Film’s big fall: A look at upcoming CLE film festivals and their thought-provoking content

The fall film festival season is right around the corner. For local filmmakers and presenters, the upcoming fall schedule is a chance to harness the magic of gathering audiences for viewing, the time for the directors who toil away at their craft to show off, and an opportunity for those who appreciate the art of visual storytelling to come together.

Audiences will be back for in-person screenings after successive waves of the pandemic tore at the binds of everything that came before.

Presenters of two not-to-be-missed fall film festivals and one of Cleveland’s stalwart presenters of art house, classic, and independent films spoke about their upcoming lineups, the events that put audiences and filmmakers—and in some cases, budding filmmakers—in the same room, and how they make the magic happen for so many film buffs.

We take look at three popular film festivals and venues that theatergoers in Northeast Ohio adore year after year: The Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival, the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival, and the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) Cinematheque.

The films shown at these festivals tell stories that help us understand one another,” says Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) executive director Jill Paulsen. “The films shown by these three organizations broaden our perspectives and allow us to celebrate cultures. We are fortunate to have these experiences in our backyardsand in some cases streaming in our homesand CAC is proud to be a long-time funder of these organizations.

All three presenters use terms like “lifesavers” and “providing much needed breathing room” to describe the financial support they receive from CAC.  

Films by the Falls at Riverside Park, next to Chagrin's famous fallsA festival over the Falls
Mary Ann Ponce, executive director of the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival (CDFF), says the origins of the festival that is now in its 13th year (and has received $221,007 in CAC Project Support grants since 2012) was the result of an “unwanted journey” following the loss of her son, David Ponce.

David Ponce was a young documentary filmmaker who 16 years ago succumbed to leukemia. Out of Mary Ann Ponce’s personal anguish was born a film festival that became a labor of love.

This year CDFF will screen 91 documentaries from 32 countries with nine categories and a decidedly local angle. The festival will return to in-person screenings from Oct. 5 through Oct. 9 with venues throughout Chagrin Falls, including CDFF Live on Main at Chagrin Falls Township Hall, and screenings at Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, Chagrin Falls Intermediate School theater, the United Methodist Church of Chagrin Falls, and South Franklin Circle, and “Films by the Falls” in Riverside Park. CDFF On Demand runs Oct. 9 through Oct. 16

Local businesses and Ohio foods will be featured at a red carpet gala and screening of Cleveland-based Transition Studios’ film "The Killing of Sister Dorothy, In Her Own Words," directed by emerging Ohio filmmakers Jack, Andrew, and Matthew Arehart on Oct. 6.

There are nine focus areas for the festival: Emerging filmmakers, Human Spirit Documentaries, International Documentaries, U.S. Documentaries, Ohio Focus, Spotlight Documentaries, Local Documentaries, Student Documentaries, and Short Documentaries.

“Our Taste of Ohio [event] is the beginning, with a lot of local restaurants bringing Ohio-themed food and with Ohio filmmakers from prior years participating,” says Ponce of the Ohio Focus. “Pretty much every day during the festival will be a celebration of documentarians.”

Film still from "44 Lights" playing at the Chagrin Documentary Film FestivalPonce mentions the planned Q&As and CDFF Live on Main’s panel discussions with happy hours as two such events, which will also be broadcast on the CDFF web site and on YouTube.

In addition to expecting half of the CDFF film directors coming from as far away as Malta and Sweden to lead question-and-answer sessions with audiences, Ponce is looking forward to an Oct. 5 event called "Illuminate," which gets young filmmakers and the directors together to screen films and talk about their craft.

Above all, Ponce anticipates this year will mark a return of the energy that she and other presenters covet with in-person audiences (along with the virtual screening option). 

“There’s no substitute for seeing [a film] in person with an audience and then sharing it,” she says. “My favorite thing is to be in the lobby after or with people on the street and hear them talking about the film.

“It’s very rewarding and for our audiences to come up to me and say, ‘I keep thinking about that film from [a previous year],’ Ponce continues. "These films stay with people for a long time and that’s what the filmmakers are going for.”

For the classics, old and new
John Ewing has been presenting a lineup of exciting and thought-provoking films from all over the world and from unexamined corners of America at one of the city’s longest standing film venues: the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) Cinematheque.

As Cinematheque director, for decades Ewing has been practically synonymous with the quirky offering of foreign, independent, classic, and hard-to-categorize films screened at the Cinematheque—which in 2015 moved into a state-of-the-art theater in CIA's George Gund Building.

Even with its addition of high-tech digital projectors, the Cinematheque is one of three venues in Cleveland—along with Playhouse Square and CWRU’s Strosacker Auditorium—that still show movies on 35mm and 16mm film, an important distinction that widens the selection and pleases film buffs.

“We want to keep analogue film projection alive,” says Ewing. “What I’m trying to do is preserve the big screen experience.”

CIA has operated with help from about $10.5 million in CAC General Operating Support grants since 2008.

Ewing has seen his share of converts to classic films during his tenure at Cinematheque. For example, by serving a steady diet of interesting fare that encompasses everything from classics to foreign language films that Ewing says he would like to keep circulating in the minds of film goers, especially with so much content available.

He points to examples like a two-month, 13-film retrospective on W.C. Fields that runs through Aug. 28; a tribute to recently deceased actor James Caan (with a series including 1981’s “Thief” on Oct. 14); and by marking the 100th birthday of director Arthur Penn—not with his 1967 hit movie “Bonnie and Clyde” but with a screening of “The Chase” (on Oct. 9), starring Marlon Brando, Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, and Robert Duvall, which Ewing describes as “a portrait of America coming apart at the seams.” 

What goes in to curating a month on the Cinematheque’s broadside calendar that fans pore over in search of hidden gems? Ewing says he starts with a theme, like, “Going south: A festival of demoted screen masterpieces” that will feature films like Michaengelo Antonioni’s “L’Avventura” (Sept. 11) and “The Bicycle Thief” (Oct. 6 and 9) that have fallen from the Top Ten of the “Sight & Sound” Top 100 films of All Time list.

“I try to keep expanding the ranks of films that are worthy of being remembered,” Ewing remarks. “At the same time, we do show fun mainstream films—we’ve got ‘Singing in The Rain’ coming up (October 21 and 22nd) and other crowd-pleasing movies.”

The Cinemamatheque Ewing then peppers in classic and new but underappreciated American independent and foreign language releases like 2022’s “Memoria,” starring Tilda Swinton, with a Cleveland exclusive screening on Saturday, Sept. 10.

While this only scratches the surface of Ewing’s process and the offering at the Cinematheque this fall, he says he hopes that keeping selections fresh and exciting will build back that audiences that slipped by nearly 50% during COVID.

“We’re trying to claw our way back to pre-COVID and get a read on audiences,” he admits. “There was a certain cache to be associated with the Cinematheque and to know if you were going on a date there’s this place that shows weird and interesting movies that they don’t show anywhere else.”

Back to the Afrofuturism
Donna Dabbs was working in the corporate world when a friend invited her to attend the opening night of the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF) 12 years ago. Dabbs and her friend, the current Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival (GCUFF) board chair Alton Tinker, already had their hands in organizing Society of Urban Professionals (S.O.U.P.), that had grown to 6,000 emails.

Witnessing 2,000 people in Cleveland come out to support filmmaking at CIFF was eye opening for Dabbs. The experience led the self-professed arts lover to establish the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival (GCUFF).  

“I had no idea what a film festival took to run when I decided to get this done, but I wanted to see the African-American community thrive and not get left behind,” recalls Dabbs.

Now in its 11th year at Atlas Cinemas Shaker Square—and with a host of exciting events surrounding the theme “Afrofuturism: Black to the Future” on tap—Dabbs has expanded from screening in one theater to showings over multiple days and screens with a lineup of dozens of international, national, and local films that capture the Black experience in features, documentaries, and shorts.

“A film festival is great because there is a variety of stories that you can share,” Dabbs says. “This is a way to stretch out and get more of life in the African diaspora. The way we challenge the dynamics of our world—like racism—is for all of us who have a different viewpoint to tell our stories.”

Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival will include a three-day workshop on technology like virtual reality and immersive storytelling at the main branch of the Cleveland Public Library.Support from CAC has provided $93,267 in Project Support grants since 2015 and $30,000 this year with CAC’s new Cultural Heritage grant, as well as supports from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Dabbs says she anticipates a wide range of programming around the festival this year, starting with a director Q&A with Cleveland native Angela Harvey, who directed “Black Rainbow Love” (screens on Sept. 17). Another event features musician Damon Taylor performing along with the film “Black Daddy” (multiple screening starting Sept. 16).

Documentary screenings include “The Black Walnut” about Black men fighting prostate cancer (Sept. 18), sponsored by MetroHealth, and a free screening of “Beyond Ed Buck,” which follows the tragic murders that took place at the hands of Democratic political donor Edward Buck and is sponsored by the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland.

The theme of Afrofuturism is going to be explored in films like “Afro Algorithms,” a short about an advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) character who runs a future society only to realize her blind spots around the experiences of marginalized people.

Dabbs visited the University of Arizona and collaborated with AI researcher Brian Carter to plan the films and events that bring Afrofuturism to life.

“It’s intended to present a future that is more positive,” she says. “We thought, how about if we move away from the struggle and present a more interesting future.”

The results of the collaboration with Carter include a three-day workshop on technology like virtual reality and immersive storytelling at the main branch of the Cleveland Public Library.

“We going to have an extended reality exhibition in partnership with Microsoft,” Dabbs says. “Part of it is looking at where our community is behind and needs the resources. It connects my love of arts and desire to contribute to helping our folk.”

The exhibition is being built in collaboration with the Cleveland State University Center for Public History + Digital Humanities and Chansu Yu, CSU professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

“Dr. Yu runs an engineering program with devoted space in work in robotics and will help extend our immersive story telling options with a VR workshop,” Dabbs says. “He is excited to collaborate and to connect to the community.” 

On closing night, GCUFF will celebrate the Afrofuturism theme with a gala at the Cleveland History Center with an awards ceremony. Guests are encouraged to come dressed in their best Afrofuturism costumes and check out the VR Lounge.

“It’s a space that is intended to educate, inspire and entertain,” Dabbs says. “There’s a lot of festivals in The Land, but this festival will be viable for emerging filmmakers.

Read more articles by Marc Lefkowitz.

Marc Lefkowitz is a sustainability consultant with more than 15 years of experience writing, speaking and advocating for a more sustainable Northeast Ohio. He served as Director of the GreenCityBlueLake Institute and editor of its well-known blog at gcbl.org. He has a B.A. in English from Ohio State University and an M.A. in urban planning from Cleveland State University. He is a regular bike commuter and transit rider. Photo: Liz Cooper.