BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — In just six years, Salem Film Fest has grown from a fledgling venture inside a small downtown theater to an event that is drawing wider attention within the film world.
The award-winning PBS series “Frontline” is premiering part of a new documentary here on Sunday before it airs on national television.
David Fanning, the executive producer of “Frontline” and a Marblehead resident, came to the festival last year, went out afterward with some of the organizers and filmmakers, and agreed to take part this year.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that one of the festival founders, filmmaker Joe Cultrera of Salem, made a documentary of his brother’s abuse by a Catholic priest that was shown by “Frontline” several years ago.
Not only is the first part of “Kind Hearted Woman,” the story of an Oglala Sioux woman’s struggle, being shown at the Peabody Essex Museum, but it will be followed by a forum with producers of the PBS show.
Drawing even more attention than “Frontline’s” entry is a documentary by and about a Salem resident.
“West of Memphis,” which airs Friday night, is the story of Damien Echols’ struggle to escape death row after being convicted with two others of the grisly 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark.
The film was co-produced by Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, who worked tirelessly to free him from prison.
They made the documentary in conjunction with Peter Jackson of “Lord of the Rings” fame, an Echols supporter.
Both Echols, who was freed in a 2011 plea deal, and Davis will be at the screening and answering questions afterward.
They moved to Salem last year.
The film and Echols’ story are not without controversy. A man who identified himself as the father of one of the victims posted a blog on the Salem Film Fest website saying the organizers of the event “should be ashamed of themselves for supporting a convicted child murderer.”
In response, the film festival issued a statement that read, in part: “The mere presentation of a film does not imply that all the programmers, staff, volunteers or sponsors have endorsed an opinion that is stated in any particular film. We have no agenda except to create intelligent thought and dialogue that may bring us all to a better understanding of the world at our doorstep, or on the other side of the planet.”
“West of Memphis” sold out in just days, prompting organizers to move it to a larger theater at CinemaSalem. As of Friday, limited tickets were available.
Another documentary getting a lot of attention is “The Ghost Army,” the story of a secret World War II unit that deceived the German army with inflatable tanks, trucks and other tricks.
The film’s Massachusetts director and several soldiers from the unit will be here.
The Salem screening, by the way, is the world premiere.
In all, more than 30 documentaries will be shown between March 7 through 14, most at CinemaSalem, which is hosting the festival.
For the first time, the festival has an official headquarters, a “pop-up” store at 188 Essex St., which is on the pedestrian mall and just around the corner from the movie theater.
There are several related festival events, including a Friday night party at Finz restaurant, where movie trailers will be shown, and a five-minute high school documentary contest.
Salem Film Fest has broad community support, with many businesses sponsoring films and local hotels and inns putting up festival guests, including a number of filmmakers.
“It feels like it has taken hold,” Cultrera said. “It feels to me like the community owns it.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.