EDIT: The Salem Film Fest has been postponed indefinitely amid COVID-19 uncertainty.
The exploits of a meteorologist, a taxidermist, and MTV’s founders are far more mirthful than anything happening in D.C. or at the CDC these days, but for Salem Film Fest (SFF) organizers, that’s the point.
“Sometimes I think people think of documentaries as homework or having to take your medicine, but for people who come to visit us, this perception is changing,” explains Programming Director Jeff Schmidt. “While we certainly have films that draw attention to things people should be informed about, this year especially we wanted to have films that are entertaining. We can all use it!”
What’s also exciting for him and the other volunteer organizers is yet another expansion for the 13th season of the festival. While they’re continuing the geographical spread of previous years to include screens in Beverly and Peabody, this year’s festival will span two weekends and repeat performances of a few films. (For the lineup and schedule, click here.)
“One of the really satisfying things about being involved is seeing how people in the community get really excited—but some weren’t around for just the one weekend or time the film they really wanted to see was being screened,” Schmidt said of the growth.
This year, there are forty flicks to choose from, thirty-four of which will enjoy their first Massachusetts screenings. All the hours of researching and watching films can be intense—especially since Schmidt’s day job as a TV producer took him on the road for the N.H. presidential primary just as he had to arrange the festival schedule. It’s a labor of love, he says. “I look at all of the films I end up programming as my children.”
The same goes for producer-director Sally Wu, whose documentary The Good Daughter will have its North American premiere at Peabody’s Black Box Theater and CinemaSalem. “My youngest daughter is 5, and I made this film throughout her growing up. When she was in my arms nursing, I’d have visions of editing,” said Wu. “I’m both a mother and a filmmaker—both are equally important to me. Both are tremendous work and unbelievably challenging.”
The Good Daughter chronicles Azhe, a bride who struggles to balance family obligations to support her family in Vietnam, her duties as a mother, and a marriage to a disabled Taiwanese man. It’s even more personal because the film was shot over the course of two years in a village that’s about an hour away from where Wu grew up.
The U.S. premiere of Daughter showcases her involvement in the fest as both a spectator and participant. Wu moved to the U.S. to study filmmaking and TV in college and then interned as an editor for well-respected filmmaker David Sutherland (director of PBS’s “Country Boys” series). He and Wu worked together on two films screened at SFF.
In 2016, her pitch for The Good Daughter was awarded the Salem Film Festival’s first annual Doc-a-Chusetts grant. The funds go to one Bay State artist for sound-mixing or color-correction services and are voted on by media, documentarians, and a live audience—meaning members of the general public get a say in what they find the most compelling.
Though it’s only one of several events planned over the course of the ten-day festival, it’s one of the most fun and impactful, says Schmidt.
“To watch a project come to fruition that was awarded our very first prize is really exciting,” he said. “But the fact that documentary filmmaking is about having a stance and making your voice heard goes both ways when the community can get directly involved.”
Other public events include the kick-off party on March 20, contests for high-school and college filmmakers, and an annual bash at Hamilton Hall on March 21 that gives the opportunity to mix and mingle with documentarians and enjoy a collage of vintage Salem Sketches. These short two-minute flicks are produced each year to showcase some of the city’s singular personalities and culture.
Joe Cultrera, festival director, is most excited about this opportunity to show these short snapshots chronicling the unique facets of his hometown. After working in New York City for thirty years, he returned to focus on his filmmaking “without big-city distractions” and helped co-found SFF thirteen years ago. This year, he helps bring to the screen shorts on Salem’s voting precincts and colorful campaigns, along with a 96-year-old reclusive artist who left behind a prolific portfolio at his Broad Street home.
“These are really specific slices of life that are only in this area. To be able to create an artistic environment here,” he says, “and then have a bunch of my [filmmaking] colleagues come to town for a week and show off where I grew up, it’s really beautiful.”