The 12th annual Chesapeake Film Festival opens Thursday with a more ambitious and diverse program spread across more venues than ever before.
The festival goes big time opening night. Newly restored film footage and outtakes shot by director William Wyler for his 1944 World War II documentary “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” are featured in “The Cold Blue,” which chronicles the daily life and heroism of Eighth Air Force pilots who flew one deadly mission after another in defeating the Axis powers. Catherine Wyler, daughter of the late multiple Oscar-winning director, produced “Cold Blue,” winner of the 2019 Chesapeake festival jury prize for best film. She will be on hand for a Q&A after its screening at the Avalon Theatre. William Wyler won best-picture Academy Awards for “Mrs. Miniver,” “The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Ben-Hur” as well as a record-setting 12 nominations for best director, plus directing 31 different actors to best-acting Oscar nods, including 13 winners. Talk about legendary.
Following a gourmet reception, opening night festivities continue with another true story, “The Spy Behind Home Plate.” You couldn’t make this one up. Moe Berg was a journeyman major-league baseball catcher who batted .243 lifetime and clubbed a grand total of six home runs in 1,813 at bats. Not exactly movie-worthy stats. But it was his post-baseball career that made him an undercover legend. A Princeton graduate who spoke several languages fluently, Berg was recruited by the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), forerunner to the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). His eventual mission was to determine if the Nazis were close to assembling an atomic bomb. He might have become an assassin had he determined that German physicist Werner Heisenberg was about to succeed in delivering one to Hitler. Aviva Kempner, who directed this intriguing documentary (see the Spy’s video interview with the director), will answer questions about her film and the life and dual career of Moe Berg.
Narrated by actress and activist Ashley Judd, “The Bonobo Connection” documentary opens the closing night of the festival at Easton Premier Cinemas. The bonobo great apes are regarded as the closest cousins to homo sapiens and their survival in the forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo should get our attention. Through research of bonobos in Columbus (Ohio) Zoo captivity, we learn that bonobos in the wild are intelligent enough to set up a system of cooperation that may save them and make peace between them and humans who would eradicate them. Director Irene Magafan answers your questions afterward.
The festival closes on a lighter note with “Swing Away,” a humorous look at professional golf co-produced by George Stephanopoulus who will take post-screening questions. Zoe is a rising PGA star whose meltdown leads to suspension. She returns to her Greek homeland where she befriends a 10-year-old determined to become the next great thing in golf. Together they help stymie the greed of an American developer who would overwhelm the natural beauty of their hometown.
Between opening and closing nights, highlights of the 62-film festival—both shorts and feature-length—include “Bedlam,” a revelatory look at the mental health crisis spreading across urban America, and “Light From Light,” a thriller about a single mom whose paranormal dreams leads to a moonlighting career as crime-solving investigator. Both are films that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. “There’s a tremendous ethos surrounding Sundance. And it’s for a reason,” says Cid Collins Walker, artistic director of the Easton-based festival. “The experience is so intense, so raw in terms of the power of storytelling. . . . While scouting films, I was able to procure six of Sundance’s finest films.”
Among the other Sundance entries: “Apollo 11,” an intense behind-the-scenes look at the science and human endeavor that made the first man-on-the-moon mission a triumphant success; the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced “Sea of Shadows” in which Mexican cartels and Chinese Mafia harvest “cocaine of the sea” in the form of totaba fish; and “Tigerland,” probing the poaching underground led by Russia and India that has decimated wild tiger populations. The investigative documentary is directed by Oscar winner Ross Kaufman, who will be in attendance at the festival to answer questions.
Those last two films are part of a wider emphasis of the weeklong Chesapeake festival on environmental concerns, both local and existentially global as it relates to climate change and extinction of species.
But to make the next step to a top-tier film festival, the Chesapeake will need to recruit star power that would enable it to attract higher profile sponsors, plus films in competition that would be making American or at least East Coast premieres, along with distributors eager to scoop them up for a run at multiplexes and streaming outlets across the country and worldwide. A celebrity movie name as the face of the Chesapeake fest would be a start as it was and remains to this day for Robert Redford, the original “Sundance Kid,” the second half of the “Butch Cassidy” classic movie collaboration with Paul Newman.
There’s a possible candidate out there with Maryland and, by way of grandparents, Easton connections.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist, arts writer and editor now living in Easton.
Chesapeake Film Festival 2019
Thursday, Oct. 3 through Thursday, Oct. 10
Venues: Avalon Theatre, Easton Premier Cinema and Talbot County Free Library, Easton
Cambridge Premier Cinema, Gallery 447, Cambridge
Oxford Community Center, Oxford
INFO: 410-822-3500, complete schedule at chesapeakefilmfestival.com