Cleveland Ends Tumultuous Year with Top-Notch Festival
by Erik Piepenburg
It was a comeback year of sorts for the Cleveland International Film Festival, which held its 28th event from March 18-28. The past year was one of difficult transitions for the Cleveland Film Society, which runs the festival out of its small offices in the trendy Ohio City neighborhood just west of downtown Cleveland.
During last year's opening night festivities, as the CIFF hosted the first post-Sundance screening of the locally-shot (and Academy Award-nominated) "American Splendor," news came that the U.S. had begun bombing Baghdad. The start of the war (not to mention unusually sunny weather) set a somber mood at the normally high-energy Tower City Center, an urban mall that hosts the festival at the city's only downtown multiplex.
With war raging and anxieties high, the festival suffered a downturn in attendance and income. Over the summer the film society was forced to cut half its staff, reduce several programs and eliminate the Midwest Independent Filmmakers Conference. "It was crazy but we did it because we knew that was the only way we could survive," said Bill Guentzler, CIFF's director of programming.
But the festival went untouched. As a result, this year's event returned almost full-throttle with its usual eclectic mix of global cinema, documentaries and smartly-programmed sections of African, Central/Eastern European, gay and lesbian, family and local films. "Born Into Brothels," Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski's documentary about children of prostitutes in Calcutta who learn photography skills, was honored with the Roxanne T. Mueller audience choice award for best film. "The Stroll," Russian director Alexei Uchitel's real-time boy-meets-girl story set in St. Petersburg, won the second annual Central/Eastern European competition and its $10,000 prize.
"Accessible stuff is the Cleveland aesthetic. Our main mission this year was to find lighthearted films that weren't overwhelming," said Guentzler. "It's not that our audiences don't want to be challenged. It's that they don't want to be talked down to."
I've been attending the festival in my hometown since 1986, when a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "Hail Mary" caused a furor and Sissy Spacek and Kevin Kline were in town with "Violets are Blue." I've returned to the CIFF every year since then, and have found that it consistently ranks as one of the most engaging and well-run regional film festivals in the country, thanks mostly to a crack team of volunteers trained on decades worth of the serious business of church potlucks and snow shoveling.
This year's CIFF, which included 90 features and 70 shorts representing more than 50 countries, was no different. Attendance set a record of just under 40,000 and ticket sales rose 20% from last year, making it the festival's best year ever.
Opening night hit a solemn note with Sundance favorite "Dandelion," Mark Migard's low-key, beautifully-shot film about ennui and jealousy in a small American town. As an opener this was a departure for the CIFF, which usually kicks off with a more accessible crowd-pleaser. Nonetheless, Migard and lead actor Vincent Kartheiser were greeted afterwards by an enthusiastic audience eager to start the festival on a high note.
Of the films I caught, the highlight was Bolivian filmmaker Rodrigo Bellott's astonishing "Sexual Dependency." Shot digitally and entirely in split-screen, the film is a fascinating look at the variety and pathology of male sexuality across divisions of race, class, and sexual orientation, from macho high schoolers looking to score at a young girl's coming-out party to a gay college student struggling with the closet.
During a post-film Q&A, Bellott said he had a eye-opening experience shooting the film on location in both the U.S. and Bolivia, where its taboo-breaking sexual frankness helped it break box-office records in a country not known for a thriving film industry. "I think I'm every character in the film. That's why I like and hate every one of them," the affable director told a packed house.
A guilty pleasure of mine was "6ixtynin9," a 1999 film by Thailand's Pen-ek Ratanaruang, one of three directors included in the festival's "Someone to Watch" section highlighting early or mid-career filmmakers. This comedy of errors about a mysterious box of money, nosy neighbors, and piles of bodies was irresponsible, pitch-black fun from start to finish, and the perfect film to start the first day of a noon-to-midnight schedule. (The fest also screened Ratanaruang's "Last Life in the Universe," coming to theaters this summer from Palm Pictures, and 2001's "Mon-Rak Transistor.")
The other spotlighted directors were New Zealand's Gaylene Preston, represented by "Perfect Strangers" (2003) and "Mr. Wrong," (1984) and Josef Fares, whose films "Jalla! Jalla!" (2000) and "Kops" (2003) were two of the most-talked about films of the festival.
A few films in the American Independents section stood out. Alan Brown's deliciously creepy "Book of Love" explored the oddball relationship between a husband, his wife, and her teenage male lover, told in a discomfiting style that tiptoed around Neil LaBute territory. Ryan Eslinger's "Madness and Genius" was a grainy, low-budget, cerebral story about a manipulative math student and his eccentric professor. Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson's "One Point O" was a startling, terrific-looking film set in a future where corporate mind control is a deadly threat.
On the international front, three films, all in the Central/Eastern European section, made their U.S. premieres: Miha Hocevar's "On the Sunny Side," Dino Mustafic's "Remake," and Michaela Pavlatova's "Fatherless Games."
Outstanding films in the World Tour section included "A Nation Without Women," Manish Jha's assuredly feminist debut feature from India about a future in which women are alternately feared and prized; and "The Overeater," French director Thierry Binisti's kooky tale about an obese detective who agrees not to jail a woman suspected of murder only if she agrees to eat dinner with him every night for a year.
Among the compelling docs were "Dirty Work," a stomach-churning documentary about three people with unorthodox jobs (a septic-tank pumper, a mortuary embalmer, and a collector of bull semen), directed by Tim Nackashi and ex-Clevelander David Sampliner; and "The Opposite Sex: Jamie's Story" and "The Opposite Sex: Rene's Story," Josh Aronson's complementary films about a man and a woman undergoing gender confirmation surgery.
"Being in Cleveland has been fantastic. I love the audience's courage," said Arsonson, who brought his doc "Sound and Fury" to CIFF in 2000. "This is an interesting, liberal audience that wants films, like mine, that other festivals don't want to touch."
"Cleveland loves documentaries," Guentzler added. "They always get some of the biggest turnouts of the festival." (Last year's audience award went to Jeffrey Blitz's Academy Award-nominated "Spellbound"; the 1999 winner was Terry Sanders and Freida Lee-Mock's "Return With Honor.")
Other docs included "5 Sides of a Coin," Paul Kell's extensive examination of the global history and impact of hip-hop; "Red Light Go," Manny Kivowit's frenetic overview of New York City bike messengers and the culture of "alley cat races;" "The Fourth World War," Richard Rowley and Jacqueline Soohen's preachy, self-righteous treatise against globalization and capitalism; and "1," ex-Clevelander Tim O'Hara's rah-rah look at the country's winningest high school football team.
"I very much wanted to be in Cleveland," O'Hara said. "There are more films in this festival that I want to see than in other festivals with much bigger names."
The only real clunkers I saw were three narrative features: Alain Guiraudie's impenetrable, pretentious "No Rest for the Brave"; Piergiorgio Gay's Eurocheesy yuppie whiner "Truth and Lies"; and, most disappointingly, David Mackenzie's dull "Young Adam," an "amoral moral tale" set on a claustrophobic barge in early 1950s Scotland (not even very naked stars Tilda Swinton and Ewan McGregor helped lift the lifeless script).
Notable films I missed included Jonathan Demme's "The Agronomist," a documentary about Haitian journalist Jean Dominique; Hector Babenco's "Carandiru," about a physician who treats prisoners at Sao Paolo's largest jail; and New Directors/New Films selections "Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring" by Kim Ki-duk and "The Story of the Weeping Camel," by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni.
Docs I was unable to catch were "In the Realms of the Unreal," Jessica Yu's examination of outsider artist Henry Darger; "Naked World," Arlene Donnely Nelson's glimpse at photographer Spencer Tunick, who shoots landscapes filled with naked bodies (Tunick, who will photograph one of his infamous naked shots in Cleveland later this spring, was on hand for a panel discussion); "Home of the Brave," Paola di Florio's look at the children of a civil right activist who was killed in 1965; "Paternal Instinct," Murray Nossel's take on gay parenting; and "Garden," Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash's look at young gay prostitutes in Tel Aviv.
Closing night featured both a screening of "Bright Young Things," Stephen Fry's period drama set in England in the 1930s, and the presentation of a service award to independent film distributor THINKFilm.
With its financial house in order and an upturn after a tumultuous year, it's not hard to imagine the CIFF taking a much more high-profile role in the American festival circuit in the future, a goal Guentzler has set for his second full year as head programmer.
"We want a lot of things. We want Cleveland to be the place where Eastern European filmmakers premiere their works," he said between screenings one afternoon in the festival's hospitality suite in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. "We want the festival's local reputation to become more international."
If this year's festival is any indication, the CIFF is well on its way to doing just that. Actually, some locals think the future is now. I think Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter John Petkovic put it best when he gave the CIFF a much-deserved nickname, one that perfectly captures its rewarding mix of no-nonsense gumption and risk-taking imagination: Cannes on the Cuyahoga.