Salem Film Fest Turns Ten!

The “little festival that could” celebrates with a Gala

When local filmmaker Joe Cultrera, businessman Paul Van Ness and Salem Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rinus Oosthoek gathered at the fledgling CinemaSalem’s café in 2007, they all shared a common goal: to create an event that would be fair to documentary filmmakers and attractive to audiences. They presented a week of special film programming and live events in the middle of that same winter. “That’s about as fast as a festival can be put together once you have a venue,” said Van Ness who owns CinemaSalem. “I suppose you could call it a spring training for the big league festival that would inaugurate the next year.”

The 2008 Salem Film Fest drew 1,743 filmgoers; last year, more than 6,000 attended what has grown to be both one New England’s largest and among the nation’s most respected all-documentary film festivals. Each March, the festival presents a rich and diverse collection of the year’s best work from all over the world that helps sustain cinephiles through the long, bleak slog of New England winter.

This year the festival runs from March 2-9 and will kick off its tenth anniversary with a Gala on Thursday, March 2 at the Hawthorne Hotel that will combine presentation of the 2017 SFF Storyteller Award to Frontline founder David Fanning with a live music dance party. (Visit salemfilmfest.com/2017/gala-tickets for more information).

“Come to Salem, see the world” has been the Salem Film Fest catch phrase since its inception, both as an homage to old Salem merchant ships that established trade with the rest of the world and in tribute to the dozens of countries represented by the films the festival has screened over its ten years.

With a line-up of 35 feature and 13 short documentaries from more than 25 countries, SFF 2017 covers a lot of the globe: from the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan (“After Spring”) to Finland’s worst cheerleading team (“Cheer Up”); from the Mississippi Delta blues (“I Am the Blues”) to Mexico’s most famous tabloid photographer (“The Man who Saw Too Much”); from Jalalabad’s child street gangs (“Snow Monkey”) to a New York City’s West Village artist community (“Winter at Westbeth”). And everyplace in between.

Besides CinemaSalem, SFF partners with Peabody Essex Museum’s Morse Auditorium (PEM) and the National Park Service Visitor Center (NPS) as additional venues. With simultaneous screenings at all three sites, the streets of Salem feel like a mini Sundance as filmgoers greet each other on the street, making their way from one film to the next.

As in past years, SFF 2017 focuses on filmmakers as much as their films, and 19 filmmakers and/or their subjects will attend this year’s post-screening Q&A sessions, which promise to be as exciting and informative as festivalgoers have come to expect. “It’s great to see the growth of the festival while we also stay true to our roots. More and more filmmakers have found the festival to be a haven of sorts for their films, and they enjoy spending time in Salem,” said Jeff Schmidt, who has been SFF program director since 2014.

Cultrera, who handed the programming to Schmidt in 2013, agrees. “The thing I look forward to every year is getting a new crew of filmmakers to the festival: spending time interacting with them; introducing them to Salem; watching friendships build between them and some of our audience, and talking shop at after-hours gatherings,” he said.

Among this year’s line-up are three U.S. premieres: “The Day the Sun Fell” (surviving Red Cross doctors and nurses remember the day Hiroshima was bombed as nuclear disaster strikes Japan again); “Mattress Man” (an Irish 60-something-year-old creates a tacky YouTube persona to boost his failing business) and “Zimbelism” (one of the last working street photographers shares stories from his dark room). Both filmmaker Matt Zimbel and his subject and father, George S. Zimbel, will be present at the “Zimbelism” screening at PEM on Sunday, March 5 at 10:50 a.m.

The programming committee started looking for SFF 2017 films last June, and the richly varied menu of films has something to please every palette. To make planning easier, SFF offers a helpful guide that organizes the films into a number of “curated itineraries” to allow the audience to review films through specific lenses.

Three films that address complex socio-political issues through one person’s story are “Almost Sunrise”, Tickling Giants” and “Death by One Thousand Cuts”.

Filmmaker Michael Collins’ “Almost Sunrise” addresses “moral injury” by following two Iraq War veterans suffering from PTSD as they trek 2,700 miles in a last ditch effort to find the healing they both seek. Collins will attend the Q&A after the screening at PEM on Saturday, March 4 at 8:35 p.m.

“Tickling Giants” examines the aftermath of the Egyptian Arab Spring by showcasing Bassem Youssef, the “Egyptian Jon Stewart” who endangers his life and livelihood when the Morsi regime doesn’t appreciate his jokes. Filmmaker Sara Taksler will be available for a post-screening Q&A. The film is at PEM on Friday, March 3 at 8:10 p.m.

In “Death by a Thousand Cuts”, a brutal murder on the Haiti-Dominican border exposes the complex consequences of killing the Dominican forests, one cut at a time. The filmmaker will attend the Q&A after the screening at CinemaSalem on Sunday, March 5 at 5:10 p.m.

On the more whimsical side, “The League of Exotique Dancers” introduces eight unforgettable Burlesque Hall of Fame inductees who share the good, the bad and the ugly about the golden age of stripping with bawdy good humor and moving insight in a film that is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. It screens at CinemaSalem on Saturday, March 4 at 9:40 p.m.

Those most interested in the arts have plenty to choose from this year. “The Ballad of Fred Hersch” traces the foremost jazz pianist and composer’s journey from AIDS coma survivor to musical triumph (Friday, March 3 at CinemaSalem at 5:10 p.m.). “Yarn” introduces edgy, contemporary women who are revolutionizing the art of knitting and crocheting. (Saturday, March 4 at PEM at 11:50 a.m.). “I Am the Blues” gives an up-close-and-personal tour of the original southern juke joints with the aging blues musicians who still play its “Chitlin’ Circuit”. (Closing night feature on Thursday, March 9 at CinemaSalem at 7:00 p.m.).

Every year, regular attendees look forward to the premiere of “Salem Sketches”, a series of two-minute documentaries based in Salem and created exclusively for SFF by local filmmakers and SFF Planning Committee members Cultrera and Perry Hallinan. “We’re one of the few festivals that can claim to have our own original programing,” Cultrera said with pride.

SFF 2017 is also jam-packed with events, parties and the live music performances before many of the screenings at CinemaSalem by local musicians whose contributions add to the festival’s literal good vibrations.

While the community-driven, all-volunteer festival steadfastly remains true to its ideals of high-level programming and treating filmmakers like the stars they are, the “little festival that could” seems poised for even wider appeal and reach in its second decade. All agree that fundraising and broadening the volunteer base are two critical ingredients for generating this growth.

“The festival is special, but it could be on another level entirely if we had the resources and if there was a mechanism in place in Salem that better synchronized public, private and non-profit energies,” said Cultrera.

Nonetheless, the wildly popular and highly anticipated festival draws sell-out crowds to one of the liveliest and friendliest of Salem’s many festivities. Patrons return year after year and hugging reunions in the CinemaSalem lobby are commonplace. Clearly, the Salem Film Festival is about more than films. It’s also about community.

“Come to Salem, see the world. Come to Salem, meet the world,” Oosthoek said with a smile.

Salem Film Fest runs March 2-9 with screenings at CinemaSalem, Peabody Essex Museum and National Park Service Visitors Center. For more information or to purchase tickets or passes, go to the CinemaSalem box office or visit salemfilmfest.com/2017/.

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