If, like me, you’re the type of Oscar viewer who runs back into the room when the best documentary nominees are announced, you may want to head to Salem for the largest all-documentary film festival in Massachusetts, running March 1-8. Why Salem? It’s the hometown of festival cofounder and programming director Joe Cultrera, who might be better known to “Frontline’’ viewers as director of the 2007 documentary “Hand of God.’’ Cultrera lived and worked as a filmmaker in New York before returning to Salem in 2007, bringing 20 years of experience and a host of connections in the documentary world with him.
“I realized there was no documentary festival in Massachusetts. There’s a good one in Camden, Maine, but even with all the great talent here, there are strong, independent documentaries that never get seen,’’ says Cultrera.
Salem also happens to be the home of one of the area’s best-kept secrets: CinemaSalem, a cozy, independent theater in the historic heart of town. Cultrera teamed with theater owner Paul Van Ness and in 2007 launched the Salem Film Fest (not to be confused with Oregon’s Salem Film Festival). Run and operated entirely by volunteers, the festival is otherwise financed by the fund-raising efforts of Cultrera and Van Ness, who rely on what they call a “unique partnership with the community.’’ Local businesses or individuals sponsor a film of their choice for $300, which goes to the filmmaker. “The community feels a connection,’’ says Cultrera, adding that since 2007 not only have the number of films and venues increased but Fest attendance has grown 20 to 25 percent annually. He says the Fest plans to apply for nonprofit status by 2013.
In this, its fifth year, the event includes 32 films and boasts five US premieres, five East Coast premieres, and several New England premieres. Besides CinemaSalem, venues include the Peabody Essex Museum and the National Park Service Visitor Center. The opening night film, “All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert’’(March 1), screens at the Peabody Essex with both Rembert and director Vivian Ducat in attendance.
Other guests during the weeklong event include Xan Aranda, director of “Andrew Bird Fever Year’’ (March 3, CinemaSalem), about the Chicago-based musician. “Coincidentally, 18 of our 32 films this year have female directors,’’ notes Cultrera.
Another notable feature is “Beauty Day’’ (March 2) from Canada, with director Jay Cheel in attendance. It’s about a Canadian public access TV personality whose “Jackass’’-like stunts earned him a cult following. Also screening March 2 is Salem filmmaker Don McConnell’s “Reggae in the Ruff,’’ a window into the music and philosophy of a group of elder musicians living in the mountains of Jamaica.
On March 3, Michael Galinsky and Suki Hawley will present “Battle for Brooklyn,’’ about a fight against eminent domain abuses, and Massachusetts-born director Michael Collins will be at the fest with “Give Up Tomorrow,’’ an examination of judicial corruption in the Philippines. March 4 brings in Toronto filmmaker Tess Girard to present “A Simple Rhythm,’’ a unique look at our unconscious tendency to keep in step, and shines a spotlight on Swiss director Nick Brandestini, who will travel from Zurich to CinemaSalem to present “Darwin,’’ about quirky characters living at the end of the road in a Death Valley town of just 35.
A festival highlight is the free forum on March 4, moderated by Salem native Stephen Pizzello, editor in chief of American Cinematographer magazine. It will feature noted cinematographers Ellen Kuras (“The Betrayal,’’ “Unzipped,’’ “4 Little Girls’’) and Nancy Schreiber (“The Celluloid Closet,’’ “Visions of Light’’).
A screening of “Eco-Pirate’’ (March 6), about radical ecologist Paul Watson’s fight to save whales, will feature a live post-film talk with Watson (via Skype) from his “pirate’’ ship. Straight from Sundance is Jennifer Baichwal’s “Payback’’ (March 7), based on Margaret Atwood’s book, “Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.’’ Baichwal will also be doing a Skype video Q&A. One of this year’s Oscar nominees for best documentary, “Hell and Back Again’’ (March 7), follows one Marine’s personal struggle to readjust to life after injuries suffered in Afghanistan.
Oscar nominees may get attention, but Cultrera says too many great documentaries get overlooked, and some are never seen at all. For at least 32 films, the Salem Film Fest has ensured that won’t happen.
For tickets and more information, go to www.salemfilmfest.com or www.cinemasalem.com.
Coming full cycle
Billed by programmers as “the social event of the season for the local cycling community,’’ “Bicycle Dreams,’’ an award-winning documentary about men and women who attempt the daunting Race Across America, screens for one night at the Regent Theatre in Arlington on March 6 at 7 p.m. For more information, go to www.regenttheatre.comcq/gb.
Shorts from France
The folks at Balagan bring a unique program to the Brattle Theatre on Feb. 28 at 8 p.m.: a slate of short films from the renowned Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival in France, one of the world’s premier cinema events dedicated to short films. Curator Calmin Borel will be present for a post-screening talk with Balagan curator Alla Kovgan. For more information, go to www.balaganfilms.comcq/gb.
For something completely different, it’s hard to beat Channel Zero, the eclectic program that unearths strange and rarely seen films. Its newest showing will be the propaganda extravaganza “History’s Greatest Loss!’’ (1953), the official, feature-length Soviet documentary detailing the rites and responses issued by the state for the funeral of Joseph Stalin. Screening is one night only, March 2 at 8 p.m. at the Somerville Theatre in Davis Square. For more information, call 617-625-5700.
It’s Viggo Mortensen week at the Coolidge Corner Theatre as it prepares for the actor’s appearance there on March 5 (although the awards event is sold out, tickets for film screenings are still available). Mortensen is this year’s Coolidge Award recipient. A retrospective of his films includes 7 p.m. showings of “A History of Violence’’ (Feb. 28), “A Walk on the Moon’’ (Feb. 29), and “The Road’’ (March 1). Starting at 11 a.m. on March 4, there’s a “Lord of the Rings’’ trilogy marathon. “Eastern Promises’’ shows on March 5 at noon, with Mortensen present for a post-film discussion. For more information, go to www.coolidge.org.
Academy Award-winning actresses Olympia Dukakis (“Moonstruck’’) and Brenda Fricker (“My Left Foot’’) costar as lesbian partners in the new film “Cloudburst,’’ which kicks off the fourth Out! For Reel LGBT Film Series on March 3 at 7 p.m. at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton. This is the New England premiere of “Cloudburst,’’ a dramedy shot in Maine and Nova Scotia, about 80-somethings Dot (Fricker) and Stella (Dukakis) who’ve been a couple for 30 years. When Dot is forced into a nursing home by her homophobic granddaughter, she flees with Stella to get married in Canada. For tickets and information, go to www.OutForReel.orgcq/gb.
Loren King can be contacted at email@example.com.