Cleveland's Community Supports Indie Films, "The Dream Catcher" Returns Home with Trophy
by Dave Ratzlow
(indieWIRE/4.4.2000) -- For a former steel town, Cleveland is pretty tenderhearted. Among the more popular films screening last month at the 24th Annual Cleveland International Film Festival were Kevin Jordan's "Goat on Fire and Smiling Fish" about two sensitive brothers looking for love in L.A.; Tom Gilroy's male bonding picture "Spring Forward," and "The Hand Behind the Mouse," Leslie Iwerks doc about one of Disney's first animators.
With idyllic suburbs only 20 minutes away, Cleveland is the kind of place where cocky New Yorkers can easily sneak into a lot of places completely unchallenged (the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame can be skipped at any price). And while one may encounter an occasional blue-haired kid on a skateboard, most of those who came to the 11-day festival were white, middle-aged and middle-class.
In addition to screening over 70 features (including more than 40 foreign films) and 60 shorts, the Cleveland Film Society also hosted FilmSlam, a seminar series for area high school students, and the Midwest Independent Filmmakers Conference, a series of 21 panel discussions and workshops for local film aspirants. Daily reports on Cablevision and frequent local news segments helped bring in more than 36,000 admissions, a new record for the festival.
And having the festival at the Tower City Cinemas didn't hurt either. A former train station converted into a shopping mall, Tower City has been the fulcrum of downtown's economic development this past decade. In addition to drawing in the crowds who came for the studio releases, organizers were able to re-screen popular films and interlock two theaters when one sold out.
While new to Cleveland, many of the films are old news on the festival circuit and nothing really stood out. But it's worth noting that Aaron Harnick's "30 Days", an honest film about modern big city dating and growing up, succeeds mostly because of it's charming yet imperfect protagonist and a realistic bittersweet ending.
In addition to "Spring Forward," among the American Independents this year were Clay Edie's "Dead Dogs," Ed Radtke's "The Dream Catcher," and Patrik-Ian Polk's "Punks" which took home the Best American Independent prize. Though not perfect, each had something unique or entertaining enough to leave audiences satisfied. In fact, one retired woman who had seen thirteen fest films said that the fest offered her a respite from "all that syrupy sweet stuff."
Remarkably, five of the top ten movies for the audience choice award were documentaries, including Mustapha Khan's "House on Fire: Black America Responds to AIDS" and Aviva Kempner's "The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg." Also remarkable, when foreign films played opposite American independents, it was often the foreign film that sold out and necessitated an extra screen.
One of the best foreign offerings was "Manolito Four-Eyes," directed by Spain's Miguel Albaladejo, a delightful and lushly filmed story about a disaster-prone boy on a road trip with his truck-driving father. It's a family film that doesn't shy away from prickly issues like child neglect and adultery. Lighthearted yet not "syrupy sweet," it includes a couple of naturalistic and unselfconscious child performers.
Requiring a separate admission, The Midwest Independent Filmmakers Conference didn't have any trouble competing with the film festival. More than a hundred future filmmakers attended the three-day event held at the nearby Renaissance Hotel during the festival's last weekend. With somewhat cheesy titles like, "How to Land Your Dream Job" and "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" the mostly unstructured discussions were probably great for novices who need encouragement, but pretty standard stuff for anyone who's been around the block.
The panel entitled "How to Get an Agent" for example offered these familiar bits of advice: "Make sure your script is 3-hole punched." "If they don't see that first act break by page 30, they are not going to read any more." And more entertainingly, "Change your name and pretend you're producing the script."
"Heading in the Right Direction" was merely a collection of the now ubiquitous war stories about how to deal with problems during a shoot. The 90-minute panel can be summed up by one filmmaker's sly comment, "A pocket full of cash is a producer's best friend."
Fortunately, the documentary panel, "What's Your Story" was better. It was the only one that had a decent moderator, 20-year documentary veteran, Wright State University Professor and "The Dream Catcher" co-producer, Julia Reichert. She guided the discussion focusing on particularly informative topics such as narrative approach and conflicts of interest.
One of the more interesting and lively panels was the "Directing Actors" workshop presented by Ohio-based actor, Mike Kraft. It was billed as a way to see "three veterans direct a scene to demonstrate different techniques for working with actors." But it soon became apparent that the directors, three young men with their first features at the festival, weren't all that prepared.
Working with local actors, they started by simply elaborating on back-story to flesh out the scenes. This humorously illustrated how the same lines can have drastically different meanings with different set ups. But the workshop turned a bit odd when Kraft began critiquing the directors for giving "results oriented direction" instead of the more effective "process oriented direction"
Results oriented direction, he explained, comes about when directors explain what they want with adjectives and adverbs ("be more intense") and employ emotional mapping ("you're mad"). Process oriented direction on the other hand, Kraft was trying to express, attempts to put actors in the moment by directing with verbs ("accuse him" "convince her"), by appealing to an actor's senses with metaphors and by recalling common memories ("it's like riding a roller coaster"). "You don't want your actors to look at themselves. That's the director's job," he said. In spite of some defensiveness and self-ingratiation on the part of the directors and a few grumbles from the audience, in the end most agreed that the workshop was a success.
With only a few ripples, the spirit at the MIFFC was one of sharing and empowering. Attendees were looking for support and they got it. Local filmmakers were especially interested in energizing the region to produce more films.
No one at this year's festival epitomized a grassroots community spirit more than Ed Radtke. His film, "The Dream Catcher," is a semi-autobiographical road movie starring Maurice Compte and Paddy Conner as two young men, one brooder, one a free spirit, on a desperate trek to reconnect with long absent parents. Living off the kindness of strangers and petty theft, the pair forms a reluctant friendship along the way.
The power of this film comes from what is left unsaid. An iceberg of emotion lies just beneath the surface. A sense of broken dreams haunts every scene. It's visual language of freight cars, barren deserts and urban decay lend to the power of the film that is both tough and tender.
Originally from the Dayton area and now living in Yellow Springs, Ohio, Radtke was the festival's darling, taking home the Filmmaker's Trophy and amazingly positive responses at his several packed screenings.
With the help of his Ohio-based producers, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar and their vast support network, the production rarely paid for locations, enabling them to realize sequences on a scale that would be prohibitive to most independent filmmakers. At one point, the production also had thirty-five crewmembers housed in homes across the city. For catering, they took full advantage of what Bognar calls the "mom's brigade." And frequent Bar-B-Q's and newsletters kept everyone informed and involved.
Not a big fan of the auteur theory, Bognar also prefers to call "Dream Catcher" not an independent film, but a community film. He says that the benefits of "engaging a community in the filmmaking process" cannot be underestimated.
Not only did they rely on the help of their neighbors throughout the shooting of the film, but even more significantly, during the eight-month editing process they screened the film eight times to audience who were encouraged to give harsh critiques on a two-page questionnaire.
The filmmakers realize that many directors abhor test screenings and even Radtke was apprehensive at first. But he quickly realized what a great tool test screenings were and how the constant pushing and pulling with his producers, editor and the audiences forced him to make a better, sharper film. Of course Radtke didn't follow every suggestion, but by the end he was convinced that without that tool, directors and editors can often "no longer be able to see the forest through the trees."
When they debuted at the New Directors/New Films series in 1999, a few distributors immediately courted them, but nothing materialized. Homecomings like this have fueled their hope that they will eventually get picked up for domestic distribution. (A French release is slated for the spring.)
With or without distribution, the Cleveland International Film Festival has proven that there exists a large group of adventurous and enthusiastic filmgoers for this and many other films.
[Dave Ratzlow is a NY-based freelance writer.]