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C. Fraser Smith: Transported by the miracle of film

We are back to earth now, dropped gently from the whirlwind that was the Maryland Film Festival.

Like Dorothy and Toto, we don’t immediately know what to make of our trip.

One minute we’re in a parking lot given over to festival tents, talking to friends in the brilliant sunlight. Then we’re back in the dark on another trip with a shadowy guide.

We surrender serially to foreign sensibilities, to other visions of life, to the reality of searching — for what? Truth? Excitement? Story? It’s fast and furious or maddeningly slow or not happening.

Fellow travelers meet in the Charles Theater lobby to trade tips on the enormous, dizzying menu. What’s good, what’s not so good. What might be a generic description of the fare.

“Weird” competes for that distinction and yet as the weekend slides by, the obscure comes into better focus. Right or wrong, doesn’t matter. You’re there. You’re soaring. It’s a new world every 120 minutes or so.

Globe-trotting on North Charles

We’re on North Charles Street, of course, but we’re all over the globe:

-On the unremittingly mean streets of Chicago with former gangbangers transmuted into nature’s noblemen, expiating sin, expressing the deepest, most useful form of remorse: struggling to save others from your failings.

They are “The Interrupters,” the men and women of Cease Fire, a program operating on the theory that urban ills can’t be cured unless we end violence. It’s a dangerous business. You meet one of the interrupters in a hospital bed, lucky to be alive.

You meet a young woman in trouble determined to go on uninterrupted. “The life” is like gravity, a fearsome force. But the interrupter has staying power. The counseling and mentoring process works and then fails and then succeeds and so on. It’s unremitting, but so is the interrupter. The process works and then fails and then works – like life itself.

-On stage in Paris with a chanteuse, her profile moving in and out of shadow. The movie is “Ne change rien” — Never change? But the singer is constantly changing, searching for the right tone and rhythm. You are silently crying out for a story until you find it in her seductive but maddeningly repetitive crooning.

-In Paris again, this time with a 17-year-old boy and his 40-something aunt, a liaison of concern to the boy’s mother. The aunt, sinking into alcoholism, seems pushed down by some unstated wound. The mother’s concern is understandable. There is a mutual support dynamic at work, but perhaps not a healthy one. And then we learn again that mothers don’t always know what their sons are up to.

Finding the moral center

-In Mississippi, in Hollywood, in Kenya and Ethiopia and who knows where else with Harry Belafonte, an underappreciated leader of the American civil rights movement. Belafonte is with us in person, in the theater, watching his life replaying in front of us.

The singer passionately rephrases fundamentals of the movement and its leaders — from the reluctant John and Robert Kennedy to the man in the street. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s objective, he said, was to create an irresistible momentum for change — and to find the moral center of those leaders who could make change happen.

During the Q and A, he says movement leaders today are waiting for more of the moral center of President Barack Obama to reveal itself. (There is much discussion among the festival-goers over the weekend of how far away the country has moved from the values of community and how little inclination there seems to be for confronting those few who own so much of the nation’s wealth. In years to come perhaps there will be a documentary on when the nation bestirred itself.)

Civil rights, Belafonte says, was always a mission of faith: The victims of violent racism and discrimination would turn toward justice.

He remains vital and funny and acute at 84. He has recently married again to yet another striking woman. At least one of his previous wives speaks admiringly of him in the film — as do his children, although one of them says he ran about the world “like a lunatic,” moving between his two families: the family of man and the family of Belafonte.

The festival was ending with his story: “Sing Your Song.” For 90 minutes we had the magic of the screen and the wonder of life merging in the story of a single brave soldier, star and man.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.