New/Next Film Festival 2023: Baltimore’s Successful Return to the Arthouse

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New/Next Film Festival 2023: Baltimore’s Successful Return to the Arthouse

This year may have been the inaugural New/Next Film Festival, but in many ways it felt like a return to form for the Baltimore film community. It might not have come as a surprise to some that the Maryland Film Festival, once a hub for DIY and emerging filmmakers in the late 2000s to the early 2010s, ended up in such a financial situation that they wouldn’t be able to hold their 25th anniversary event in 2023. After severing ties with their home base, The Charles Theater, to embark on a restoration project of the Parkway Theater just a few blocks away—itself a controversial and overcomplicated undertaking—and losing one of their key programmers, Eric Allen Hatch, in 2018, MdFF was primed for further decline even before the COVID pandemic digitized the whole festival season in 2020. But when they announced in 2022 the delay of their 2023 festival, locals were quick to act, with WYPR’s Director of Events & Community Engagement Sam Sessa contacting Hatch about holding their own festival. Amazingly, it happened.

From August 18-20, New/Next was held at MdFF’s old home, The Charles, with three jam-packed days of features, docs and fantastically curated shorts, with plenty of filmmakers and festivities every way you looked on that little block in Baltimore’s arts district, Station North. A few compromises had to be made to curate my schedule, missing the likes of Sebastián Silva’s Rotting in the Sun (coming to MUBI in September), Elaine McMillion Sheldon’s Appalachia symphony film King Coal, a highlight of shorts from Jimmy Joe Roche’s New Works series which highlights local experimental filmmakers, repertory screenings of Claire Denis’ No Fear, No Die and Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar (the latter presented by the members of Beach House, an old MdFF tradition), as well as one film so big they needed to screen it in two theaters at once: The Body Politic, a documentary about Baltimore’s current and youngest mayor, Brandon Scott, who was in attendance for a Q&A. 

It is a good problem to have too many great options at a festival. While it is unclear whether New/Next will be back in 2024 (it is highly dependent on what MdFF does or does not do next year), the first run was more than a success.

Here are our highlights from New/Next Film Festival 2023:


Hummingbirds

Filmed in the summer of 2018 while the co-directors Silvia Del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía “Beba” Contreras were only 18, this documentary of youth on the Texas border is as much a social realist picture as it is a whimsical teen comedy. Caught in a system as arbitrary as the games of bingo they played on bored nights, the two best friends search for whatever freedom they can in the town they’re not just stuck in, but literally can’t leave while their immigration status is up in the air. Silvia and Beba reel through Laredo talking about how they never felt like they had a childhood while turning their captive city into a playground, one both personal and cinematic. It might at first seem surprising that such a confident debut feature could come from such young filmmakers, although it is important to remember that they are part of the first generation who have been directing themselves since adolescence on social media. Hummingbirds’ form is not just borrowing from hybrid documentaries or narrative influences like Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, but also the linguistics pioneered by a new generation raised on a new kind of media that didn’t exist before they were born. Spontaneous, improvisatory and naturally radical, no film was more declaratory of the festival’s intent than this apt opening night feature. 


The Legend of MexMan

Some stories just have to be seen to be believed. Even after seeing it, I still can’t believe Germán Alonso is real. From the moment he’s on screen, his incredible charisma, performativity and raw talent injects The Legend of MexMan with a kind of energy usually only found when actors like Jack Nicholson or Nicolas Cage take the brakes off. The Legend of MexMan follows Germán as he tries to get his first feature, MexMan, off the ground with the help from some suite-y USC collaborators whose rigid rules clash with Germán’s dynamistic ego. As exuberant as the man himself are his films—their vigor and strange creativity can be described as Sam Rami by way of the Brothers Quay. Taking an old VW van down to some California airstrip, Germán shares his studio with us, housed inside a hanger (apparently they’re cheap to rent) and full of hundreds if not thousands of meticulously handmade dolls, puppets and props, all of which are characters and details from the worlds he creates. But that boundless imagination comes at a cost, and when it comes time to collaborate, questions of power and creative control start to tear friends apart. The Legend of MexMan has all the deep-cut betrayals of The Social Network with the high-stakes behind-the-scenes of Hearts of Darkness, but on a scale so small it reminds you just how massive human emotions are. 


Dad & Step-Dad

It would be hard to describe Dad & Step-Dad as anything less than the funniest film at New/Next. Having spent years refining their Dad (Colin Burgess) and Step-Dad (Anthony Oberbeck) characters, those behind Tynan DeLong’s film were able to develop it Mike Leigh-style from a small treatment, micro budget and five days of shooting during the pandemic. The film is a riffing ride of one-upmanship as they vie for the love and approval of their 13 year-old (step-)son (played by the obviously 30-something Brian Fiddyment), whom they try to bond with on their weekend upstate getaway by “throwing ring” or trying to get him to sing along to their dueling acoustic guitars. Their fatherly duties come to a comedic head after one of them discovers furry porn in the boy’s room and they decide to give him the “masturbation talk” during an afternoon hike. Not just in spite of the film’s $20,000 budget, but because of it, the creatives are able to make every small detail seem meaningful, like Dad wearing toe shoes, the son’s kitty-eared headphones or environmental details that come from quirks of the location, like hanging a charging phone from a wall socket that is inexplicably seven feet off the ground. A movie made for next to nothing by a group of filmmaking friends, Dad & Step-Dad is the closest thing in body and spirit to the kind of DIY cinema that put New/Next’s forerunner, the Maryland Film Festival, on the map some 15 years ago. 


The Taste of Mango

Looking at three generations of women in her family—herself, her mother and her grandmother—director Chloe Abrahams uses documentary-essay filmmaking to work through a trauma at the center of their relationship in her debut feature. Abrahams blends home video with documentary, stringing together images of her mother’s wedding with footage shot by herself, largely on an HD camcorder, giving even the most intentionally filmed sequences a deceiving aura of amateurism. But the archival material is also important for what it doesn’t show: A key character is literally ripped out of old photographs. Expunged from memory, he is too painful to even have his image buried away in a photo book. But pushing him out of sight doesn’t destroy what he did, only conceal its consequences. In The Taste of Mango, Abrahams uses her camera to make new images to bring out past traumas in hopes of creating future healing. 


Carpet Cowboys

One of the stars of New/Next was the world premiere of Emily MacKenzie and Noah Collier’s oddball American Dream documentary Carpet Cowboys. Decorating the Charles Theater’s lobby for the weekend, it was the most anticipated screening for many, right next to The Body Politic. It did not disappoint—blending early Errol Morris, Christopher Guest and touches of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek, MacKenzie and Collier’s film creates a hypnotic and hilarious portrait of “The Carpet Capital of the World,” Dalton, Georgia. Carpet Cowboys introduces us to dying carpet dynasties, craftsmen who’ve renounced their carpeted pasts in favor of hard surfaces, a tween Shark Tank entrepreneur and, the star of the show, Roderick James, the Scottish carpet cowboy himself. Through Rod we’re taken on a polyester fantasy of an imagined America that now only exists (if it ever did) in people’s dreams. 


Harka

The sophomore feature from Lotfy Nathan—whose debut 12 O’Clock Boys has become one of the most iconic Baltimore films of all time over the last ten years—Harka transports the director from documentary to fiction and from the east coast of the United States to the shores of Tunisia. Originally inspired by the self-immolation that sparked the Arab Spring, the film’s present tense shifted during the long and arduous process of acquiring funding. It follows Ali (Adam Bessa), a gas-vendor-turned-smuggler, as he attempts to navigate life on the margins in an inexorably corrupt society, where every day he has to give a cut of his street vending profits to the cops, with no prospect to break free offered by “official” channels. While differing in form, method and, obviously, content, from 12 O’Clock Boys, Harka further establishes Lotfy Nathan as a contemporary filmmaker with an eye for how systems are built to trap, and the doomed people who decide they won’t play by the game’s rules anymore. 


Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes

Closing out the festival was a crowd-pleaser of sorts, a documentary about the legendary yet still underappreciated jazz drummer Max Roach. Co-directed by recent Baltimore transplant Sam Pollard (best known for editing much of Spike Lee’s output in the ‘90s), The Drum Also Waltzes sees Pollard finish a project he started 35 years before. Tracking the life and career of Roach, the film follows him from his bebop beginnings, through his radical period, troubled marriages, and into his highly experimental all-percussion ensemble M’Boom. Max Roach is an archival documentary, not just in the footage it uses, but the nature of the film itself—seeking to unearth, re-examine and preserve a monumental and complicated artist who was overshadowed by the other giants in his company. A film about art, politics, identity and how they are inextricably linked, Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes forms the perfect bookend with Hummingbirds, showcasing the old and the new, and where film can take us.


Alex Lei is writer and filmmaker currently based in Baltimore. He can usually be found on Twitter.

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