Q&A: Annapolis Film Festival ‘healing year’ to honor Capital Gazette victims

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the Annapolis Film Fest (Jason Fraley)

The Annapolis Film Festival returns this Thursday through Sunday, but unlike past years, the seventh annual event comes during a “healing year” after the Capital Gazette massacre.

“We’re paying tribute to our friends at the Capital Gazette who lost their lives,” co-founder Patti White said. “We’ve focused a lot on films (about) authenticity and the truth in storytelling. We’re doing a tribute film called ‘Pulitzer’ and having a panel afterward on the importance of the free press. … ‘Truth in Storytelling’ is the theme of our entire festival.”

Since its inception, attendance has grown from 2,500 in the first year to 16,000 last year. Visitors will watch 80-plus films screened at the Maryland Hall for Creative Arts, Annapolis Elementary School, Asbury United Methodist Church and Key Auditorium at St. John’s College.

“It’s lean and mean,” White said. “Doing festivals is all about contacts, but it’s really about proving. People pull up your slate, they look at it and see what we’ve been doing the past couple of years. They know this is a valid, pulsing film festival that’s moving things forward.”

It kicks off Thursday with the opening night film “The Public,” directed by Emilio Estevez, who stars with Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Taylor Shilling, Jena Malone and Michael K. Williams.

“It’s based on a true story in Cincinnati a few years ago where there was a deep freeze,” co-founder Lee Anderson said. “The librarian didn’t want to turn people out on the streets, the shelters were overflowing and he knew people would die. So, he was faced with a moral dilemma and he staged a sit-in. Alec Baldwin plays the police chief, Christian Slater is the jerky D.A., Jena Malone is a fellow librarian and they have to decide the right thing to do, all while the media is camped outside trying to figure out which side of the story … is true.”

Friday brings the documentary “The Biggest Little Farm” by Ocean City native John Chester.

“It’s good for family but also for people interested in sustainability,” Anderson said. “It’s the story of John Chester and his wife Molly, how they got out of the rat race of L.A. and moved an hour north to start a farm, then realized, ‘Ooh, we don’t really know what we’re doing!’ So they document this journey into learning how to build a sustainable farm. It’s really entertaining.”

You can also check out “Storm the Gates” about local political campaigns across the country. It’s directed by three D.C. women: Josie Swantek, Catherine Yrisarri and Daniele Anastasion.

“It’s about three women running for office in their local politics in Denver, Virginia and (Pennsylvania),” White said. “We’re having the three directors come (for a Q&A).”

The Friday spotlight is “Villains,” which is off the heels of South By Southwest. Directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen, the film stars Kyra Sedgwick, Jeffrey Donovan and Bill Skarsgard.

“It is a dark comedy,” Anderson said. “Two villains run out of gas on the side of the road. As they go looking for assistance, they get into even more trouble.” White added, “Think ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ for the younger generation. They’re a little off their rockers, adorable and in love.”

Don’t miss “Little Woods” starring Tessa Thompson and Lily James on Friday and Saturday.

“It’s a really good film about the struggle that two sisters are having in a little town in North Dakota, where there’s nothing happening except the drug trade,” White said. “One of them has gotten involved in traveling OxyContin and all this stuff over the border. She’s trying to quit it all and get back to her life, but she’s being torn in every direction. It really becomes a thriller.”

Saturday brings the annual “Shorts Challenge” with last year’s champ screening her film funded by Lens Pro to Go, Serious Grip & Electric, Studio Unknown and Henninger Media.

“You’ve got 10 minutes to pitch in front of judges — think ‘The Voice’ and ‘Shark Tank,'” White said. “Last year we had a winner, she has made her film and she’ll be premiering in one of our shorts programs this year. … It’s called ‘Bride Price,'” which Anderson describes as “a journey through a Nigerian grocery store where women are objectified and sold as a product.”

Saturday’s African-American Showcase includes “Mr. Soul” about TV pioneer Ellis Haizlip.

“He was a pioneer of PBS in the late ’60s and early ’70s bringing the first Afro-centric television program,” Anderson said. “He had lots of people on there before anyone else knew who those people were, like Aretha Franklin, Earth Wind & Fire, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Sidney Poitier, just everybody. It’s a wonderful film and the niece of Ellis Haizlip made the film.”

Saturday also brings the women’s rights documentary “This Changes Everything.”

“It’s the story of actress Geena Davis, how she got tired of hearing about how there are plenty of parts for women and people of color,” Anderson said. “They did facial recognition and voice recognition software and went back through the years of movies and provided all this data about whether you have a speaking role, a lead role, a person of color, age. … She threw the data on the table and it’s starting to change things for parity in the entertainment world.”

Saturday’s spotlight film is “Wild Rose” starring Jessie Buckley as a Nashville hopeful.

“She’s kind of the ‘it girl’ now,” White said. “She plays a down-on-her-luck, aspiring country-western music singer, even though she’s from Glasgow, Scotland. … She comes out of jail, has two kids at home and a mom she’s dumped everything on. She’s not a very likable person in the beginning, but you have to take the journey with her to see how she discovers her life.”

Saturday’s other spotlight film, “Them That Follow,” stars reigning Oscar champ Olivia Colman.

“It’s just off of Sundance … dealing with a church that believes in snake handlers,” White said. “We’re excited because it’s a very good film and it’s got a real powerful, relevant story.”

If you’re looking for a family-friendly story, check out “Storm Boy” starring Geoffrey Rush.

“It’s about a grandfather with his granddaughter,” White said. “In talking to her and telling her stories, he remembers his life as a young boy on an island off Australia where he rescued a pelican named Mr. Percival. It keeps going back into that memory. It’s a beautiful little story.”

Military vets will find their eyes opened by the investigative film “Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?”

“Van Dorn went to the U.S. Naval Academy,” Anderson said. “He’s viewed as a whistleblower for trying to inform the COOs that (helicopters) weren’t being maintained. It investigates why 72 military members were killed in noncombat duty flying these helicopters.”

There are also more military-friendly films, including a Sunday double feature of William Wyler’s classic “The Memphis Belle” and “The Cold Blue” produced by daughter Catherine Wyler, who will attend. Similarly, you can also check out the war doc “The Interpreters.”

“It’s a terrific documentary about the fixers or interpreters in Afghanistan and Iraq during the war,” White said. “They were bonded to one of our soldiers as their fixer, and the relationships that formed between these guys and how even after the war ended, our servicemen were trying to get these guys out to protect them because their lives were at risk. It’s a terrific film.”

Not to be confused, there’s also a separate feature film called “The Interpreter” on Sunday.

“It is a film about two men, one whose father was a Holocaust victim and one whose father was a member of the SS,” White said. “They come together and take a road trip to discover.”

It’s part of the Jewish Experience showcase, which includes the sports doc “Heading Home.”

“The tale of Team Israel, the baseball story about the American Major League Baseball players who went to Israel to try to help that team,” White said. “They learned a lot about their lives, their religion, all of that, and we have the general manager of Team Israel coming (to speak).”

Outdoors enthusiasts will appreciate the annual boating showcase with “Sea Change.”

“Usually we have a sailing story, but this year … it’s a South African couple who rigged out a little oversized row boat and took it form the shores of Morocco to New York City,” White said. “It’s a 6,600-mile rowing journey. They had nine Go Pros on their boat, so you saw everything: their relationship, what happened, the good, the bad, the ugly, the fantastic, everything.”

If you’re more musically inclined, check out “In Your Hands” starring Kristin Scott Thomas.

“Think ‘Good Will Hunting’ meets a Paris conservatory,” White said. “A young man has had difficulty, been a street musician and had problems with the law. He’s given an opportunity to participate in this conservatory and have Kristin Scott Thomas as his piano instructor.”

Sunday also includes “Solace,” starring Lynn Whitfield (“Greenleaf”), who will be in attendance.

“She’s very well loved, she’s a wonderful, terrific actress and it’s fantastic that she’s supporting these filmmakers that are doing independent films,” White said. “She became a part of this film, a part of the art of it, and has been willing to be at the project from festival to festival.”

Whitfield is one of many guests who will participate in various filmmaker panels. Friday brings “What’s Up, Doc?” on the evolution of documentaries; “Social Media: A Filmmaker’s New Best Friend” about online promotion; “Writing for the Screen(s)” about writing techniques; and “The Essentials: Choosing Your Production Team” about finding a crew.

Saturday brings “Producers & Directors: In the Ring” featuring tips by producer-director teams, and Sunday brings “Voices of Women in Film” helping female filmmakers navigate an often male-dominated industry.

For a more casual chat, head over to “coffee talks” on Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings.

“Coffee Talks are becoming more and more popular each year,” Anderson said. “It’s like inside baseball for the film industry. We have unannounced guests, and you get to have a cozy cup of coffee and chat with people and find out the real business behind the business.”

No matter what you’re looking for, there’s a good chance you’ll find it at the festival.

“There’s something for everybody,” White said. “We try to do that. When people say, ‘Do you have a niche?’ I say, ‘We’re not a niche festival. Our niche is our community.’ We try to give our community an opportunity to expand their horizons and give them things that they will like to see, things that they might want to see, then things that they should be seeing.”

Best of all, it all takes place against the picturesque backdrop of a historic town.

“We’re a real destination town,” White said. “We’re surrounded by water on all sides on the Chesapeake Bay with all the rivers. We have beautiful shops, a historic town that shows everything: ‘The first of this, the first of that, George Washington slept here,’ you can’t beat it.”

Find more details on the festival website. Listen to our full conversation below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Patti White & Lee Anderson (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)

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