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Welcome Home: Cleveland International Film Festival shines a spotlight on local stories

Robert Putka at the Capitol Theater where Mad will premire for CIFF40

Mad, directed by Robert Putka

Mad, directed by Robert Putka

Robert Putka at the Capitol Theater where Mad will premire for CIFF40

Robert Putka at the Capitol Theater where Mad will premire for CIFF40

Mad cast at the premiere: L to R: Jennifer Lafleur, Maryann Plunkett, Eilis Cahill & director Robert Putka

Robert Putka at the Capitol Theater where Mad will premire for CIFF40

CIFF39

Matthew Hashiguchi on the set of  Good Luck Soup

Good Luck Soup

Matthew Hashiguchi on the set of  Good Luck Soup

Good Luck Soup

Matthew Hashiguchi on the set of  Good Luck Soup

Good Luck Soup

CIFF39

From the neighborhoods we’ve lived in to the twisted roots of family trees, few things impact the shape of our lives as profoundly as the places we come from.
 
With a nod to that assertion, the Cleveland International Film Festival returns to Tower City from March 30 to April 10 with the theme “Welcome Home.”

In its 40th year, the festival has brought films that share visions of artists from around the globe to Cleveland. Some are documentaries unearthing the inner workings of towns where we may never step foot and others are avant-garde works that transport us to an otherworldly realm. Many show us new sides of our own city. Subject matter notwithstanding, in each film the audience is carried away by a flickering screen.
 
In keeping with this year’s theme, the festival continues to champion local filmmakers and regional stories. Their Local Heroes competition and three shorts programs shine a light on dozens of films with Ohio roots, and for this week's Fresh Water, contributor Nikki Delamotte takes a closer look at two of the feature-length offerings.
 
Mad
Robert Putka, director
Wednesday, April 6, 5 p.m.
Thursday, April 7, 9:10 p.m.
Neighborhood screening at Capitol Theatre Saturday, April 9, 12:30 p.m.
 
“Complicated” is the word Robert Putka uses to describe his relationship with his mother. In 2012, the 22-year-old Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School graduate began writing the screenplay about their emotional roller coaster that would become Mad. Three years later, the film premiered at the 2015 Slamdance.
 
Mad follows two sisters as they deal with the complexities of their ties to their mother, who’s in the midst of a nervous breakdown. The two daughters, Putka says, represent the duality of his own personality. He considers it a form of therapy.
 
“One daughter is an incredibly caustic, nasty woman who can’t stand her mother because she feels wounded,” says Putka. “The other daughter is a little nicer, a little more wide-eyed and empathetic.”
 
This doesn’t sound like the time for jokes, but Putka, who cites Judd Apatow as one of his key influences, mines the dark elements of home life with a sharp comedic edge.
 
“I love writing one-liners and I love comedy,” he says. “I look at things many people would see as brutal or dark and I see this inherit absurdity and I want to exploit that. To me, humor and drama go hand in hand.”

A scene from Mad, directed by Robert Putka
 
That appreciation for duality is part of why developing complex characters the audience simultaneously applaud and abhor is Putka’s forte.
 
“I think every human being is justified in feeling a certain way,” says Putka. “There’s always a reason behind the awfulness, or people who are hard to swallow. A lot of times it’s simply because they were hurt. I think there’s always some foundation or backstory. You have to have both sides and I always try to present that.”
 
Mad was shot over 18 days in Avon, Brunswick, Westlake, and Conneaut. But in discussions with industry workers, Putka’s beginning to see a swelling interest in Midwest regions such as Northeast Ohio.

“People are getting tired of seeing only New York and Los Angeles," says Putka. "There’s a whole different set of stories to be told.”
 
Next, he’ll be searching for funding for a feature currently titled Bedfellows and developing a darkly comedic television series, Kate or ‘Kait!
 
“I know I’m going to continue to make films and I hope to do it locally,” he says. “I hope that engenders faith in me and people follow that lead and start making films on their own.”
 
Good Luck Soup
Matthew Hashiguchi, director
Thursday, March 31, 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 2, 5 p.m.
 
Between 1942 and 1946, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps. After their release, many families, like that of Good Luck Soup director Matthew Hashiguchi, were left devastated and without homes. They scattered across the country and often landed in regions void of any links to their culture. Though the horrors of camps are well documented, the legacy of what became of post-war families remains largely untold.
 
Hashiguchi created Good Luck Soup, a documentary and multimedia interactive web platform, to tell the stories of Japanese Americans and Canadians before, during, and after World War II.
 
It’s not Hashiguchi’s first foray into documentaries. People Aren’t All Bad, his 2014 work examining the peculiar, compassionate relationship between an internment camp detainee and a gun tower guard, screened at Cannes Film Festival and was a Smithsonian Magazine In Motion video contest finalist. He also captured the resiliency of neighborhoods rebuilding their community after Hurricane Katrina in 2013’s The Lower 9: A Story of Home.
 
Though Good Luck Soup is a national project, he started with his own bloodline in Cleveland. As a young Gesu Elementary School student in an Irish Catholic neighborhood, the name-calling Hashiguchi heard on a daily basis growing up never left him. He also carries his grandmother's stories of the internment camps.
 
 “I think the Midwestern experience for Japanese Americans – and really any Asian Americans – can be a bit awkward because you’re kind of out of place,” says Hashiguchi. “I’ve lived on the east coast and there are more Asians there. They have a community there; I saw more acceptance and understanding. I think the Midwest has somewhat struggled in accepting other cultures.”
 
In 2012, Hashiguchi began filming his grandmother. Scenes capture her current involvement with the Japanese American community in Cleveland, including a particularly moving speech she presented at the Mayfield Women's Club about her time in the camp.
 
“When Japanese-Americans came to Ohio, specifically Cleveland, there wasn’t really a place for them to fit into,” says Hashiguchi. “This was right after World War II, so they were perceived as the enemy. I think that mindset, that they’re different, has been passed down. So I think the more recent generations of Japanese Americans and Asian Americans are still feeling that mindset that they’re not American and out of place.”
 
He and a team of digital collaborators launched an interactive branch of his project that will be a part of the festival’s “Perspectives” program. For it, he’s both sought out and welcomed submissions from Japanese Americans who want to tell their story.
 
“I wanted to create a space that preserves the memory and the experience and the identity, and to really give younger people like myself something to connect with if they don’t have that,” says Hashiguchi. “I’m hoping with the website, other Japanese Americans can look at this and say, 'I have these experiences too.' Many of these people may not have a community, just like I didn’t.”

That disconnect had profound implications.
 
“For a long time I didn’t want to be Japanese,” says Hashiguchi. “This is a way of embracing my roots and saying, we all went through these things, we were all called these names and experienced these things, but it’s not going to make me turn my back on my heritage.”
 
Fresh Water Cleveland is a media partner for Mad. Use the discount code "Fresh" when purchasing tickets to Mad or any CIFF event and get a $2 price reduction.

Read more articles by Nikki Delamotte.

Nikki Delamotte is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Diffuser.FM, The Grammys, Cleveland Magazine, Cleveland Scene and others.
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