Even in Wartime, Cleveland Fest Provides Healthy Dose of Global Cinema
by Erik Piepenburg
"Spellbound," Jeff Blitz's crowd-pleasing Academy Award-nominated documentary about the National Spelling Bee, nabbed the Roxanne T. Mueller Audience Choice Award for Best Feature Film at the 27th Cleveland International Film Festival, which wrapped Sunday after 11 days of screenings.
Two films split the $20,000 cash award in the festival's inaugural Central and Eastern European juried competition. The winners were Piotr Trzaskalski's "Edi" (Poland) and Gyorgy Palfi's "Hukkle" (Hungary), a New Directors/New Films selection that recently inked a deal with Shadow Distribution.
As the awards were announced, many festivalgoers marveled at how the CIFF managed to stay the course after opening under circumstances as rocky as the shores of beautiful Lake Erie.
On March 19, the day President Bush ordered the U.S. to begin bombing Iraq, the CIFF presented its opening night film, "American Splendor." The title of the shot-in-Cleveland project carried with it a disquieting vulgarity that evening, preventing many of the 800 audience members from fully enjoying the much-anticipated local premiere, the film's first festival screening after winning the 2003 Sundance Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini cancelled their appearances, and the genre-tweaking film's subject, rough-and-tumble Cleveland comic book writer Harvey Pekar, was hospitalized and unable to attend the event, although his wife and foster daughter were in attendance.
Even before the first reel unspooled, the CIFF suffered a few blows. New artistic director Alissa Simon, who left the Film Center in Chicago for the Cleveland job, abruptly resigned in mid-February. CIFF executive director Marcie Goodman said there was "no story" to the split, describing it as an "amicable departure" due to "artistic differences." Also, the festival's traffic staff struggled to convince U.S. Customs agents at the Cleveland airport that the hundreds of boxes containing round metal canisters arriving from the Middle East and Asia were for purposes artistic, not terror-inducing. So unfortunately, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Blissfully Yours" and Larissa Sadilova's "With Love, Lilia," never made it to the event.
Over the course of the festival's 11 days staffers crossed their fingers in hopes that a city as passionate about its orchestra and its fat kielbasas would turn out for daily noon to midnight screenings of 100 features and nearly 100 shorts. As it turns out, with one eye on the war and another on the big screen, Cleveland audiences obliged en masse. As usual the CIFF was a panoply of styles and aesthetics that had appeal wide-ranging enough to please a city of filmgoers more interested in Dogme than distribution. Forty countries and 14 foreign-language submissions were included, as was the U.S. premiere of Aoyama Shinji's "Mike Yokahama: A Forest With No Name." Returning sections included American Independents, Documentaries, Pan-African, Ten Percent Cinema (gay and lesbian), and Local Heroes. (The 6th Midwest Independent Filmmakers Conference, which saw a drop in registration this year over last, ran from March 28-30.)
The festival's strongest programming was on the non-fiction front. Jennifer Dworkin's "Love & Diane" was a searing, eloquently edited portrait of a low-income Brooklyn family's attempts to deal with mental illness and poverty. Steve James was on hand to introduce "Stevie," a touching, but too-long, first-person account of his relationship with his former Little Brother. Yvonne Welbon's "Sisters in Cinema" was an amateurish but well-crafted look at the history of black women in indie film.
Gay-themed docs were particularly strong. The soul of Errol Morris guided Even Benestad's "All About My Father," a touching, visually daring glimpse at a young man's struggle to accept his father's desire to live as a woman. Annie Goldson and Peter Wells brought thoughtful clarity to "Georgie Girl," a fascinating look at Georgina Beyer, a transgendered former sex worker who was elected to New Zealand's parliament. Deborah Dickson's "Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House" magically told the story of two Jewish lesbian grandmothers who met in the 1950s and got married 40 years later.
The strongest narrative feature was Gaspar Noe's controversial "Irreversible," which continued to sicken and captivate audiences (at least 30 walkouts were observed at one of the festival's two sold-out showings). Still, the searing and bold film gave this year's festival a much-needed kick in the pants. Two mediocre films boasted strong performances: Fernando Leon de Aranoa's "Mondays in the Sun" showcased Javier Barden's astonishing acting chops in a John Sayles-like story about a group of unemployed men, and "Hold My Heart," from Norway's Allister Diesen, was a sharply-directed story of a man who kidnaps his young daughter (the astonishing Vera Rudi) after a custody battle with his ex-wife.
In the juried competition, Dalibor Matanic's "Fine Dead Girls" was a moody comedy about a lesbian couple and their attack dog of a landlady. "Bellissima," by Artur Urbanski, told the gritty tale of an overbearing stage mother and her reluctant model daughter (think "Drop Dead Gorgeous" meets "Imitation of Life" in Poland). Other competition films were less savvy. Viesturs Kairiss's "Leaving By The Way" was an utterly confusing, but rapturously shot story about love and revenge in remote Lativa. Numerous walkouts peppered a screening of Alexei Muradov's despairingly bleak "The Kite," about an executioner who cares for his disabled son. With a line like "Maybe this canoe trip isn't such a good idea," Maja Weiss's political allegory "Guardian of the Fronter" gave the women-in-peril genre a bad name.
With a festival skewed heavily toward Central and Eastern European films, the World Tour section was left with noticeable gaps from Asia, France, and Canada, three countries the festival has favored over the years. It beats me how Aki Kaurismaki's sweet but icy "The Man Without A Past" won the Cannes Grand Jury Prize and Best Actress Award (for Kati Outinen); the film's relentlessly deadpan humor ventures into "Don't Call Me Shirley" territory much too often. On the other hand, Hollywood couldn't have written a more sappy teen ghost film than "The Invisible," by Sweden's Joel Bergvall and Simon Sandqist.
And not even a Q & A with Museum of Modern Art video curator Barbara London was enough to explain why the listless, sleep-inducing "Love Is a Treasure," by Finland's Eija-Liisa Ahtila, was included as this year's partnership presentation with the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland.
The Ten Percent Cinema section's narrative offerings were the most disappointing in memory. Hella Joof's "Shake It All About," about a bisexual man who leaves his male partner for a woman, was a thick slice of Eurocheese that was more formulaic than a can of Similac. The dreadfully unfunny mockumentary "Showboy," director Christian Taylor's account of his attempts to become a Vegas performer, proved that Christopher Guest has raised the mock bar quite high. About the only exciting thing about Lab Ky Mo's playfully tasteless but lightweight gay hustler film "Nine Dead Gay Guys" were the inside-joke Red Bulls that were handed out afterwards.
Also meager were the world premieres in the Local Heroes section. Despite an exemplary performance by Annie Kitral, Laura Paglin's narrative feature "Nightowls of Coventry" took an uninspired look at a Cleveland restaurant that became a nexus of social upheaval in the 1970s. Nia Gibans's "Creative Essence 1900-2000" was a coma-inducing documentary about Cleveland's artistic past (there's a story there but this film didn't tell it). David Manocchio's ersatz gangster flick "Haywire" was an exercise in macho filmmaking at its most derivative.
American Independents were mixed. Writer/director Ed Solomon introduced "Levity," starring Billy Bob Thornton as a former prisoner who tries to start a new life. Although it boasts strong performances from Thornton, Morgan Freeman, Kirsten Dunst and especially Holly Hunter, the film comes across as simple-minded and preachy. Also, Brad T. Gottfred introduced his one-note meta flick "The Movie Hero," starring "Six Feet Under"'s Jeremy Sisto as a man who thinks he's the subject of a film. The least enjoyable film of the festival was Scott Saunders' "The Technical Writer," a labored, wanly-shot set-up for what's essentially a short film idea about a threesome.
Two international filmmaker spotlights were introduced this year. The Director's Spotlight featured a mini-retrospective of Serbian filmmaker Goran Markovic, who was in town for screenings of his films "Variola Vera," "Deja vu," "Meeting Place," "Tito and Me," and "Serbia, Year Zero."
The new Someone To Watch section paired an older film with a newer work by three filmmakers poised to make international breakthroughs: Russian Alexi Balabanov ("Of Freaks and Men," "War"); Dane Susanne Bier ("Freud Leaving Home," "Open Hearts"); and Icelander Agust Gudmundsson, who was in town to introduce "The Dance" and "The Seagull's Laughter."
On the short front, Robin Larsen's "Out of Habit" was named Best Live Action Short, Robert Bradbrook's "Home Road Movies" was named Best Animated Short and Thea St. Omer's "Love in an Elevator" was named Best Documentary Short. Other standout shorts included Esther Rots's mini masterpiece "Play With Me," Chase Palmer's "Neo-Noir," Melissa Regan's "No Dumb Questions," Hariette Yahr's "Baker's Men," J. Dog and T. Money's "Street of Pain," PES's "Roof Sex" and Angela Robinson's "D.E.B.S."
Despite a rough start and some disappointing programming choices, the CIFF once again spoiled Cleveland audiences. The festival is a hardcore filmgoer's dream, with its centrally located theaters at the downtown Tower City complex (where food choices range from Taco Bell to the Hard Rock Cafe to the Ritz), friendly staff and hordes of volunteers, accessible public transportation and, most importantly, a big fat scoop of global cinema. As filmmaker Chase Palmer remarked, "There was a full house for a 2:15 screening on a Thursday afternoon. Who knew this was such a decadent festival?"