Fine Arts and Fest

Cleveland International Film Festival

When Cleveland Hosts the World

Hallie Witwer
For ten days the world came to Cleveland and I was lucky enough to be there for it. March 22nd through April 1st brought the 36th Cleveland International Film Festival to Tower City Cinemas and let me tell you, it was fabulous. This year’s festival presented 160 feature films and 160 shorts that came from 60 (yes 60!) different countries. Let it never be said again that no one cares to come to Cleveland! This year the theme was “Carried Away” and I certainly know I was. I saw far more films than I am able to mention in this article, but I’ll try to touch on the ones that got to me the most.
Cleveland International Film Festival Shows and Showtimes (Witwer/2012)
My first day there I knew that it was going to be a memorable week and a half as I was serenaded on my way up the escalators by a charming man in his 60’s singing to me about wedding bells. While just a wandering Clevelander, he both looked and sounded like an older Amos Lee and I knew I was in for a good time.

One thing I found that I really love about the festival was the wide array of people it attracted. In just the first film I took in (a gut-wrenching Icelandic piece that brought me to tears numerous times) there were a few young professionals to one side of me, sneaking away from the office for a little afternoon culture. On my other side sat a man in his 70s with a waist-long, grey beard and tie-dyed shirt. However, my favorite theater neighbors were the two men sitting in front of me that closely resembled the grumpy theater comedy pair from the Muppets. So let’s just say it didn’t take me long to realize that this film festival was a melting pot of the greatest kind.

One thing the CIFF does that most other film festivals out there do not do is offer patrons the opportunity to vote on their favorite entries. As audience members enter each film, they are handed a corresponding square piece of paper that you can turn back in at the end of the viewing. Each of the paper’s four corners reads either “Excellent”, “Good”, “Fair”, or “Poor” and by ripping off one of the corners and handing in the remaining ballot you are able to voice your opinion on the film! Each ballot casts a vote that goes towards four different prizes that total $20,000. It’s pretty awesome to be able to have an active part in what happens to these films as opposed to just being an on-looker.

I think the most intriguing film I saw has to be “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty”, written, directed, and starred in by Terence Nance. Nance was at the screening and spoke both before and after the film. I knew it was going to be interesting when minutes before the film started he placed himself behind the podium and, with foot-high afro and overall persona closely resembling that of the lead singer from LMFAO, said little more than, “Yeah…I dunno. It’s a weird film.” He then took his seat and the lights went down. The film was a true story chronicling a platonic relationship he has with a girl who he ultimately falls in love with. She’s in a committed relationship, though; and puts him in the “friend category” and nothing comes of it. I know, I know. It doesn’t sound all that interesting. But the way the film was done was a work of art. Part real footage, part illustrated, it told the story of human emotion in its most raw form and, in the end, was really beautiful. It was extremely contemporary, though; and it took a modernist to appreciate it, I think. Though everyone knew there was a question and answer portion after the film, the older gentleman next to me stood up abruptly when it ended, turned to another viewer and said, “If anyone can tell me why that self-indulgent two hours was supposed to be considered a work of art I’d love to hear it!” and stormed out. I could see how the message of the movie could be missed if one didn’t open their mind up a bit, so I didn’t exactly blame him.

All in all, though; most of the other patrons seemed to have the same positive reaction to the film I did. A man sitting a few rows up did actually ask Nance why he thought the guy that stormed out did, since everyone else had such a different reaction to the piece. Nance responded that the man wasn’t entirely wrong because the movie really is self-indulgent. He followed by explaining that he believes any artist’s first try at something inevitably is going to be self-indulgent because it’s easiest to create something out of what’s closest to your heart. He said that the first time around you do what you know, which is most often yourself, and that runs the risk of coming off as self-indulgent. He also said that any kind of art will always alienate someone or some group, and that’s just how it goes. I loved that answer because, as a writer, I know that to be so, so true. Autobiographical stories are the easiest thing to put down on paper so it didn’t surprise me to hear him say that carries over into film. If you love poetry and artwork this movie was overflowing with both. Visit to discover more about this great film.

12 films had forums afterwards where a panel of experts on many different topics answered questions from the audience. I had the pleasure of attending one after the eye-opening film “Under African Skies”. The film explores the making of Paul Simon’s 1986 album “Graceland” and all the political turmoil that went along with it. Long story short, Simon traveled to South Africa to make the album with native musicians and, while the outcome was extraordinary music, at the time there was a cultural boycott and by making the trip he angered a lot of people. Racial tensions were dangerously high and it was a risky decision to travel there for any reason. Apartheid was rampant and Simon, a white man working with black musicians, was not at all acceptable. The music that was produced certainly made the trip, risk, and controversy worthwhile though because, man oh man, did that album rock.

After the film the forum members, Jamey Haddad who has actually collaborated with Paul Simon, Lauren Onkey who is the vice president of education and public programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Micheal Gill who is a writer for our city’s beloved Scene Magazine, held a 30-minute discussion about topics from the film. The question came up of whether or not Simon had multiple motivations in making the trip to South Africa. Haddad was able to say with certainty there was one motivation and one only and that was the music. After having watched the film myself, I would have to whole-heartedly agree with the man, too. Paul Simon had a passion for music and if he heard something he liked and could groove to then he wanted to immerse himself in it until it was all he lived. He had no choice but to go because of this. Haddad added a fun little fact that Simon’s bodyguards are often telling him he can’t do this or that due to danger because Simon doesn’t consider danger. He just wants to jam and will do whatever it takes to make it happen. Of all the films I saw, this one really has everything that is all about. So if you love this website, and who doesn’t, check out this film one way or another.
Michael Gill, Lauren Onkey, James Hadda, and Massoud Saidfour on “Under African Skies” (Witwer/2012)
The energy in the air on closing night was palpable. After taking in the amazing film “Finding North”, a documentary that brought to light just how wide-spread hunger is with a delicious glass of champagne for the awards ceremony. One by one the staff and volunteers running the festival gathered on the grand staircase and the joy was visible on their faces, even from afar. I thought back over my experience at the festival and found myself truly sad that it was about to come to an end. Seeing a movie at a film festival is so unlike taking in a regular movie at any old theater on any Friday night. There’s cheering before and after the movie, swaying and singing along to the CIFF trailer played before every film, and just an over all camaraderie that everyone has simply because everyone knows everyone else is there for the deep love of the art. My reverie was brought to a pause as the awards ceremony began with a live acoustic rendition of the theme song played in the very CIFF trailer I had just been remembering. The audience cheered as if they were at a rock concert and at one point the singer even turned the mic towards the audience to hear them screaming the words. It could have easily been mistaken for the Black Keys concert that took place in the neighboring Q not long ago.

The Crowds at the Closing Ceremonies (Witwer/2012)
After the song ended a few statistics were read off about this year’s turnouts that were really exciting to hear. The 2012 festival broke multiple attendance records. There was a 9% increase from last year and an overall attendance of 85,000 people. That’s quite impressive. Since 2003, there has been a 143% increase, which certainly says something about where this festival could be going in the years to come.

George Gund III received the Legacy Award and from the speeches given about the man, it was certainly well deserved. He is the only CIFF founder who still sits on the board. He’s been with the festival from the start and doesn’t seem to be stopping any time soon. He’s obviously a great supporter of film, but his specialty lies in Eastern European Cinema. As soon as I heard this I understood why he had such a strong tie to this particular festival (he’s worked with others, as well). Cleveland’s strong ethnic background made this man and this festival meant to be. Gund’s list of organizations he is involved in is so vast that it’s rather awe-inspiring. They seemed to span all over the globe. He certainly takes pride in the city of Cleveland, though; as his involvement with the city doesn’t end with the CIFF. He also sits in the Board of Trustees for the Cleveland Museum of Art, among many other local organizations. When he gave his acceptance speech he told the story of how he first came to fall in love with all forms of art. He told the packed crowd about how in the 1940s he took a few art classes, only to find he had little skill. That’s when he became an appreciator. And after the art classes the facility would show films that he would sit in on, which is where his love of that particular art form was born. He ended his speech with a phrase that really got the crowd going, and I don’t think it could have been said better- “Festivals let you see films you might never be able to see again. So get carried away. Get carried away!” (“Carried Away” being the theme of this year). It was a great end to a great speech from a truly great man.
George Gund III Approaching the Podium (Witwer/2012)
Over the rest of the evening many awards were given out and I’ll list a few. The Roxanne T. Mueller Audience Choice Award for Best Film Award (named after the film critic for the Plain Dealer back in the 80s) went to “Under African Skies”. The American Independent Award was given to “Missed Connections”. “Bill W.” was the recipient of the Local Heroes Award, and “Finding North” took home the Greg Gund Memorial Standing Up Film Competition Award. All of the above mentioned winners also received a cash prize of $5,000. Not too shabby.

To me, a person who grew up loving the city of Cleveland, the best part of the ending ceremony was the absolutely spectacular things everyone who got up to the microphone had to say about the city. One speaker mentioned that of all the places he’s traveled (and there were many) NONE compared to Cleveland, Ohio, when it came to a passion for culture and the arts. Award recipients were in tears because of how memorable and amazing and “dream-like” (yes, that’s a direct quote) their visit to Cleveland had been. That’s right everyone- super hip people NOT FROM HERE said Cleveland is “dream-like”. Read it and weep haters, because these past ten days the city of Cleveland proved itself an amazing city with incredible things to offer. Perhaps this is one of the most magical things about the Cleveland International Film Festival. It’s more than just amazing films; it’s about exposing the heart of a city that refuses to stop dreaming.