FESTIVALS: Who Needs Pretension? Cleveland Still Attracts First-Rate Films
by Erik Piepenburg
(indieWIRE/ 03.28.02) -- The Cleveland International Film Festival, like its resolute, industrial host city on the banks of the winding Cuyahoga River, is an event defined by what it is not. This isn't a festival for industry insiders or celebrities or pain-in-the-ass directors with egos the size of Youngstown. It isn't an exercise in esoteric academia or pretentious filmspeak or auteur pandering. Who needs it? The 26th Cleveland International Film Festival was about people like Jann, who took the day off from her job as an administrator at a suburban lumberyard to catch a Tunisian film on a sunny Tuesday afternoon. "I wouldn't miss this for the world," she told me. "Did you see the Sri Lankan film last night? I loved it."
This was the first year the festival, which ran March 14-24, was without long-time executive director David Wittkowsky at the helm. Wittkowsky, who left to pursue other interests, is widely credited with nurturing the festival from its infancy as a well-rounded but citywide festival at a small theater on the city's East Side to one of the largest, most respected regional festivals in the U.S. Under the guidance of executive director Marcie Goodman and associate programmer Bill Guentzler, the festival expanded its thematic reach this year, showing more experimental and locally-made films than ever before in a first-rate program of 80 features and 100 shorts.
By far the best film of the festival was a last-minute addition: Przemyslaw Reut's astonishing fiction/non-fiction hybrid "Paradox Lake" (a New Directors/New Films selection). Shot on Super 16mm, miniDV, 35mm and endoscopic camera, among other media, the film tells the remarkable story of an aimless 25-year-old man who finds his destiny fulfilled in the mind of a 12-year-old girl at the New York summer camp where he is a counselor. As spookily atmospheric as it is mysterious, "Paradox Lake" proved to be a risk-taking film about physical disabilities and human nature, and dangerously towed the line between exploitation and exploration. It is a visually stunning and bravely directed first film.
Another personal favorite was "Sister Helen," Rob Fruchtman and Rebecca Cammisa's compelling, devastating documentary about a tough-talking, Sinatra-loving Irish oblate who runs a substance abuse safehouse for 21 men in the South Bronx. Sister Helen, herself a recovering alcoholic who lived through the deaths of her husband and two children, exhibits all the manipulative traits of a mother-son relationship with the men she serves. "When I say piss, you piss!" she barks at a reluctant urine-giver ("ur-een," in Sister Helen parlance). The emotional course the film takes is palpable; the film's shocking ending elicited sobs at the packed mid-day screening I attended.
Two local features were the only films to premiere at this year's CIFF. "The Year That Trembled," Jay Craven's adaptation of Cleveland writer Scott Lax's script, was the festival's only world premiere. The film, about family relationships during the years following the Kent State University shootings, played to a standing-room-only house. Making its U.S. premiere was Brett Wagner's DV feature "Five Years," a garden-variety prodigal son story shot in rural Ohio and the Tremont section of Cleveland, and co-starring Michael Buscemi.
"I'm impressed by the Cleveland International Festival," director Bill Morrison said at the start of the post-film discussion of his magnificent experimental film "Decasia." "I'm impressed by how many of you showed up, but I'm even more impressed with how many of you stayed on a Saturday afternoon." Who wouldn't? Accompanied by a symphony of mournful strings and chugging rhythms, Morrison assembled 70 minutes of distorted, deteriorated and solarized archival film, without artificial manipulation, to create the festival's most beautiful work, and easily one of the most engagingly experimental features to screen at the CIFF in years.
Two Sundance offerings were hot tickets: "Daughter From Danang," a moving documentary about familial aftershocks following the Vietnam War (shown with a post-film discussion attended by producer and co-director Gail Dolgin), and Clevelander David Velo Stewart's "hiphopbattle.com," a surprisingly assured directorial debut, despite abysmal acting, uneven lighting, and a cringe-inducing script.
The festival's gay and lesbian offerings were strong. Ex-Clevelander Lisa Udelson was in town to open the festival with her documentary "Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc's Adventures In Plastic," a hysterical and eye-opening film about the Jewish lesbian folk singer Phranc and her new career as the country's most unorthodox Tupperware lady. An audience favorite was "Daddy & Papa," Johnny Symons' funny, lyrical and timely first-person account of he and his partner's attempts to adopt and raise children. Arthur Dong returned to the CIFF for the third time with "Family Fundamentals," this year's "Trembling Before G-D" for conservative Christians and their gay offspring ("I'm a lesbian," one woman tells her anti-gay crusader mother. "But you're a Christian," her mother replied.) In the tender documentary "Brother Born Again," Julia Pimsleur dealt with her brother's decision to join a Christian separatist group in Alaska, in turn eschewing his Jewish roots and conflicting with her life as a bisexual.
Other films of note included the New Directors pick "The Orphan of Anyang," Wang Chao's glacially-paced, simply told fable about a baby and his reluctant caretaker; "My Brother Tom," a brooding, blasphemous coming-of-age film from British director Dom Rotheroe, who throws in enough overwrought teen angst and nudity to make Morrissey squirm; "Senorita Extraviada," Lourdes Portillo's chilling, expertly-researched documentary about some 200 murders of women in Juarez, Mexico; and "You Really Got Me," a listless, unfunny comedy of aging rocker errors from Norway's Pal Sletaune ("Junk Mail").
Special presentations included a joint screening of contemporary African-American filmmakers at the Akron Art Museum and a presentation of surviving Franciszka and Stefan Themerson works from the 1930s and 1940s. And some 300 registrants participated in the Fifth Annual Midwest Independent Filmmakers Conference, with a keynote speech from Cleveland native Dale Pollock ("The Beast," "Blaze," "Set It Off").
CIFF's shorts selections were top-notch. Among the standouts were Shamata's "Getting In," Christophe Van Rompaey's "Oh My God?!"; Rick Castro's "Plushies and Furries," Zack Resnicoff's "The Clearing," Jamie Babbit's "Stuck," Brad Furman's "Fast Forward," John Baumgartner's "War Story," and David Weaver's "Moon Palace." In a first for the festival, a mother-son team garnered short film awards. Kitao Sakurai's "Coda" was named Best Ohio Short, while his mom, Kasumi Minkin, received an honorable mention in the same category for her experimental short "Technical Aids." Daniela Zanzotto's "Kissed by Angels" was named Best Documentary Short, with an honorable mention for Clevelander Brenna Epstein's "Marion and Me." Beth Armstrong's "Cheek to Cheek" was named Best Woman's Short, while Cassandra Nicolau's "Interviews With My Next Girlfriend" was given an honorable mention. Richard Doherty's "My Chorus" was named Best Student Short, with an honorable mention for Michael Overbeck's "Tongues and Taxis." The Process Award for Visual Excellence was given to Martine Chartrand's short "Black Soul," with an honorable mention for Virgil Widrich's Academy Award-nominated "Copy Shop." The Humanitarian Award went to J.T. Walker's "Passengers," with an honorable mention for Beth Armstrong's "Cheek to Cheek."
But there were letdowns, especially in the documentary selections. Peter Guyer's "Big Mac, Small World" turned what could have been an interesting documentary about anti-globalization and workers' rights protests into a shallow training film of sorts about the personal lives of McDonald's employees -- something only a corporate flack would love. "Dancing With My Father," Clevelander Marcia Rock's shrill and rambling first-person account of -- what else is new? -- Baby Boomers' disappointment at their parents' emotional distance covered a topic best left for the therapist's couch, not the big screen. "American Standoff" was Kristi Jacobson's dry, unemotional examination of the years-long strike between the Teamsters and Overnite Transportation. Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud's "A Thousand and One Voices: The Music of Islam" was wide-ranging and timely, but overly scholarly look at the rapturous (and male-dominated) musical traditions of the Muslim world.
Closing night film "Lovely and Amazing," by "Walking and Talking" director Nicole Holofcener, was an empty and awkward story about two sisters (Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer) on the verge of nervous breakdowns, and their mother (Brenda Blethyn), who is raising a black child. The film is saved from oblivion by Keener's perfectly underplayed acting and Jake Gyllenhall's delightfully innocent performance, but suffers from a dark undercurrent that comes across as ersatz Neil LaBute.
Overall, the inclusion of such a wide range of films -- whether top-tier independents or local and experimental works -- proved that Cleveland is a standout regional festival once again. This festival may not be made for schmoozing, but it was made for movies.