film fest 2013: see cleveland through a new lens

The Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF) has come a long way since 1977, when Jon Forman helped organize the inaugural festival at the Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights. Since that time the festival has blossomed from an eight-film affair to a premiere local, regional and national event.

During its first 10 years, the fest expanded to additional screening locations, established partnerships with The George Gund Foundation and The Cleveland Foundation, and created a board of trustees.

“In 1986, the Cleveland International Film Festival moved its opening night from the Cedar Lee Theatre to the Ohio Theatre in PlayhouseSquare, adding to the excitement and appeal of the event,” explains Patrick Shepherd, Associate Director of CIFF.

Five years after the opening-night move, CIFF made Cleveland-proper its permanent home by relocating to Tower City Cinemas. The move was about making the event more accessible to film lovers across the region, though Shepherd admits attendance fell slightly during the festival’s first year downtown. Needless to say, it wasn’t the start of a concerning trend.

“Since making the move, the festival’s attendance has grown by over 600 percent,” Shepherd notes. Last year’s festival welcomed 85,018 to the silver screens of Tower City.

Today, the Cleveland International Film Festival is one of the most notable Academy Award-qualifying film festivals in the United States. This year's festival -- the 37th annual! -- will feature 345 films representing 65 countries screening in 10 theaters over 12 days (April 3 through 14).

Fresh Water profiles four films in this year’s festival with a special Cleveland connection.

The Sugar Wars: The Story of Angelo Lonardo

Angelo Lonardo has the dubious distinction of being called Cleveland’s first mafia godfather. More importantly, he later provided the FBI with a roadmap of how the mafia was structured. “[Lonardo] was the highest-ranking mafia underboss to ever turn federal witness,” says producer T.J. Amato, a third generation Clevelander living in Los Angeles.

Spoiler alert! Things got a little messy in the criminal underworld. “No one in the mafia was safe from being taken out,” says Amato, who filmed in Cleveland a reenactment of a particularly grisly shooting.

“One of the last shots we were doing for the night required our actor and friend Vito Vitale to crawl out of the bar where he had just been shot and fall into the snow where he would be laying in his own blood,” recalls Amato, adding that he borrowed Alfred Hitchcock's early-years recipe for fake blood -- chocolate sauce. “This worked because we were going to be converting the footage to black and white.”

Unfortunately for Mr. Vitale, who found himself covered in sticky chocolate goo, temperatures in Cleveland were below zero and the crew struggled with some technical difficulties. “Poor Vito being the man he is suffered through the cold to do about seven takes.”

Sunday, April 7, 9:30 p.m.
Monday, April 8, 7:20 p.m.
Tuesday, April 9, 11:40 a.m.

A Fighting Heart

Cleveland’s historical and present-day link to Ireland is the theme of this documentary from screenwriter Des Kilbane about Johnny Kilbane, a Cleveland poet, politician, star of vaudeville and the longest reigning World Featherweight Champion of all time. “It is a rags-to-riches story,” says Kilbane, a distant relative of the boxer.

Kilbane’s connection to "Cleveland’s greatest fighter" goes back to his childhood on Achill Island, Ireland – the ancestral home of Johnny Kilbane. “I remember my father talking about Johnny Kilbane visiting Achill Island […] in the early 1920s when Johnny was still the World Champion,” Kilbane recalls. “There was such a sense of excitement on the island that all the boys wanted to be boxers.”

He says the idea for the documentary was borne from that youthful enthusiasm, but didn’t come to fruition until meeting Kevin O’Toole, Johnny’s great-grandson and owner of O’Toole’s website is a memorial to all things Johnny Kilbane, including a detailed biography, memorabilia and genealogy. The find was a goldmine of information, perfect for the aspiring documentarian. “It’s been fantastic to work with Kevin on keeping Johnny’s memory alive for future generations.”

Sunday, April 7, 9:30 p.m.
Monday, April 8, 7:20 p.m.
Tuesday, April 9, 11:40 a.m.

Do You Know What My Name Is?

Clevelanders are getting used to reading about exciting medical discoveries coming out of juggernauts like University Hospital and the Cleveland Clinic. But Naomi Kazama’s production highlights work done at Eliza Jennings, a senior care network in Lakewood -- namely, John Rodeman’s clinical trials in a new Alzheimer treatment. Kazama illustrates the treatment’s success with patient Evelyn Winseberg, a 94-year-old woman diagnosed more than two years ago, and a subject of the film.

“At first she could not write her own name and had difficulty communicating,” Kazama describes. “But four months into the treatment, she rediscovered her interest in knitting, and she could even relearn how to do her own makeup.” Even better for Kazama, Winseberg became more responsive to being on camera, enthusiastically asking Kazama at the end of filming, “When are we going to Hollywood?”

While a film covering a devastating disease like Alzheimers might not appeal to aspiring documentarians, Kazama encourages filmmakers to embrace the challenge and dive right in.

“Don’t be afraid to become emotionally invested in the subject of your film,” she advises. “It not only makes the overall experience more impactful to you as a person; as a filmmaker, it helps you to intimately understand the emotional beasts that are important when editing and presenting your subject’s personal story.”

Thursday, April 11, 7:35 p.m.
Friday, April 12, 11:40 a.m.
Saturday, April 13, 9:30 a.m.

Red, White and Blueprints: A Rust Belt Documentary

Fresh Water readers have learned plenty about Jack Storey, North Shore Collinwood activist, documentarian and self-described “Rust Belt Revivalist” of Saving Cities. Nearly a year ago, writer Lee Chilcote profiled the 30-year-old, fourth-generation Clevelander with no filmmaking experience and his ambitious Kickstarter project to raise funds for a documentary. That dream is now reality with the debut of Red, White and Blueprints, set for Tuesday, April 9.

The film traverses the Rust Belt -- namely Buffalo, St. Louis, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland -- to “inform and inspire a new generation of leaders to take the vital actions necessary to revitalize our great region,” explains Storey, who says he was surprised by everyone’s willingness to “let us into their lives.”

“I remember thinking that we really stumbled onto something great when we were sitting around with a group of folks in St. Louis, just sipping on some red wine on the rooftop of a series of caverns that had been turned into seriously cool living space,” says Storey. Of course that magical moment almost didn't happen when the hood of their borrowed Jeep inexplicably slammed against the windshield en route to St. Louis. Co-producer Rick Stockburger swerved to the side of the road, the filmmakers stunned. “Like true Rust Beltians, we stared at it silently for a bit, gave each other a quick look, and just slammed it down,” Storey recounts. “It closed, and we never, ever touched it again.”

Thankfully for Storey and his crew, the remainder of filming was far less terrifying, and they’re now just days away from achieving their original goal of debuting at their hometown film festival. “CIFF is like our personal Sundance,” he says. “We’re still geeking out about the fact that we get to play a small role in the festival this year!”

Tuesday, April 9, 7:10 p.m.
Wednesday, April 10, 4:05 p.m.
Thursday, Apri1 11, 6:30 p.m.

For information on everything from individual films, buying tickets, transportation and parking, visit the Cleveland International Film Festival website.

Joe Baur
Joe Baur

About the Author: Joe Baur

Joe Baur is an author, writer and filmmaker who has worked for a variety of local and national publications including Matador Network, Yahoo! Travel, National Geographic and BBC Travel. In addition to freelance writing, he is the author of Best Hikes Near Cleveland and director of numerous travelogues from across the globe. You'll currently find him working in Ciudad Colón, Costa Rica, because spending the first year of marriage where others vacation seemed like a good idea.