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Festival Report: The 2024 Maryland Film Festival


Baltimore filmmakers and audiences commingled in and around the historic Parkway Theater at the physical center and symbolic heart of the city from May 2 – 5 for the 25th anniversary edition of the Maryland Film Festival (MdFF). When MdFF announced in 2022 that they would be ceasing operations the following year, including all screening activity at the Parkway (its home since the renovations finished in 2017), I thought the fest could go the way of so many things in the city’s arts district, Station North: quiet abandonment and disrepair. It is a testament to the institutional strength of the organization that by crawling into their turtle shell for a year they were able to bring back MdFF for the four-day event.

Opening night was marked by a proclamation from Governor Wes Moore that May 2nd was to be from here on “Maryland Film Festival Day.” He also stated that he wants to see Maryland turn into the next Georgia for film production. The former announcement was buttressed by government support; on the festival’s closing night, Baltimore mayor Brandon Scott pledged $250,000 in ARPA grant funds towards next year’s festival. As for the latter, it seems doubtful that another boom the size of Atlanta’s could be possible anywhere in the U.S. given the current state of the film industry, with even Marvel downsizing output. But more tax incentives for film productions and state support would likely help cement Maryland’s place as a hub for independent cinema. (In 2024 Maryland has allocated just $50 million in film tax credits against Georgia’s predicted spend of $1.35 billion.)

Following the governor’s statements was a screening of Luther: Never Too Much, a documentary about legendary R&B musician Luther Vandross produced by Jamie Foxx. At Sundance’s Eccles Theatre, where it premiered earlier this year, director Dawn Porter’s portrait of the recording artist might’ve been merely a crowd-pleaser, but in Theater 1 at the Parkway the screening became an electric communal event. Porter encouraged the audience to sing along, and they did more than that—they harmonized, danced, celebrated. In a time when the experience of filmgoing has become increasingly privatized by at-home streaming, the selection of Luther as the opening night screening was a political statement about the way film can bring people together in the most literal sense. This was in-line with the vision that new festival director and director of programming KJ Mohr has for the future of MdFF. It’s a community festival, with an emphasis on the concept of locality, and an expansion of the MdFF’s “filmmaker festival” vision. On Saturday night, I stood out in the rain and the coldest 53° weather I’ve ever felt to catch an outdoor screening of the Trans Shorts program hosted by Mickey R Mahoney and Lilly Wachowski, and I was far from the only one happily filling the courtyard when all the seats under the canopies were full.

Running into the late-night it seemed like most festival goers trickled off to one of the afterparties MdFF was running in the neighborhood, but those last screenings of the night are often where one can find the off-beat films with enthusiastic (if thinner) crowds. On Friday this took me to a screening of Mary Dauterman’s debut Booger. While grieving the death of her best friend, Anna (Grace Glowicki, a MdFF returnee, whose directorial debut Tito played at the fest in 2019) takes care of a street cat, Booger, that eventually turns on her. After Booger bites her and runs out the window, Anna’s search for the cat — and the rest of her social life — become bogged down by a festering body-horror transformation. With a premise that could have yielded yet another grief-themed horror film Booger becomes a reality-bending, gross-out comedy under Dauterman’s direction and carried by the physical force of Glowicki’s performance.

As up-and-comers, Glowicki and Dauterman were in good company with MdFF—the fest has become known for recognizing talent early in their careers: Greta Gerwig, the Safdie Brothers, and Anna Biller (whose first film Viva from 2007 played on a 35mm as a part of Retro MdFF at this year’s fest) to name just a few. Another star of the fest was Mitzi Akaha, making an appearance at the closing night shorts program in The Shadow Wrangler on top of her starring role in the Slamdance winner Chaperone. The latter film plays like a swan song for aughts-era millennial romcoms. At 29, Akaha’s character Misha works a dead-end movie theater job in her Hawaiian hometown, which leads into a relationship with 18-year-old high school senior Jake (Laird Akeo), who mistakes her for being a high schooler herself. Director Zoë Eisenberg deftly turns this simple romantic formula into a thriller, where the only way a stuck-in-adolescence adult can find connection is by trying to literally become a teenager again, a choice that leads to a shockingly dark unraveling and life-ruining consequences for those who get wrapped up in Misha’s delusions.

One of the great discoveries of this year’s 25th anniversary edition of MdFF was a curatorial re-do — a film not accepted in the festival’s first year. Originally released in 1998, Detention is a story inspired by director Darryl Wharton-Rigby’s time as a teacher in Baltimore City in the ‘90s. Detention follows five high school students, each portraying different representative figures of social phenomenon—the jock, the poet, the militant, the promiscuous girl, the guy who’s nothing but trouble—in a Breakfast Club-but-make-it-Black setup. Wharton-Rigby’s camera is exciting, with every scene taking on a new style or adopting new formal rules, whether they be sets of hard cuts and quick fade-outs while establishing locations or a total cinematic drum roll at the emotional height of the movie. Shot for $12,000 in 12 days, the film reminds me of Frederick R. Friedel’s Axe or Cinqué Lee’s Window on Your Present: it’s rough around the edges, the minuscule budget can barely contain the ambition, and it shows a massive potential that never got turned into a full-fledged directing career (although Wharton-Rigby does currently have a couple projects in the works). The screening itself was nerve-racking for Wharton-Rigby because he had planned to make a digitized version to play at MdFF from a Betamax SD master of the 16mm film, but when the master was checked it was found to have deteriorated to a point of unusability. What screened at MdFF then was Wharton-Rigby’s personal 16mm print, which he was worried might simply burn up during the screening, leaving his first film totally in the ether (thankfully, it didn’t). Another thing that made the Detention screening so special was the preceding short, Hearth, directed by Cameron Clay, about a prodigal-son-like figure returning to his parents in Prince George’s County. With a theme of reconciliation that played well with Detention, the short impressed with Clay’s direction and its extraordinarily confident and considered mise en scene. Where Detention feels completely immediate and punchy, Hearth is drawn back and contemplative—its two vastly different early expressions of two different generations getting discovered by many for the first time together.

Diving into the contemporary issues of youth are filmmakers trying to tackle one of Baltimore’s most hot-button issues: squeegee boys. Posting up on corners of major throughways at rush hours, they’ve become the ire of many a wealthy motorist and the target of innumerable racist tirades on talk radio and social media. During the BaltiShorts Q&A, it was revealed that MdFF receives around nine “squeegee films” a year — I wondered, has anyone make a film of all the crews running into each other? — and one that was seven years in the making got into 25th MdFF’s Main Slate. The germanely named Squeegee, directed by Clarke Lyons and Gabe Dinsmoor, follows four young squeegeers in a collaborative filmmaking process, primarily from 2018-20. Cleverly, the film opens with testimony about the squeegee boys, largely negative, and weaves that in with news stories that establish a certain media narrative the film will spend the rest of its runtime totally subverting. Squeegee doesn’t see its principal cast—Leroy Brown, Ericka Sparks, Desmond Rogers, and “Peanut” Davis—as political subjects but instead seeks to “give [them] autonomy” to “speak [their own] truths,” as director Lyons put it at the post screening Q&A hosted by the IDA’s Abby Sun. Lyons went on to make the point of asking, after seeing all we’ve seen of these young people’s lives, “Why are we [as a city] even talking about squeegeeing?” The issue for the audience still was political, or so it seemed, as most of the audience commenters work for city organizations that help get these kids into job placements or stay off the streets. One unaffiliated audience member pointed out that “poverty is never convenient,” and argued that more privileged people simply see squeegeeing as “a nuisance.”

It was ironic that this forum happened inside the Parkway, a theater space at the heart of a neighborhood that is in a constant conflict between gentrification, landbanking and blight. Three days prior, and about an hour before the opening night screening, private security kicked out guys who were loitering outside the Parkway, drinking Bud Ice’s from an adjacent liquor store. This type of street cleaning is likely not any one person’s decision but reflects how people in power would prefer the space to look as opposed to how it actually exists now. These efforts create a virtual reality within the space of the Parkway, where the world of Station North, or Baltimore, is no more than what’s envisioned in architects’ mock-ups — diagrams that hide as many of the area’s rough edges as they can.

The renovations to The Parkway were done by Seawall Development, which has become the architectural face of Baltimore’s recent gentrification efforts, having done much of the redevelopment to the adjacent neighborhood, Remington, as well as the new Lexington Market downtown (which was the subject of one of the BALTIShorts, Faidleys the Center of the Universe, about one of the last hold-outs in the old Lexington location and the identity attached to it). Much of the facade of the Parkway, originally opened as a picture house in 1915, remains intact, as does the ornate interior of Theater 1. However, on the corner of the building is a wide-open reception area with glass windows for walls, facing the corner of North & Charles where much of Squeegee was filmed. Across the street is a billboard with “Free Palestine” written on it, but behind the glassy wall that cry for the end of apartheid and genocide feels like muted background noise. Indeed, the only mention I heard at MdFF of the unconscionable crisis was by Desire Lines director Jules Rosskam, who introduced his film, which explores transmasculinity without the barriers of time, by saying as an anti-Zionist Jew that we “can’t be for trans liberation without being for Palestinian liberation.” From inside the Parkway, the outside world seems oddly far. Perhaps it’s appropriate that a movie theater would position itself in a neighborhood from a vantage of voyeurism. I can’t tell if it’s an odd coincidence or intentional programming then that the best movie of the festival so directly concerned itself with this way of interacting with the world.

Brazilian director Daniel Bandeira’s film Property is a diptych of perspective, where a wealthy woman in an armored car is confronted by a worker’s revolt on a farm her husband owns. It starts with the married pair driving from their home in the city out to the countryside, only to find something has been going on at their farmhouse. The film cuts to black at the moment of reveal, and now we’re with the workers, learning that the farm is about to be sold. Violence breaks out, and the workers head to the house to try to bust open the owner’s safe to get ahold of their wages and papers, only to run into the arriving owner and his wife. When the owner is severely beaten, his wife, Tereza (Malu Galli), takes refuge in the new armored car he bought for her. Bandeira’s film is a blistering genre-bender, constantly toying with the way film narrative structures force emotional identification that lead to political outlooks: when we’re in the bulletproof bubble of an armored SUV, we naturally find ourselves along for the emotional ride. But when we’re with the workers revolting against their oppressors, the apparently justifiable paranoia of the wealthy looks like petty anger at their losing control over the world. Bandeira’s perspective shifts climax with a sequence that almost turns Tereza on the run into a final girl. At a moment where the audience might find identification, though, Bandeira flips the script yet again, culminating in a horrific moment of inhumanity from the wealthy Tereza and a necessary and tragic act of survival by the impoverished workers.

One thing that was missing from this year’s 25th MdFF was their regular experimental shorts program (most recently titled “Diverging Forms”). I talked to Mohr about this on the last day of the festival, and she saw it as an unfortunate casualty of her wearing the festival director and director of programming hats simultaneously, as, amongst their current roster, she is the experimental film person on the team. (Mohr plans to bring the program back next year.) However, that is not to say that there was no boundary-pushing cinema at MdFF this year—Rosskam’s Desire Lines has formally experimental aspects, and the short that was programmed alongside it, Jim Munitsov’s Hyperconnect, is an exceptional work that pairs the likes of Discord servers and YouTube buffering with 16mm footage of its protagonist to portray an emerging kind of loneliness resulting from the fact that many “third spaces” and meaningful social connections for young people have moved to different online mediums. MdFF this year also featured a whole set of emerging technologies showcases in CineTech. These included an “immersive experience” that would play before screenings in Theater 1 of Dutch artist Julius Horsthiuss’ “A Pantheon of Fractals,” which added fantastically faded paints across the building’s semi-dome and neo-classical moldings. This work was also available to be seen in VR on the third floor, along with a number of other VR works, like a 360 degree music video directed by Ryan Murray and an interactive experience engaging in the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” The latter experienced some kind of render issue that I found quite beautiful, where my head movement would cause the lighting in the VR to break into dozens of scattering, dancing rays—maybe I was just missing the Diverging Forms program too much. At the very least, CineTech worked to imbue every last corner of the building with cinema, turning dull industrial-carpeted backrooms into new worlds to be explored.

MdFF has seemed to have reestablished itself firmly in its return year, which will make the future interesting because it appears that the festival that popped up in its absence, New/Next, will also be taking place this October and plans to stick around for the foreseeable future. I asked Mohr what she thought of having two fests like these running in the same city, and she replied, “I’m just excited that there’s more film in Baltimore. It just goes to show what a strong scene we have. We also have the awesome Baltimore International Black Film Festival. There is Black Femme Supremacy, that Nia Hampton does, and Creative Alliance, 2640 [Space] — [there is] so much going, and there is a hunger for it.” Even just on the Thursday that opened MdFF, there was a screening at the used bookstore, record shop, and sometimes music-or-other-arts venue Normal’s, where notable local zine producers and DIY filmmakers Nicky Otis Smith and Matt Barry showed their latest experimental short and essayistic feature, respectively.

Suffice it to say, the Maryland Film Festival has come back with strong institutional force, an anchoring point for the burgeoning film community in the city and a draw to those outside. One could argue that MdFF has been so strong over the last 25 years in fostering a film scene that Baltimore’s independent world has grown bigger than just what MdFF can contain in the Parkway’s walls.

© 2024 Filmmaker Magazine. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of The Gotham