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April 1, 1998 2:00 AM
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Oscar Winner "Character" Wins Top Cleveland Prize; "The Journey" Takes Indie Awa

Oscar Winner "Character" Wins Top Cleveland Prize; "The
Journey" Takes Indie Award; Film Festival Achieves Record Jump in
Attendance

by Eugene Hernandez




The Cleveland International Film Festival concluded this weekend
following an eleven day event that saw a record increase in attendance.
32,000 seats were filled during the festival, a jump of 16% over last
year. Also making news in Cleveland was the announcement of award
winners for the 22nd annual festival.


Mike van Diem's Oscar winning film from the Netherlands, "Character,"
won the festival's "Roxanne T. Mueller Best Film Award." The prize,
which was voted on by audiences, was named in honor of the former film
critic for the Cleveland Plains Dealer newspaper -- she died in 1988.


Harish Saluja's "The Journey" won the award for "Best American
Independent Film." Within the past year, the movie has also taken top
prizes at the Florida Film Festival and the Seattle Asian American Film
Festival.


In addition to being one of eleven films screened in the American
Independents section of the festival, Saluja's "The Journey" was
showcased as part of a second year project, dubbed Cultural Journeys.
The program was established to present festival films to the culturally
diverse groups and communities of the greater Cleveland area. The other
two films showcased were Clement Virgo's "The Planet of Junior Brown"
and Adolfo Aristarain's "Martin (Hache)." The Cultural Journeys program
culminated in a celebration held in downtown Cleveland on Saturday
night.


On the scene for the festival, indieWIRE attended the cultural
celebration, which in addition to ethnic foods and an array of
performances, included a discussion with award-winning filmmaker
Saluja. Discussing his film, Saluja joked, "I have been wanting to make
movies since I had hair," adding that he was especially influenced by
Satyajit Ray. Saluja told the large crowd of attendees,
many of whom who had just that his film was meant to address "the
conflict of interracial living." When asked about the humor that infuses
the movie, the filmmaker explained, "the trick of course in life is to
first make people like you -- first tell jokes. It is not beating
people over the head -- we need to take a stand, but we need to do it in
an interesting way." Finally, commenting on the future life for the
film, Saluja expressed frustration that his award winning movie has not
found a distributor, but promised, "One way or the other the film is
going to get out there -- whether I get a distributor or I do it
myself."


In a conversation with indieWIRE, Cleveland Film Society Executive
Director David Wittkowsky, a fifteen year veteran of the fest, expressed
excitement over the increased attendance this year, "I was amazed that
the increase was as high as 16% this year." Wittkowski explained that
in recent years the fest had experienced increases in the 4 - 10%
range. 1998 marked the first year that organizers were able to fully
program and promote screenings on four screens at Cleveland's Tower City
Center. Screenings ran all day, including weekdays, for the duration of
the fest. As a point of reference for the audience growth, Wittkowski
explained that the festival sold only 14,000 tickets as recently as
1991.


Since the founding of the festival in 1977, the Cleveland Film Festival
has cultivated a strong audience for independent and art films in the
region. Wittkowski explained that there are now nearly a dozen screens
in the area that showcase specialty films. While in the early days, the
festival showed indies and art films following their theatrical release
in New York of Los Angeles, local theaters now fill that role. Forced
to pursue a new avenue for festival films, the event thrived by securing
favorites from other festivals and new work.


"One of the articstic elements that I've always highly valued is the
trust that we've developed among our patrons," explained Wittkowski. He
addded, "We have had to become more aggresive and more imaginative with
our programming and through it all, the film audience in Clevelend has
become more sophisticated and far more ambitous."


For next year, Wittkowski told indieWIRE that based on the overwhelming
weekend attendance alone, he hoped to expand capacity. On the
programming side, Wittkowski touted the success of this year's "Midwest
Filmmakers Conference," a program of seminars held during the last
weekend of the festival.


Among other award winners, filmmaker David Birdsell won two short film
awards: the Process Award for Visual Excellence for his FxM short, "Phil
Touches Flo
" and the Best Student Short prize for "Blue City." The prize
for Best Women's Short Film went to Jane Wagner and Tina
DeFeliciantonio's "Two Or Three Things But Nothing For Sure," while the
documentary short film award was presented to Michael Dwess' "Where Did
Forever Go
." Christo Brock's "In the Hole" took the Georgia Mae
Campbell Award and Douglas Whitney's "Cosmic Strings" won the Best Ohio
Short Award.


[Part 2 of Eugene Hernandez' report from the Cleveland Film Festival
concludes tomorrow with a report from the first Midwest Filmmakers
Conference.]

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