In the wake of SXSW, the spring regional festival season begins. First stop: Cleveland, OH. Despite the bleak weather and peculiar image that one is in a multiplex in a mall sandwiched between two five star hotels, the Cleveland International Film Festival draws large local crowds to a comprehensive survey of some of the best that the last year in world premiere festivals has had to offer. While other regional festivals will draw largely upon Sundance and Toronto, Cleveland's program is a kind of equal opportunity festival for films that premiered in more exotic locales, drawing two to three films that had world premieres at festivals around the globe. But perhaps the most astonishing thing about Cleveland is the turnout and response to the work, showing that the Ohio city is really a place where people love film. This allows Artistic Director Bill Guentzler to be more daring with his selections, and makes for a much more interesting festival.
A good example of some hidden treasures in Cleveland is Sang-soo Im's unappreciated gem, "The Old Garden," which premiered at the San Sabastian Film Festival. Though Sang-soo's previous work, "The President's Last Bang" was praised in higher profile festivals like New York, "Garden" seems to have been snubbed for being "more commercial," despite the fact that the performances and directing are nothing less than top notch. Also a good example is Branko Schmidt's "The Melon Route" (winner of CFF's Central and Eastern European Film Competition), a carefully constructed thriller about a Croatian soldier who is secretly harboring an illegal Chinese immigrant. Though playing a few smaller festivals around the country, neither "Melon Route" nor "Old Garden" has hit a bigger fest.
In a unique choice for opening night, the festival kicked off with Derek Sieg's "Swedish Auto," a moody character study starring Lucas Haas that premiered at last year's Los Angeles International Film Festival. Produced by Cleveland native Tyler Davidson, "Auto" charms only the most seasoned audience, falling flat for others, though meeting a generally warm response. The crowd pleasing closing night selection, the New Zealand dork comedy "Eagle vs. Shark" charmed the audience.
The world premieres were a little weaker. Two featurettes, "Rant" and "Rave" butcher classic poetry with stock footage illustrating an embarrassingly literal reading of the language. And director Brook Silva-Braga, despite having incredibly honorable intentions with his backpacking documentary, "A Map For Saturday," misses an opportunity to provide insight about a group of people and instead focuses on himself trying to adjust to a gypsy lifestyle.
The biggest audience hit by far is a film called "Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life." The film, directed by Logan Smalley, is an uplifting story about a group of friends from Georgia who take their friend Darius, a large, jovial African American man with muscular dystrophy, across the country hoping to get his wheelchair "pimped" by MTV. Winning over every audience it played to, including the high school groups that attended screenings of select festival films in the early mornings, "Darius" won both the "Plain Dealer Roxanne T. Mueller Audience Choice Award For Best Film" and the "Greg Gund Memorial Standing Up Film Competition." Other winners included the American festival favorite "The Gymnast," which took the "Time Warner American Independent Award" and the sweet-hearted documentary "Mr. Pilipenko and His Submarine," receiving the "Nesnadny + Schwartz Documentary Film Competition" prize.
One of the most refreshingly original programming moves was the tribute to Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer. Currently best known for his recent film, "Ten Canoes," a hit in Cannes last year and one of the heaviest traveled films on the festival circuit since, Heer has been producing interesting, creative work since 1984. Often dealing with themes of youth, alienation and animal instinct, Heer's work ranges from the childish adventure of his first film, "Tail of the Tiger," about a group of young boys attempting to resurrect a famous model plane to the often banned, abrasively graphic "Bad Boy Bubby," the story of an estranged thirty-year-old, who is forced to confront the outside world. But, perhaps Heer's greatest achievement is the unconventional narrative, "Tracker," centering around four men deep in the outback in search of a black outlaw accused of killing a white woman. At once brutal and understated, the subtlety of "Tracker" is accented with shots of graphic Peter Coad paintings, cutting through the tension of the film. CIFF screened the majority of Heer's body of work with the director in attendance for lengthy Q & As--providing a glimpse once again at Cleveland's affinity for art cinema.