The Cleveland International Film Festival received a nice boost from locals in celebration of its 30th anniversary. Attendance rose 17 percent from the previous year, and CIFF staffers gleefully mentioned their record-breaking attendance when introducing screenings. "We have broken a record everyday except Monday (March 20th)," said one CIFF rep before introducing British director Brian Hill's "Songbirds" last week. "Cleveland had a certain famous visitor that day, so it interfered..." The mention prompted loud boos from the crowd, since the reference was to President Bush's visit to Cleveland earlier that week. Ohio may be a red state, but the crowd that day was decidedly blue.
52,000 tickets were sold at this year's festival, which of course delighted the workaholic staff of the Cleveland Film Society which produces the festival. CFS's artistic director William Guentzler conveyed that accomplishment in a post-fest interview with indieWIRE. "This year's fest was amazing. Our audience loved the films and everything went fairly smoothly. As I said in my closing night remarks, it truly was the best 11 days of my life."
The competition sections were packed with high quality films. CIFF tends to de-emphasize premieres and focus on substance. "Our festival is not all about the premieres," said Guentzler. "Cleveland has such a sophisticated audience, and if we would aim for more premieres, we feel it may jeopardize the overall quality of the program that the audience has come to expect. We would much rather focus on bringing the best and most well-rounded program possible, and in doing so, we screen films that may have premiered even up to a year prior to our fest."
I had the distinct honor of being invited to serve on the documentary jury this year by Guentzler, and my fellow jurors, filmmaker Lisa Gossels ("The Children of Chabannes") and producer Mari-Lynn Evans ("The Appalachians") and I had a challenge of picking the winner for best documentary from a pool of terrific films. Ultimately, we agreed on James Longley's stunning film, "Iraq in Fragments," which picked up three prizes earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, including the director's award. Viewed without a scripted narration, the film is a portrait of three areas of Iraq including Baghdad, a Shiite city some distance from the capital, and the Kurdish north. The film captures the insecurity and anxiety the country feels under occupation. The best doc prize, officially called the Nesnadny + Schwartz Documentary Film Competition award includes a $5,000 cash prize.
Quite equally magnificent was Ohio filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert's "A Lion in the House." CIFF staffers warned my fellow jurors and I to have tissues handy when watching this film, and their advice proved very sound. The film chronicles the lives of five Cincinnati children as they fight cancer. Unfortunately, the story doesn't have a happy ending for a few of them. The film was six years in the making and the filmmakers were reportedly reluctant to take on the project initially, having lived through their own daughter's cancer battle, which she ultimately won. The film had its world premiere at Sundance, but Reichert was forced to cut her trip to Utah short after doctors diagnosed her with cancer. "A Lion in the House" received a "Special Jury Award" at CIFF including $1,500.
Although the film did not pick up an official prize, Kirk Marcolina and Larry Grimaldi's delightful doc "Camp Out" was an unqualified hit with our jury. The film chronicles a group of gay Christian youth as they attend a camp in rural Minnesota. The first of its kind in the United States, the camp is a retreat for gay and lesbian teenagers who want to openly explore their faith in an accepting atmosphere. While the camp's concept is unique in this country, it is the teens featured in the movie that makes the film a particularly winning experience. Grimaldi was also pleased with his experience at CIFF.
"It was an amazing experience to premiere in Cleveland," Grimaldi told indieWIRE after the fest ended March 26th. "Not only are the festival programmers and staff incredibly warm, hospitable and supportive, they showcase many films that other festivals are afraid to embrace. The real testament, however, comes from the people of the greater Cleveland area who are amazingly nice, friendly and open-minded."
Ian Inaba's doc "American Blackout" also won kudos at the festival, receiving the Greg Gund Memorial Standing Up Film Competition. The film is a revealing look at the systematic breakdown of democracy in the United States from the failed Florida vote in 2000 to voter fraud in Ohio in 2004. "American Blackout" also follows outspoken liberal Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-Georgia) who was an early critic of the Iraq war and paid the price when the political machine ensured she lost her primary in '02.
Czech director Peter Nikolaiev's "A Little Piece of Heaven" won the Central and Eastern European Film Competition ($10,000). The film is a post-war love story about a man sentenced because of his father's political standing. One day he eyes a woman working in the laundry and they fall instantly in love, leaving them to devise ways to encounter one another.
Radu Mihaileanu's film about the plight of Ethiopian Jews through the story of a Christian boy won the Plain Dealer Roxanne T. Mueller Audience Choice Award, while short film winners included "Round 5" (Process Award for Visual Excellence); "His Father's Son" (Jesse Epstein Humanitarian Award); "Perils in Nude Modeling" (Best Ohio short film) and "Pee Shy" (best student short film).
In all, CIFF screened 127 feature films and 93 shorts from 54 countries March 16 - 26 at Tower City Cinemas in downtown Cleveland.