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Friday, April 2, 2010

Boom Time for the Cleveland Film Festival


Northern Exposure
Cleveland Film Festival has much to teach Cincinnati (and everyone)
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If you ever wonder what we’re missing by not having a strong regional film festival here, it’s worth taking a visit to Cleveland in March. There, a festival that does not garner national/ international publicity — in other words, it’s not a rival to Sundance or Toronto — nevertheless seems to captivate the city with its strong programming.


The 34th annual Cleveland International Film Festival occurred March 18-28, and I attended opening weekend. All told, some 140 features and 170 shorts from 60 countries were presented this year.


It’s a shot in the arm to the city culturally and economically, especially impressive given the recession’s impact in that Great Lakes metropolis. In fact, while I was there, early in the event, already some 50 films were on standby, evidence of what a hot ticket the fest has become. Organizers were predicting a strong turnout, maybe as strong as last year’s, which experienced a 27 percent increase in attendance to almost 66,500.


At this year’s festival’s conclusion on Sunday, The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported a new attendance record (71,000) and said it had doubled since 2003.


Just how much allure does the festival have? One indicator is that the official car, used to transport guests, is Mercedes Benz. And the official headquarters hotel is Ritz Carlton. Beyond that, the list of sponsors and partners occupies three pages in the 146-page program. And the wide age range of the attendees showed just how well the festival is reaching out to the community.


I know that, to everyone in Cincinnati who often has wondered why we can’t have a film festival (and who has suffered through some of the underfinanced, underperforming and under-programmed attempts), this kind of success might seem a pipe dream. Maybe that’s why nobody seems to discuss it as a possibility here anymore.


But it can happen — and a key ingredient is a strong nonprofit corporation with a board and officers, like Cleveland Film Society, in place to run it. Another is solid corporate, governmental and public support locally. The result is a film culture far deeper than ours.


The Cleveland festival is held at downtown’s Tower City Cinemas, an 11-screen multiplex run by a local chain, Cleveland Cinemas, at the Tower City Center indoor shopping mall. The center is part of a civic landmark, a mixed-use complex (including a train station) that features the 52-story Terminal Tower skyscraper. Tower City Center is run by Forest City Enterprises, a major Cleveland-based developer that’s also a Platinum Sponsor of the film festival and offers free parking for fest-goers.


While the center has struggled during the recession, it still has shops, a food court, some restaurants and two hotels, including the elegant Ritz, which ran a hospitality suite for pass-holders and visiting filmmakers. (The other hotel, a historic one much like the Netherland Plaza, is run by Renaissance.)


All in all, Tower City is a model of urban planning, culture and vitality — which gives it credibility and importance as a place to go to see films. It’s an agreeable place to spend at least several hours at a time, seeing several movies. The closest thing to the site in Cincinnati would be the AMC complex at Newport on the Levee, a short walk or shuttle-bus ride from downtown.
Surprisingly, the festival only moved to Tower City in 1991 from an art-house complex in Cleveland Heights. That was the beginning of the growth spurt.


Cleveland is a city where ethnicity is important, and the festival’s artistic director, Bill Guentzler, plays to that strength by soliciting “community sponsors” for appropriate foreignfilm screenings. The Hispanic Alliance, for instance, sponsored a Uruguayan movie called Bad Day to Go Fishing; the Cleveland chapter of the Czech and Slovak Society for Arts and Sciences sponsored a special screening of a 2000 Czech film, Divided We Fall, with director Jan Hrebejk present.


That film, an Oscar nominee about a Czech family hiding a Jew during the Nazi occupation, was widely released. But the fest also brought in an earlier, little-seen Hrebejk film, Cosy Dens, a wonderfully sardonic comedy about families tentatively searching for freedom during the Prague Spring of 1968.


Not all the movies I saw were great — some had substantial flaws — but all deserved to be seen by a film-aware audience. The well-acted but credibility-straining French film Queen to Play had Sandrine Bonnaire as a married Corsican chambermaid so fascinated by chess she was willing to court scandal to spend long hours at the home of an American doctor (Kevin Kline, speaking French) to learn it.


Saviors in the Night was a gripping story about a family in German farm country (Westphalia) that hides Jews during World War II, despite having a daughter in the Nazi Youth Group. The story is true. Turtle, a British documentary about the long, difficult 25-year oceanic migration of the loggerhead turtle, had beautiful cinematography but was confusing about how it was filmed and had one scene, involving a fisherman, that seemed staged.


And Out of Place was a fun locally made documentary — with good music and a nice street-culture feel — about people who like to surf Cleveland’s often cold and unglamorous lakefront.


While tickets were $10-$12, Cleveland Film Society estimates it spends $29 per seat per screening to produce the 11-day festival. To make up the difference it had an unusual fundraising campaign going on. Before each screening, a representative would tell the audience that Cuyahoga Arts Culture — a voterapproved agency that uses a cigarette tax to fund the arts — would match all donations up to a total of $34,000.


I realize people in Cincinnati and elsewhere like to make fun of Cleveland, probably dating back to the 1970s when the city seemed to be falling apart economically. But it isn’t falling apart when it comes to running a good film festival and finding strong community support for it.


By Steven Rosen

Cincinnati CityBeat

March 31, 2010

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