Filmmaker Joe Cultrera spent 20 years in the documentary film world — “Frontline” aired his documentary “Hand of God” in 2007 — before he moved from New York back to his hometown of Salem six years ago. He says he knew dozens of skilled filmmakers eager to get their work in front of an audience. Although documentaries are a staple of festivals, in New England only Camden, Maine, had a festival devoted solely to that segment of filmmaking.
Cultrera decided to change that. He teamed with Paul Van Ness, owner of the independent theater CinemaSalem, and launched the all-documentary Salem Film Fest in 2008.
“When we first began, we had to explain to people what a documentary was, and that it wasn’t just some boring anthropological dissertation you had to watch in science class,” says Cultrera. “Now you can actually feel an air of excitement as the fest week approaches and people start plotting what films to see.”
This year’s fest runs Thursday through March 14, screening 32 films from 17 countries. The impressive lineup includes documentaries that investigate and tackle controversial subjects, others that educate and expose, and lyrical stories that offer glimpses into other lives and worlds. Screenings take place at CinemaSalem and the
Peabody Essex Museum (PEM).
Lexington filmmaker Rick Beyer kicks things off on Thursday with the world premiere of “The Ghost Army,” a too-strange-for-fiction story of a top-secret World War II unit that devised creative illusions and sound deceptions, such as inflatable rubber tanks and fake radio messages, to deceive the German Army. Members of the unit adhered to a code of silence and much of the information was classified for decades — even many Ghost Army family members had no idea what these soldiers did during the war. Some of the film subjects will join Beyer for a discussion after the 7 p.m. screening at the museum.
One of the coups of the fest is “West of Memphis” (Friday at 8:30 p.m., CinemaSalem) from Oscar-nominated director Amy Berg (“Deliver Us From Evil”). Berg’s latest film reexamines the notorious convictions of three teenagers for the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark., despite a lack of DNA and forensic evidence. Damien Echols, sentenced at 18 to be executed but released in 2011 after 18 years on death row, now lives in Salem with his wife, Lorri Davis. The couple produced the film with “Lord of the Rings” filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who were instrumental in bringing public and media attention to the case. They hope the new evidence revealed in “West of Memphis” overturns the conviction that remains on Echols’s record, and spurs Arkansas law enforcement to reopen and solve the case. Echols and Davis will field questions from the audience after the screening.
Also making its big-screen world premiere is PBS Frontline’s “Kind Hearted Woman” (March 10 at 1 p.m., PEM), first in a two-part series by David Sutherland (“Country Boys”) about an Oglala Sioux woman’s struggle to survive abuse and save her family. It will air on WGBH in April. After the screening, Frontline executive producer David Fanning will be joined at
3 p.m. by other veteran producers for a free panel discussion about documentaries, journalism, and the 30th anniversary of Frontline.
“My documentary ‘Hand of God’ was picked up by Frontline back in 2007 and it was such a positive experience that since the film fest began, I’ve been looking for an opportunity to bring them in,” says Cultrera. “David Fanning was at a Salem Film Fest screening last year and we got to talking. Eventually this led to the ‘Kind Hearted Woman’ screening and the Frontline panel. It seems a perfect fit. Some of the Frontline team lives on the North Shore and David Sutherland is a Massachusetts director with a signature style whose body of work really deserves more recognition.”
Framingham native Marlo Poras’s latest documentary is a quietly stunning portrait of modern China. “The Mosuo Sisters” (March 13 at 8:15 p.m., CinemaSalem) follows two young sisters, Juma and Latso, living in Beijing and working menial jobs to support their family, farmers who are barely getting by in a remote village in the foothills of the Himalayas. When the bar where the women work closes, Latso returns home, abandoning her goal of finishing accounting school. Juma continues to struggle in the city, dealing with sexual harassment, the responsibility of a young niece who joins her in Beijing, the financial demands of her family back home, and her anger and guilt over Latso’s limited options. Beautifully photographed, the film is an illuminating window into the two Chinas.
The fest offers several films about art and artists. Notable is the East Coast premiere of “In No Great Hurry — 13 Lessons in Life With Saul Leiter” (March 9 at 1 p.m., PEM), Tomas Leach’s reflective look at the photographer. Filmed in his cramped, cluttered apartment, Leiter offers unassuming, witty, and philosophical musings about his life and work. The ribald “The Missing Piece: The Truth About the Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa” (March 9 at noon, CinemaSalem), is another unbelievably true tale about Italian housepainter Vincenzo Peruggia who in 1911 pulled off what is perhaps the greatest little-known art heist of all time. Writer-director Joe Medeiros, who’ll be in attendance, combines historical photographs, animation, and interviews with Peruggia’s descendants for a humorous, fast-paced, entertaining account of how Peruggia swiped the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece from the Louvre.
“What Makes a Good Documentary?” is one of several free forums. It’s moderated by Jennifer Merin of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, and panelists include two directors with films screening at the festival: Katja Esson (“Poetry of Resilience”) and Sasha Friedlander (“Where Heaven Meets Hell”). The forum takes place March 10 at 11 a.m. at the National Park Service Visitor Center (2 New Liberty St.).
Another free event gives Massachusetts college and university students the chance to showcase their short films and learn from the pros. Mass Reality Check (March 9 at 11 a.m., NPS Visitor Center) is a program of student shorts. After the festival, representatives from the LEF Foundation, Documentary Educational Resources, and The Independent will meet with winning filmmakers to offer advice about filmmaking, funding, and distribution.
For a complete schedule and more information, go to www.salemfilmfest