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A pet project: Film festival shows its breeding; opening the curtain on everything from cult favorites to cinema classics, without all the Hollywood hotdogging.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ezekiel -- Zeke to his friends -- strode regally through the lobby of the Charles Theater yesterday like a king lording over his castle.

It was the first full day of the Maryland Film Festival 2000, and Zeke, whose owner is festival founder Jed Dietz, was reveling in his 15 minutes of fame. After all, it's not every day the mocha-colored standard poodle gets to mingle at such an affair with his canine buddies, who were invited to Friday morning's screening of "A.J.'s Dogumentary." Directed by A.J. Poulin, the film offers a comic glimpse into the often obsessive world of dog lovers.

Stephanie Garmey, her 3-year-old daughter Olivia in tow, brought her black mutt Jasper to show and said she was thrilled to learn dogs were welcome.

"I thought I'd take him out so he could see what he's been missing," Garmey said. "I just hope he won't take a leak on anything."

Down the hallway, Jeff Howard's 7-month-old Bichon Frise, Daphne, strained at her leash to sniff another dog while Howard waited for his wife to use the phone. "We were worried we were the only people who would be stupid enough to show up with a dog," he said.

He needn't have worried. About a dozen dogs attended the screening and, except for a few barks, sat quietly and were rewarded for their obedience with free Frisbees and dog biscuits. Poulin, his black lab, Zoie, beside him, said he was taken aback when festival programming coordinator Gabe Wardell suggested opening the screening to dogs.

"At first I was like, 'Aren't they just going to pee all over and bark?' " said Poulin, as several dogs passed by with their owners and checked out the star of his film. "But I'm open minded."

The presence of dogs seemed fitting for a festival lauded for being as eclectic and quirky as the city it's held in. This year's lineup includes more than 100 films over four days; they range from cult features to classics such as the "Wizard of Oz" and "Lawrence of Arabia." Todd Rohal, whose short "Single Spaced" was showing Friday afternoon, saw the festival as a microcosm of Baltimore itself.

"It really sums up Baltimore pretty well -- it's got the extremes," said Rohal, kicking back on a couch in the Charles Theater's lobby. Nearby, film buffs pored over schedules, and filmmakers milled about. The morning's sparse crowd began growing as the day wore on.

Claire Mullins said she liked the festival's mix of obscure films alongside others featuring well-known actors such as William H. Macy and Neve Campbell, who star in "Panic" with John Ritter, Tracey Ullman and Donald Sutherland.

"You do have that sort of dichotomy between the two," said Mullins, who took a vacation day from work along with husband Wes Doyle to see a few films yesterday. "I think that's what a film festival should be -- the struggling newcomers and seasoned actors starring in lesser-known films for no money. It's kind of charming that they show both."

The Maryland Film Festival gives out no awards, and filmmakers are not charged entry fees, an arrangement Rohal and others say has created an event focused solely on the pure enjoyment of filmmaking instead of on the filmmaking business.

"You go to other film festivals, and the filmmakers take off and go to parties to talk to distributors instead of talking to the audiences," Rohal said.

Frances Reid, whose film "Long Night's Journey Into Day" won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival, said festivals often tend to be more about stargazing than seeing films.

"I don't have a sense that they do this at this festival, which I really appreciate," said Reid, who flew in from California with Deborah Hoffmann, her collaborator on the film, which will screen today and Sunday. "I believe good films themselves are enough to draw an audience."

The promise of quality films, stars or not, was enough to prompt Ellicott City resident Peggy Sue Missett to take a break from her job as a computer specialist to volunteer at the festival. Missett's tasks included ferrying actor Jill Hennessy, her boyfriend, sister and a friend back and forth from their hotel. During a ride yesterday morning to the Charles, the four serenaded Missett with a rendition of Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue." Missett said it's that sort of experience that makes working the festival memorable.

"It's great. It's the best job," she said. "You get to know [the filmmakers] and they get to know you."

But at the festival's opening night Thursday at the Senator Theatre, the buzz was as much about Dan Keplinger as it was about the two filmmakers whose documentary on Keplinger's life earned an Oscar at this year's Academy Awards. Outside the theater, Keplinger, who has cerebral palsy, sat in his wheelchair dressed in a black tuxedo and flanked by local filmmakers Susan Hadary and Bill Whiteford, who followed Keplinger for 14 years to make "King Gimp."

"It's very exciting to be in your hometown," said Hadary, who clutched her gold Oscar as a steady line of well-wishers stopped to offer congratulations. "I think it's even more emotional than the Oscars in a way, because we know everybody here."

The night was also an important one for Sarah Gehring, who has cerebral palsy and was one of six children Hadary and Whiteford documented over a number of years. Gehring's story was chronicled in another Hadary-Whiteford film, "Sarah's Graduation."

She said that it's encouraging to see the increased acceptance of people with disabilities. "Making these films is one way to do that," said Gehring, a research librarian at the Sun who attended preschool with Keplinger.

"King Gimp," a soaring, heartbreakingly moving story of Keplinger's struggles and triumphs, left few dry eyes among the audience, which gave Keplinger and his filmmakers a standing ovation. During a question-and-answer period afterward, one man stood and said the film "made me proud to be a human being."

It was an auspicious kick-off for the festival, and the night clearly belonged to Keplinger. Still, there was room for a little stargazing. Spotting former "Law & Order" star Jill Hennessy walking through the Senator Thursday night, dressed in flared jeans, black platform sandals and a long fitted jacket, festival volunteer Edda Budlow did a double-take.

"She was great in that show," Budlow said. "My God, she's thin."

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