Opening Night Shorts
After a brief introduction by Baltimore native and Academy Award-winning director Barry Levinson, the 10th annual Maryland Film Fest kicked off with a program of six shorts. Among the most noteworthy of these shorts included "Salim Baba" (dir. Tim Sternberg and Francisco Bello), which raises important questions about the artistry of film and family occupations. It follows a man in Kolkata, India who screens films for poor children in a homemade, portable theater housed in a ramshackle cart, as his father did before him. He and his sons utilize scraps of film from theaters and edit them by hand into their own unique reinterpretations. We briefly see a few examples of his family-remixed films, which are a sort of lo-fi analogue to the internet generation's crop of video-mashup-creating YouTube participants.
"Doxology" (Michael Langan) was the most stylized work of the night, using stop-motion animation, clean-cut WASPS, and tennis balls to make a commentary on... something about the condition of modern living -- I'm not sure exactly what. This experimental short combines a series of disconnected sketches, which fail to find unity and give the impression of a senior thesis project, albeit finely executed. Nevertheless, the scenes that show a man dancing with a car and someone performing most morning bathroom rituals simultaneously make this an intriguing -- and vaguely hallucinogenic -- experience.
The most engrossing short was "My Olympic Summer" (Daniel Robin), the director's fictional reconstruction of his past and present. By that, I mean he uses footage from his parents' 8mm films and draws parallels between how their marriage might have failed if not for a terrorist kidnapping during the 1972 Olympic games and his own modern-day divorce. Except that the narrative is, as most audience members were surprised to learn during the Q&A session, “mostly fictional.” The director's disembodied voice comes across as unnervingly intimate, even though he is lying to you, as he speaks over photographs and old film footage that have been interspersed by excellent use of Super 8 perforations. Voyeurism has never been so guiltless.
We Are Wizards
Dir. Josh Koury
We Are Wizards is a documentary exploring the realm of Harry Potter fan subculture. I haven't read a Potter book or seen any of the movies, and given the topic of the film, I was expecting a tour into a world of super-nerdery and fandom, well-tread ground that other documentaries, like Trekkies, have visited before. Luckily this was not the case, as director Josh Koury avoids the temptation of poking fun or passing judgment on the documentary's subjects, focusing on people that aren't merely passionate fans, but are inspired to creative and reinterpretive endeavors.
We meet a handful of the hundred or so "Wizard Rock" bands, musicians who represent a wide span of genres and whose only link is that nearly all of their subject matter is culled from Harry Potter. Other fans featured in the film have founded websites, created their own, comical audio tracks to accompany the first film, and led boycotts against Warner Bros to retaliate against the corporation's crackdown on fansites. The documentary raises questions related to larger issues (the creative process, fantasy as escapism, and how new media interacts with modern cultural myths) but keeps the lens firmly centered around its human subjects and their experiences.
The Hungarian Horntails, a musical duo of elementary-aged brothers, have been raised in a musically nurturing environment. They started the band after picking up instruments left around the house by their punk-rock parents, one of whom also plays and goes on tour with his sons in a Harry Potter-influenced musical project. Their story contrasts with that of Draco and the Malfoys, a pair of twenty-something musicians who found success in their Harry Potter-inspired band. One of the members admits that the band provided a therapeutic outlet in dealing with a divorce. Sometimes it's easier to be productive when creative guidelines are established from the onset, even if these guidelines entail writing songs from the perspective of Harry Potter's fictional antagonist.
Henry Jenkins, co-director of the MIT Comparative Studies Program, makes an unexpected appearance, providing an academic voice that contextualizes current Harry Potter fandom within a larger cultural tradition of oral storytelling and myth-making. The internet has allowed fans to be enmeshed in the product, turning some, such as Melissa Anelli, founder of the fan news site The Leaky Cauldron, into minor celebrities and providing steps toward furthering their careers. We Are Wizards isn't so much about Harry Potter as it is about the power of stories to inspire creativity, act as a springboard for careers, and cope with tragedy.
White Lies Black Sheep
Dir. James Spooner
White Lies Black Sheep attempts to structure the questions about assimilation and race provoked by director James Spooner's groundbreaking 2003 documentary Afro-Punk into a streamlined narrative. The problem is, the film seems more reminiscent of The Real World than of its predecessor, which dealt frankly with issues of racial identity for blacks participating in a mostly white subculture. AJ (Ayinde Howell) is a black punk who spikes his hair, wears tight jeans, adorns his room with posters of bands like The Who, and sports some hot-pink American Apparel boy briefs. A star of the New York City punk night club scene, he doesn't get along with his father. A white friend tries to persuade him to grow an afro and read Malcolm X. AJ slowly reconsiders black culture and identity following some drama that ensues in his pursuit of a white scenester.
The film is interspersed with interviews with AJ's friends and acquaintances, all of whom are nightlife regulars, DJs, or club promoters. Introspective scenes that involve AJ talking about his childhood, when he felt like an outcast for doing well in school, seem all too short in comparison with the screen time devoted to showing him being cool, or going on a bender after being rejected. White Lies Black Sheep ultimately ends up revealing more about the fleeting shallowness of nightlife culture than about racial identity. Howell does an excellent job portraying AJ, but his efforts can't make up for the lack of a strong script. Part of what made Afro-Punk original was the intersection of "progressive" punk politics, minority fetishization, and established ideas about racial identity it depicted. White Lies Black Sheep focuses more on consumer identity, the products that we purchase that define us, an issue that has already been explored more thoroughly and compellingly in other films.