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Lights! Camera! Baltimore!

Filmmaker Matthew Porterfield - Steve Ruark
Filmmaker Matthew Porterfield - Steve Ruark

Filmmaker Matthew Porterfield credits nostalgia for bringing him back to his Baltimore roots. The New York University dropout left the Big Apple to return to Charm City in 2001, after getting fed up with big city life and not seeing his parents as often as he would like.

"I was inspired by a place which I hadn't lived in as an adult to tell a unique Baltimore story," Porterfield says.

Since then, Porterfield has made two movies about working-class Baltimore residents who're living on the fringes of society. The Maryland Film Festival, May 6-9, will showcase his latest film, "Putty Hill."

The movie traces the lives and stories of friends and family of a young man who dies of a heroin overdose. Its blend of fiction and documentary-style filmmaking has garnered the movie applause in Variety and The New Yorker. The film also won Best Narrative Feature at the Atlanta Film Festival this year.

"He's very talented, "says Putty Hill Producer Steve Holmgren. "There are very few directors like him," says New York-based Holmgren, who has worked with Steven Soderbergh and Brian DePalma. "There's nobody else I'd rather work with."

As a kid, Porterfield's hero was David Attenborough, who made the BBC's "Living Planet" documentary nature series. Porterfield says he was infatuated with the diversity of life on the planet. He's taken Attenborough's lens and applied it to people, shedding light on the diversity of human experience.

"Cinema does have a truth value," Porterfield says.

Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival agrees. As newspapers shrink in size and influence, filmmakers like Porterfield have stepped in to explore the issues facing our society, he says.

"He produces this extraordinary mix of fiction and non-fiction, "says Jed Dietz, director of the Maryland Film Festival. "We are just thrilled about it being in the festival."

Rooted in the community

Porterfield grew up in Hamilton, the inspiration for his debut 2006 film of the same name. "It's a beautiful crazy blend of city and country," Porterfield says of the northeast Baltimore neighborhood.

"Putty Hill" is a more complex film than his debut, Porterfield says. "A lot more voices are involved. There are a lot more things going on."

Baltimoreans will recognize familiar surroundings in "Putty Hill", including the Harford Road corridor, Carroll and Druid Hill Parks, and the Baltimore Travel Plaza on O'Donnell Street.

The movie takes place the day before a funeral of a man who dies of a heroin overdose and friends and family talk about themselves. "It's a view of urban America that a lot of people resist looking at," Dietz says. "He has a visual patience that is rare in American filmmaking."

Making the film was a labor of love, patience and resourcefulness.Porterfield shot "Putty Hill" for just $50,000 � relying on the kindness of strangers to get him through. Atwater's, Soups On, Mathews Pizza and Chipotle gave free food for the 12-person cast and crew.

"There were really long days when you are trying to make a movie on no money and shooting kids at a trailer park," Holmgren says. "Sometimes they don't show up. People are very astonished when we say that we made it in 12 days."

Porterfield also won a camera rental from the Independent Filmmaker Project, a New York nonprofit national dedicated to helping independent movies

"It's very hard to get movies made on a low budget," Holmgren says."Usually the acting is bad and the production is bad." Porterfield made it happen because of his ability to get the cast to care about him and trust him, Holmgren.

"Matt gets it right when he is showcasing people," Holmgren says. "His skill is showing marginalized people in a nonjudgmental way."

"Putty Hill" came together when financing fell through for "Metal Gods," a bigger budget movie about metal heads.

Land of opportunity

This month, Porterfield is embarking on a whirlwind tour of film festivals in Lisbon, Buenos Aires, Boston and Edinborough in hopes of getting a wider audience for the movie and distribution. But it's his hometown festival that Porterfield cherishes the most.

"The Maryland Film Festival is my favorite festival to play," he says. "There's no audience I want to play for more than the local one."

Porterfield estimates that he will need to raise another $100,000 to secure the music rights and get the movie transferred to 35-millimeter if he wants to see "Putty Hill" in theaters.

What's next? Porterfield is adapting a short novel, called "Autobiography of Red," by the poet Anne Carson. He'd like to make another film about foreign workers at an amusement park in Ocean City. He hasn't given up hope for "Metal Gods." He's talking to a prospective investor about breathing life into the film. And he looks forward to making his movies in Baltimore.

"Baltimore is so rich, I could make a career here and never tell the same story," Porterfield says.

Maryland is the home of cinematic geniuses John Waters, David Simon and Barry Levinson. Dietz believes that one day Matthew Porterfield will rank in their company. Porterfield says he gets his inspiration from the Baltimore trio but also French Robert Bresson, Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Altman. He wants to continue making films for theater, work on a Web series and hopefully someday work in television.

"I want to maintain the freedom to work independently," Porterfield says. "I would love to see a return from all the hard work."

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Julekha Dash is Development News Editor at BmoreMedia and a former health care and higher education reporter for the Baltimore Business Journal. "Mulholland Drive", "Millenium Mambo" and the "400 Blows" are among her favorite movies. If you have other movie recommendations, let Julekha know.

Photo captions:

1. Filmmaker Matthew Porterfield. Photo by Steve Ruark.
2. Film in the office of Matthew Porterfield. Photo by Steve Ruark
3. A provided still image of Putty Hill, a film by Filmmaker Matthew Porterfield.
4. A provided still image of Putty Hill, a film by Filmmaker Matthew Porterfield.
5. A poster in the office of Filmmaker Matthew Porterfield. Photo by Steve Ruark
6. Filmmaker Matthew Porterfield. Photo by Steve Ruark.
7. A provided still image of Putty Hill, a film by Filmmaker Matthew Porterfield.
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