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The Johns Hopkins Film Festival Lays Down Local Roots

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted 4/10/2002

The name "Johns Hopkins" carries many and diverse connotations for Baltimoreans, but "film culture" might not be among them. With the fifth annual Johns Hopkins Film Festival, which runs April 11 to 14, a handful of dedicated Hopkins cineastes hope to change that.

Each year the festival's organizers have faced a variety of challenges, including how to define the festival relative to other local events, such as MicroCineFest and next month's Maryland Film Festival, and how to interest their own campus in their programming while still attracting film fans from the surrounding area. This year, Hopkins Film Society co-chiefs Virginia Lee and Jason Shahinfar have risen to the occasion with a remarkably varied schedule that emphasizes student filmmaking and solidifies Hopkins' ties with Baltimore's larger film community.

"In the past, we've been told the fest doesn't have a personality, so this year we're trying to make one," Shahinfar says over noodles at Charles Village's Silk Road Café. "We'll be showing a lot less films this year, with less overlapping programming, to make it a tighter festival with a concentration on student films and local films."

Indeed, the resulting schedule (available at www.jhu.edu/~jhufilm/fest/) includes a feature film by a recent Hopkins graduate set largely on the Homewood campus (Dave Thomas' All Night Thing); a set of short films by the Sike Trike collective, which includes Hopkins student Justin Levy; and works by other Baltimore filmmakers such as Josh Slates and Mark Street.

But if student- and locally made films form the backbone of this year's festival, they certainly don't limit its scope. "What's so great about the Hopkins fest is that there's no set standard for what they accept except what impresses them personally," Slates says. Keeping its criteria loose allows the society to program such idiosyncratic picks as Standing by Yourself, a handheld-shot documentary about wild Clinton, N.Y., teenagers that recalls Penelope Spheeris' Suburbia and Larry Clark's Bully; Our Nation, a doc on the South Korean punk-rock scene; Dog Day Afternoon, Sidney Lumet's unbeatable 1975 heist-gone-awry flick; George Washington, a daring recent narrative feature falling somewhere between Maya Angelou and Gummo; and Thanks for the Rubbish, a giddy documentary about a hyperactive British man who makes his living searching celebrities' trash for tidbits to sell the tabloids. The fest's flexibility also led to an incredibly timely festival-within-the-festival focusing on Middle Eastern films (see sidebar, page 24).

The year's festival also benefits from being largely centralized at one location, Shriver Hall, making it easier for non-Hopkins folks to find their way to screenings and taking full advantage of the building's exemplary facilities. With one of the largest screens in the state and a larger seating capacity than any Maryland cinema theater, Shriver makes moviegoing a truly sublime experience, and the festival a destination despite the home-video availability of many of its titles. With its large stage, Shriver is also an ideal venue for the festival's interactive offerings, such as Hacks, a mockumentary tackling abysmal stand-up comics, for which much of the cast and crew will be present.

Another program likely to be among the festival's most popular is the Tokyorama: Funny Shorts set, screening Saturday at midnight, which favors a tone similar to an evening at Baltimore's annual underground-film event, MicroCineFest. Indeed, a number of the shorts--including the surreal The Bootlegger, the sublime Losing Your Cherry, and the self-explanatory Penis Graduation Song--were culled from last year's MicroCineFest. Losing Your Cherry particularly exemplifies smartly done juvenile comedy; it's a spoof of circa-1950s corporate-sponsored educational films that depicts a Hostess snack cake dispatching explicit sexual advice to a preadolescent suburban kid.

Similarly uproarious are many of the short films by Sike Trike, screening 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday as part of the Student Filmmakers Showcase. Sike Trike's collection features work by several charismatic local musicians, including Natalio Fowler and Chris Freeland of the avant-garde metal-head outfit Oxes and Rjyan Kidwell, aka rapper Cex (and a City Paper contributing writer). Fortunately, much of the subversive humor and creativity (as well as some of the posturing) these performers bring to their music crosses over to their video work. Shot and edited in-camera over the course of a day, the Sike Trike shorts unroll as bursts of energy created under self-imposed limitations, like black-sheep stepchildren of the Dogme 95 films. Particularly compelling are Exposé on Death, in which three Arbutus roommates squabble over each other's unwillingness to stay dead, and Anarchy Carpet, wherein a principled man in a carpet haplessly tries to convince consumerist Gen Xers that a peaceful life of economic cooperation would be more fun than competitive acquisitiveness.

Making room for the likes of Sike Trike typifies the thoroughness with which Lee and Shahinfar sought local subcultural work to spice the festival. "We're trying to link Hopkins students and the Baltimore underground film community," Lee says.

Given that a reputation for cultural isolationism consistently dogs Hopkins undergrads, it's doubly remarkable how savvy their choices are. Slates, who describes his short film Here and There as "an ultra-low-tech work of portraiture that examines the standards by which we measure personal success," could not be more tickled. "If you have a passion for film, the Hopkins Film Festival is interested in working with you," says Slates, a contributor to the Hopkins Film Society's journal Frame of Reference. "They favor a DIY approach over more polished productions, and for that I owe them an enormous debt of gratitude."

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