March 8th marked the end of the 5th annual Salem Film Festival, which began on March 1st and screened a total of 32 films. On top of being an international all-documentary festival—a rare and beautiful thing—the SFF happens to be the largest of its kind in Massachusetts, and in my opinion, ought to replace all that shady witch business as the town’s claim to fame.

Each year an SFF Jury Prize and Audience Award are given, and this year’s festival included awards for editing, cinematography and women’s achievement in filmmaking. A number of Q&A events took place featuring directors whose work screened at the festival, as well as a forum moderated by the editor-in-chief of American Cinematographer Magazine Stephen Pizzello.

Where the SFF truly scored, though, was in the quality of its films, again showing that you don’t have to flock to New York or Sundance for a consistently rewarding festival experience.

Two of my personal favorites were Michael Collins’ Give Up Tomorrow, a death row doc more devastating than Herzog’s recent Into the Abyss; and Salem native Don McConnell‘s Reggae in the Ruff, an enlightening musical journey into the mountains of Jamaica and a good example of the charming and surprising nature of the festival’s picks.

What’s more, the SFF doesn’t charge filmmakers to apply for a screening—on the contrary, these crazies actually pay them to enter the festival. Sounds backwards until you consider the near-impossibility of making it into a big-time festival as a small-time documentary filmmaker, even when you’ve got the next Hoop Dreams stashed in your closet.

“We respect the fact that filmmakers are artists, and they don’t necessarily have a lot of application fee money to be spending,” said Mary Beth Bainbridge, one of the festival’s 32 organizers.

 Mary Beth Bainbridge chattin’ it up

“It’s really expensive to make film, and these are independent filmmakers,” she added. “Even a 20 dollar fee, after you add that up, with festivals all over the world… I mean, some of these people have spent ten years of their lives making this film. The last thing they need to do is shell out more money.”

We were chatting—Bainbridge, fellow organizers Paul Van Ness and Rinus Oosthoek, and myself—in the café connected to the small Cinema Salem movie house where most of the SFF films were screened. The theater is situated in an unpopulated little downtown mall—a funny, unwitting place for 32 outstanding documentaries from around the world to converge.

Paul Van Ness (left) and Rinus Oosthoek

“One of the best moments I’ve had this year,” Bainbridge said, “was when this audience member Bryn, who’s come back for the second year, told me ‘You are creating a culture around this film festival.’ That was the best complement I’ve had all week.”

On how the festival is received each year in Salem, Van Ness, owner of Cinema Salem, simply stated, “We’ve grown basically 20 percent every year. We’re definitely the biggest all-documentary film festival in Massachusetts, and we might be getting to be the biggest in New England. At some point it feels like we’re going to be one of the biggest in the country, the way that we’re going.”

Click here to check out our preview of the festival, where some of the SFF films are reviewed.


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