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by Chris RIcci

As a fan of cinema, there are few things more exciting than attending a film festival. You are joined with groups of other like-minded individuals that keep a clear and open mind while directors get to premier their hard work for the first time. Genre, style, length, it doesn’t honestly matter in the end because, honestly, if you’re attending a film festival, you’re there for not only the art, but also for variety. For nine years now, the Salem Film Festival has provided the largest stage for documentaries in the North Shore area, and each year attendance spikes. Just last year, over 40 films were presented. Ranging from the story of local music legends Morphine to the story of the man that dons the Big Bird costume on “Sesame Street,” last year’s event was their most wildly successful yet. This year plans to be no different, and the festivities will begin a month in advance with the screening of one of Salem Film Festival’s most successful winners.

Three years ago, director Rick Beyer put the finishing touches on a documentary about a branch of the military during World War II that, frankly, the military didn’t know much about. The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops units, also known as The Ghost Army, were a tactical unit comprised of artists tasked with using their work to confuse the Germans. Inflatable tanks, sound effects, and paintings were their ammunition, and their story sounds like something out of a parody film. But, The Ghost Army was real, and Rick had been infatuated with their story for years. “I first learned about it eleven years ago when a mutual friend introduced me to Martha Gavin, from Beverly, whose uncle, John Jarvie, served in the unit” said Rick. “Her enthusiasm was the spark that started the whole project.”

Rick, a longtime fan of stranger-than-fiction stories, has put pen to paper numerous times over the years. His book series “The Greatest Stories Never Told” features countless stories in the same vein regarding presidents, musicians, science, and (of course) war. However, the story of The Ghost Army was something that transcended his normal platform. “The idea that American soldiers in World War II went into battle with inflatable tanks and sound effects records was so bizarre, so contrary to every image from every war movie I’ve ever seen, that it immediately attracted my attention.”

Rick met up with Martha Gavin many times, and eventually had to do his own research to get to the bottom of this story. “I met Martha at a Boston area coffee shop, she was carrying an armload of three-ring binders filled with uncle’s wartime artworks” he said.  “I was captivated with the way they presented such a unique and intimate perspective of the war. And that’s how I got hooked.” The unorthodox nature of this story was something that Rick knew would catch on, despite the overhanging popularity of World War II stories in media. “This story is so different from the ‘typical’ World War II tale that I wasn’t much worried about going over familiar ground” said Rick. “The Ghost Army takes place at the intersection of creativity, technology, absurdity and war. I felt, and still feel, that there is nothing like it!” After completing his film, “The Ghost Army” was ready to contend in the film festival arena, but Rick was instantly drawn to the Salem Film Festival in particular. “What stood out most was their respect for filmmakers. A lot of festivals either want to make you jump through hoops, or seem to be focused on what celebrities they can attract” he said.  “[The Salem Film Festival] seemed concerned about the quality of the film, and how to create a positive experience for the filmmaker. Something I didn’t see emphasized to the same degree elsewhere.” After carefully deciding where he should premier “The Ghost Army” Rick came to a final conclusion: “I eventually agreed to premiere the film here, and that is one of the smartest decisions I ever made.”

Despite the snowstorm crippling the Salem area in 2013, both of his screenings sold out. Rick has always kept a good sense of humor about this one particular fact. “While I would like to attribute that to my genius as a filmmaker, I think that in fact it is a tribute to the work that the festival organizers have done” he said. “The audiences at the festival manage to be both supportive and discriminating.  And they are eager to come because they know they are going to see good stuff. So whatever expectations I had were not only met, they were exceeded by a factor of ten!”

After the screenings were done, the awards were being presented, and Rock Beyer took home the Audience Choice award; an award that, for Rick, meant the most of all. “That’s always the award I want to win. I have attended the film with many audiences, and I love watching and listening to their reaction” he recalled. “When I craft a film or a book, I think about how I can connect with the audience and get them interested in the subject.  So it is incredibly rewarding to receive an award such as this.”

After the festivities concluded, Rick took his film to many other festivals, but his experience at the Salem Film Festival remained with him the entire time. “I went to other festivals later, and my experiences only confirmed how great The Salem Film Festival was.” It has been a few years since the film made its mark, and the praise for the movie still stands strong. Legendary reporter and World War II historian Tom Brokaw applauded Rick’s novelization of the Ghost Army story, citing it as one of the most riveting tales from World War II.

Now, after a few years, Rick will be returning to Salem with his award-winning film, and is eager not only to see the film on that familiar screen again, but to also see how the festival season turns out in Salem. “I would say that what makes The Salem Film Festival special is  the focus on the filmmaker and  the consistent quality of the films selected” he said.  “I’ve never seen a film at SFF where I said ‘Why did they pick that?’ I think small festivals like Salem can be much more rewarding than large ones, because neither the films nor the filmmakers get lost in the crowd.” Because of the size and the nature of the screenings, Rick thinks it’s the perfect festival for the subject matter at hand. “It is possible to see every film, meet every filmmaker, and that is what film festivals SHOULD be all about!”

Ticket Information here

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