By Ann Reily
---- — This weekend’s Newburyport Documentary Film Festival will take viewers around the world and all the way to Mars.
After taking 2011 off and presenting a “Bestival” of favorite films last year, the festival is back for its eighth year with 23 documentaries, showing today through Sunday at both the Firehouse Center for the Arts and the Screening Room.
“We took last year to bring in a lot more volunteers,” managing director Joanne Morris said. “We hope to keep it growing going forward.”
Fourteen filmmakers are scheduled to attend — “the most ever,” Morris said. They will come from California, Illinois, Virginia and even Tokyo, with Ian Thomas Ash scheduled to discuss his film about the Fukushima nuclear meltdown’s effect on children, “A2-B-C,” after its screening Sunday.
“I love the fact that so many filmmakers come, and they are willing to spend the money and make the effort to come here,” Morris said.
While many of this year’s films deal with political conflict both here and overseas, Mary Jane Doherty didn’t intend for “Secundaria” to be one of them.
The movie follows high school students in Cuba’s world-famous National Ballet School.
“The idea was to follow just one class from auditions all the way to graduation for three years,” Doherty said. “I thought the combination of ballet and Cuba was a visual gift that could not be passed up.”
But the political issues were always there during filming, both in the fact that many of the students are dancing as a way out of poverty and the constraints of life in Cuba and in the unexpected defection of the class star, Mayara, to the United States.
Doherty’s film doesn’t rely on interviews or scripts; she just uses her camera to tell the story.
“I told the people down in Cuba that I wanted to film scenes that could not be translated into words,” she said. “It wasn’t what they said in words, it was what it felt like. I’m using my lens and composition and light to do the conveyance of character.”
Doherty, an associate professor of film at Boston University, said she’s excited to bring the film to Newburyport, where she lived from 1996 to 2009.
“I think of Newburyport, and it means everything to me,” said Doherty, who lives in Boston now. “It’s where I raised my child.”
“Secundaria” is the festival’s showcase film and will be shown at the Firehouse tomorrow night. Before the screening, Katy Maina, a student at The Governor’s Academy in Byfield and The Dance Place in Newburyport, will perform a short dance inspired by the documentary.
Exploring the farthest destination represented in tomorrow’s festival is Newburyport resident Mark Davis, who tomorrow will show “Martian Mega Rover,” a National Geographic documentary about the August 2012 landing of Curiosity on Mars.
“This rover is much bigger and much more complex than anything they’ve ever sent to Mars before,” Davis said. “Landing-night drama really captured the attention of the world. This film is the backstory to that night, the 10 years of work that it took to make it happen.”
Davis, an Emmy-winning producer, writer and director who has made six documentaries about Mars, spent years at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California capturing the struggle to get Curiosity built and launched. He is currently working on another documentary that continues the story of Curiosity and the people involved.
“Since landing night, it’s been a very successful mission,” he said. “Everything has been working pretty well.”
Both Davis and Doherty are among a number of filmmakers who will host question-and-answer sessions after their screenings. The festival will also offer three free events during the weekend, including coffee and panels with several of the filmmakers.
The festival screening committee started accepting submissions in March through the Without a Box website, “a forum that brings together film festivals and filmmakers,” Morris said. After receiving and watching hundreds of DVDs, the small group narrowed the submissions to the 23 being featured this weekend.
If you go
What: Newburyport Documentary Film Festival
When: Today through Sunday
Where: Firehouse Center for the Arts in Market Square and the Screening Room, 82 State St.
How: Evening films are $15, and tickets are available at the Firehouse box office and online at www.firehouse.org. Daytime films are $8 ($4 for students), and tickets are available at the Screening Room and the Firehouse. A limited number of all-access passes are also being sold for $75 and include a private filmmaker reception tonight, both evening films and a choice of daytime films. The passes are available at the Firehouse box office or by calling 978-462-7336.
More information: www.newburyportfilmfestival.org
6 p.m.: Private filmmaker reception for all-access pass holders, Firehouse
7:30 p.m.: “Good Ol’ Freda” and Beatles panel, Firehouse, with afterparty at Not Your Average Joe’s
11:30 a.m.: “In Search of Oil and Sand,” Firehouse; “Under the Hood,” Screening Room
1 p.m.: Shorts Block 1, “The German Who Came to Tea,” “Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution” and “North Pole Promise,” and filmmaker Q&A, Firehouse; “Running for Jim” and filmmaker Q&A, Screening Room
2:30 p.m.: “RawFaith” and filmmaker Q&A, Firehouse; Shorts Block 2, “Fowl Play,” “Bug Music” and “Cavedigger,” Screening Room
3:30 p.m.: Free filmmaker panel, “Short Docs,” Screening Room
4:30 p.m.: “Mommy, I’m a Bastard,” Screening Room
4:45 p.m.: “Martian Mega Rover” and filmmaker Q&A, Firehouse
7:30 p.m.: “Secundaria” and filmmaker Q&A, Firehouse, with afterparty at Oregano’s Pizzeria & Ristorante
10:30 a.m.: Free coffee with filmmakers, Firehouse
11:30 a.m.: “A2-B-C” and filmmaker Q&A, Firehouse; “One Day After Peace,” Screening Room
1 p.m.: Free filmmaker panel: “Feature Film Documentaries,” Firehouse; Shorts Block 3, “Solo, Piano — NYC,” “Learning to Live” and “School’s Out: Lessons From a Forest Kindergarten,” and filmmaker Q&A, Screening Room
2:30 p.m.: “Gold Star Children” and filmmaker Q&A, Firehouse; “Stopping for Death” and filmmaker Q&A, Screening Room
4:30 p.m.: “Life According to Sam,” Firehouse; “Two Who Dared: The Sharps’ War” and filmmaker Q&A, Screening Room