Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Meet the New Wave of Charm City Cinema

Meet the New Wave of Charm City Cinema

[This post was originally written for the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s blog.]

The 23rd annual Maryland Film Festival (MFF) took place from May 19-27, with an opening night double-bill, “Balti-Shorts & “Strawberry Mansions,” that showcased the work of young and upcoming local filmmakers. It was part of the festival’s mission to introduce the next generation of homegrown talent while highlighting stories made in and about the city that reflect its “pain, angst, and hopefulness” as it looks towards a brighter future after a year of lockdown and a history of social and racial divisions. Everyone knows Baltimore’s “old guard” directors club of John Waters, Barry Levinson, David Simon and Charles Dutton - but who are the young artists representing the next wave of local filmmaking?

Well, one of them is our very own Gillian Waldo, a Library Associate in the Enoch Pratt Central Library’s Humanities Dept. whose film Diary gets its premier screening May 19 in the Balti-Shorts program. Gillian grew up in Baltimore City and graduated from Johns Hopkins University with a degree in film and museum studies before joining Pratt in 2020. She likes to make what she calls “small films on 16mm.” Diary, shot on 16mm and digitized by Colorlabs in Rockville, documents “a summer without precedent in Baltimore” - the lockdown summer of 2020.


Totally wired: the lockdown summer of 2020

“The pandemic forced us to renegotiate our relationship to the spaces we live in and notice how the city had changed,” says Gillian. “The pools were empty, fireworks were set off every night, people marched in the streets daily. This allowed me to reflect on my relationship to Baltimore and highlight the small beauties present in something as small as car dealership streamers or as large as collective action stopping traffic.”

Gillian Waldo’s “Diary” records the small beauties of a city in lockdown

Diary is a visual tone poem that uses a non-narrative framework - skillfully-framed shots and carefully-selected audio (of protest marches, rally speeches, helicopters, fireworks) - interspersed with title cards representing the director’s “diary” observations. The style is reminiscent of Chris Marker and Jean-Luc Godard, with the reflective pacing of Yasujiro Ozu, but with Gillian’s own distinct voice - one that quietly makes a loud statement about a year unlike any other.

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2020 was a busy summer for Gillian; in between filmmaking and working at Pratt, she found time to co-produce a 24/7 public access-style live-streaming channel, QuaranTV, with Thomas Faison. The channel was created as a way for people in Baltimore to “gather to watch things alone together” in the wake of local theaters closing their doors. As if that wasn’t enough, she also made a music video for Ed Shrader’s Music Beat, the local rock duo of Ed Schrader and Devlin Rice.

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Joining Gillian on the “Balti-Shorts” program was documentarian Joe Tropea, who co-directed the short Fugazi’s Barber - about punk rockers from the bands Nation of Ulysses and Fugazi frequenting an old Italian barber shop in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington D.C. in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s - with Robert A. Emmons Jr. The film could easily have been called Ulysses’ Barber, but while Ian Svenonius’ pompadoured Nation of Ulysses had more hair, Ian MacKaye’s Fugazi had more name recognition (unless you were on the staff of Sassy magazine, which adored frontman Svenonius, calling him The Sassiest Boy in America in 1990). Curiously, the owner of the barbershop is named Frank Tropea, but he is unrelated to the co-director. Tropea’s Barber Shop closed its doors in 1997, but not before Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty got his wedding day haircut there - on the house!

Joe Tropea, whose day job is Curator of Films and Photographs at the Maryland Center for History & Culture (formerly the Maryland Historical Society), is no stranger to the MFF, having previously screened Hit & Stay (with co-director Skizz Cyzyk, 2013) and Sickies Making Film with co-writer Emmons, 2018) there. Hit & Stay addressed draft resisters during the Vietnam War, including Baltimore’s famous “Catonsville Nine”; Sickies Making Film looked at the history of Hollywood censorship, with a special focus on John Waters’ one-time nemesis, the Maryland State Censor Board. Both films can be checked out on DVD from the Pratt Library and Sickies Making Film is also available to stream on Kanopy.)

Much closer to home on the opening night shorts program was David Bonnett, Jr.’s The Cal, the Coz and the Streak, which humorously resurrected a notorious internet conspiracy theory linking Baltimore’s “Sacred Cal” of baseball - Cal Ripken, Jr. - with Hollywood womanizer Kevin Costner and a mysterious power outage at Camden Yards in 1997 that kept Ripken’s record consecutive games streak alive. According to the (long debunked) internet conspiracy theory, Junior busted his hand after finding Costner in bed with his wife and punching him just before an August 1997 game against the Seattle Mariners; O’s management then allegedly orchestrated the power outage to keep the streak and the media hype going. For, as the saying goes, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend." The short was filmed at Brewster’s Tavern on Gough Street near Patterson Park.

MFF’s opening night feature film Strawberry Mansions - the story of a dystopian future where the government records and taxes dreams - isn’t specifically Balto-centric but its director and crew certainly are. Working again with co-director/star Kentucker Audley and featuring a soundtrack by Baltimore electronic maestro Dan Deacon, it is the fourth and most ambitious feature film yet by Gilman grad and former Johns Hopkins University lecturer Albert Birney. Strawberry Mansions finally got its hometown premier after receiving critical acclaim earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Birney’s previous film with Audley, 2017’s Sylvio, is currently available to stream on Kanopy. The story of a mild-mannered Baltimore gorilla who becomes an overnight TV celebrity, Sylvio was named one of the ten-best films of 2017 by New Yorker film critic Richard Brody.


And also returning to this year’s MFF is Theo Anthony, a filmmaker who splits his time between Baltimore and New York. Anthony’s new film All Light, Everywhere is an exploration of “cameras, weapons, policing and justice” in a time of surveillance technology and features a segment on the use of body cams in Baltimore’s police department. And, like Albert Birney's Strawberry Mansions, it features a soundtrack by Dan Deacon. Anthony previously screened Rat Film, an acclaimed experimental documentary about Baltimore’s “3 Rs” (Race, Red lining, Rats) at MFF 2017. Rat Film, which also featured the music of Dan Deacon, is available from Pratt on Kanopy and DVD.

But wait, there’s even more homegrown talent in the Pratt Library's Local Film Collection! Create your own Maryland Film Festival at home by using your library card to watch these “locally-sourced” films about Baltimore people, issues and institutions:

  • Native son and JHU film studies teacher Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill and Take What You Can Carry are available on Kanopy and Sollers Point, I Used To Be Darker, and Putty Hill  are available from Pratt on DVD.

  • MICA grad Lofty Nathan’s 12 O’clock Boys (2013) follows the exploits of a notorious West Baltimore dirt bike pack as seen through the eyes of an impressional adolescent.

  • Park School grad Amanda Lipitz’s Step is the story of three high school students at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women as they work hard at their studies just as much as their “step team” dance moves.


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