a Revolution in America" and "Diet Pink Lemonade" will be shown, for example, and "A.J.'s Dogumentary," which played at Hopkins last year, will be featured at this year's Maryland Film Festival. (Humire added that they will show "julien donkey-boy," the Harmony Korine film that had a brief run earlier this year at the Charles, and Constantin Costa-Gavras' 1969 political thriller "Z.")

That intra-festival porousness reveals a promising trend of cooperation within Baltimore's festival community. When the Maryland Film Festival heard they had been scooped with "Target" and "Wadd," for example, they reacted not with competitive pique but with an offer to co-sponsor the screenings and pay to bring the filmmakers to town. Logistical problems prevented that, but Maryland Film Festival founder Jed Dietz says he hopes there will be other opportunities in the future.

Finding a focus

Still, Dietz adds, the Hopkins festival has some work to do, especially in refining its mission. Is the festival just for students or does it see itself as an element within a larger community? Is its programming directed to young people or more general audiences?

"I think they're searching for a way to add something to the whole film scene in our community, and that's a hard thing to define," Dietz said. "MicroCineFest has defined it well; the Jewish Film Festival has defined it well; we're defining our position well." The Hopkins festival, he said, isn't there yet. "But they're searching, and that's good."

Humire agrees that the yearly churn in personnel and focus is a weakness. "Every year, just because the directors change, it never gets a real vision of how it wants to be," he said. "I think it's our biggest problem."

With luck, the Hopkins festival will overcome its structural limitations to become a significant part of the city's cultural life. And with luck, organizers will have the time and resources to reach out beyond the Hopkins campus to welcome local filmgoers. It would be a shame if a few hundred students were the only ones to see "The Target Shoots First" next weekend.

But the festival should be applauded for making the movie available in the first place. It wasn't so long ago that such a wealth of film offerings in Baltimore was something between a dim memory and a pipe dream. And the Hopkins students should be celebrated for making contemporary and repertory cinema a living thing for their peers at a time when most of them think film history started with "Jaws" or "Star Wars."

"Students are kind of coming out of the woodwork and it's great," said Linda DeLibero, who teaches film history and aesthetics at Hopkins. "In fact, there may be more students interested at this point than we have manpower. So it's going to grow and I find it incredibly heartening because that, to me, is one of the primary ways that you get good filmmaking going on."

Film festival

What: Johns Hopkins Film Festival

Where: Shriver, Gilman and Shaffer halls on the JHU Homewood Campus

When: April 13-16

Admission: $3 (day pass $5; all-access pass $15). Free for students with valid I.D.

Information: 410-516-7517 or on the Web at www. jhu.edu/~jhufilm/fest/

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