Annapolis Film Festival stays open by going virtual amid coronavirus closures

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews the virtual Annapolis Film Festival

Two weeks ago, the founders of the Annapolis Film Festival were gearing up for their eighth annual event, planning public screenings and inviting celebrity filmmakers.

Then the world changed due to the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

Just up the street from the festival at the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Governor Larry Hogan announced a series of measures to slow the spread of the virus, first restricting crowds at public events, then closing all non-essential businesses this week.

“It was two weeks before the festival that we had to pull the plug on our actual physical festival,” co-founder Patti White told WTOP. “In that period of time, we’ve been reinventing ourselves with our new AFF channel that will bring you a virtual presentation.”

Screenings of the 70-plus films were originally planned at the Maryland Hall for Creative Arts, Annapolis Elementary School, Asbury United Methodist Church and Key Auditorium at St. John’s College. Instead, many of the films will now stream via the online channel.

“This secure streaming platform is a lot like Netflix,” co-founder Lee Anderson told WTOP. “They will get virtual access for the weekend, the 27th through the 29th of March, and they can be safe and secure in their house watching our wonderful slate.”

Of course, not every film will be available to stream, including the Toronto Film Festival hit “Military Wives,” the Cannes Film Festival selections “The Climb” and “Stage Mother,” and the Sundance picks “Giving Voice,” “The Perfect Candidate” and “Spaceship Earth.”

“There are going to be distributors that will not be comfortable with brand new release films to go on a platform like this,” White said. “We understand that. … Even though we’ve lost some of our our premier films, we’re really excited about the slate we do have.”

That slate includes the Billy Crystal comedy “Standing Up, Falling Down.”

“It’s a very comical look at commitment,” White said. “It’s also a poignant look at fatherhood and relationships between fathers and sons.”

You can also watch “On a Magical Night,” which won Best Actress at Cannes.

“There’s a lot of affection being shown in the film,” Anderson said. “It’s very French.”

The online slate also includes “My Name is Sara” directed by Steven Oritt.

“It’s about a young girl from Ukraine [in] the pre-Hitler days,” White said. “She loses her parents, loses her brother and finds herself in a farmhouse being accepted in by a family. She passes herself off as a Christian, because she’s afraid to let them know she’s Jewish.”

You can also watch the documentary “Maiden” about British sailing captain Tracy Edwards.

“Tracy is a rock star,” Anderson said. “She stunned the world in 1989 with the first all-female crew of the race around the world. They did some daring things to find advantage in the race and they weren’t taken seriously. On the third leg, they actually beat the guys.”

While “Maiden” appeals to Annapolis’ signature sailing culture, “Scattering CJ” appeals to the military community represented by the U.S. Navy base in the heart of Annapolis.

“It’s the story of a mother who loses her son, who was a veteran,” Anderson said. “She channels her grief in a way that is very unusual. She starts reaching out on social media. She’s mourning the missed opportunities of his life because he was so young. She enlists the help of many other strangers around the world that help her through this process.”

Creative minds should check out the documentary “Alan Magee: Art is Not a Solace.”

“He’s an incredible artist and has a very interesting, dynamic exploration of the odd parts of people,” White said. “The film is fascinating. It’s definitely not a boring art film. It really takes you on a journey of where he came from, how he came up, what his art is about.”

You can also watch Oscar-winning shorts from “Skin” to “The Neighbor’s Window.”

“We just felt so badly about the tough times everybody’s facing right now,” Anderson said. “We wanted to work really hard to make something feel normal, that it was happening still on time, and our staff, board and everybody has double timed it so we could do this.”

Typically, Annapolis is a wonderful place for a walkable festival.

“We have such a great destination town for a festival, so yes, we are really sad and disappointed that we couldn’t bring this in person to everybody,” White said. “There are going to be many more festivals that people are going to be able to come to and enjoy.”

Since its inception, attendance has grown from 2,600 in the first year to 14,000 recently.

“We’re sad about not having the communal feel of people filling the streets of downtown Annapolis and hanging out and enjoying one another’s company,” Anderson said. “But this is the next best thing we could bring to keep everybody safe and healthy.”

It’s the second year in a row the festival has been altered by world events, having to make last year’s event a “healing year” after the shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper.

“We’re here to stay,” White said. “We’re not quitters. It’s gonna take an awful lot to kick us off the landscape.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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