festival insiders, fans and volunteers offer their take on cultural event of the year

The 2014 Cleveland International Film Festival kicks off March 19 with more than 340 films glittering on 10 screens in Tower City Cinemas, with additional neighborhood events stretching across Northeast Ohio from Oberlin to Akron.
To say the Festival -- now in its 38th year -- has staying power is an understatement. In order to get a street level view of the event, Fresh Water sat down with some true insiders to get the skinny on what makes the CIFF tick and how to make the most of it.
"An Artistic Mardi Gras"
When Charles Oberndorf began his long-term relationship with the CIFF, the local multiplex was offering up The Big Chill, A Christmas Story and some Risky Business. The year was 1983 and Oberndorf, a three-time novelist and 2010 CPAC Creative Workforce Fellow, had to wrangle some risky scheduling in order to attend one of his must-see CIFF films. 
"I skipped work one day and called in sick to see John Sayles bring Lianna," recalls Oberndorf.  "He was at the closing night. No one in Cleveland knew who [Sayles] was or why it was important to talk to him." Hence, Oberndorf enjoyed a one-on-one chat with the decorated indie director. "It was fun," he adds. And when Sayles came back a few years later with Eight Men Out? "The place was swamped."
Oberndorf has watched the Festival evolve over the years. In the early years, "people went to see important films that hadn’t made it to Cleveland yet. Then for a while it was a preview palace for what the Cedar Lee would show later that year. Then it became an independent entity." Now, notes Oberndorf, "it's like 10 days of movie worship," though the avid film buff says the faces he sees at CIFF are conspicuously absent at other venues such as Cleveland Cinematheque. "They don’t want to practice this religion year-round," he quips.
Navigating the Festival's nearly 200-page program guide can be daunting. For those looking for a short cut, Oberndorf's 2014 must-see list includes The Japanese Dog ("It got a great review in Variety), Club Sandwich ("The Cinematheque's John Ewing already told me it’s a wonderful film") and We Are the Best! ("It's supposed to be a return to form" for the film's director Lukas Moodysson).
Oberndorf also recommends leaps of faith. "Sometimes the best films are the ones that you pick at random and know nothing about," he notes, adding that La Demora was his favorite film from the 2013 Festival. "It was just a random film I walked into. It was wonderful."
One thing Clevelanders take for granted, notes Oberndorf, is the consolidated venue. In Seattle or Toronto, festivals play out across the city. Here in the 216, a real film lover can take in several films in one day -- all at Tower City.
"The attraction of [the Festival] is the opportunity to have all this in one place and have all these choices," says Oberndorf, adding that the convenience and sheer number of films is conducive to jumping in and taking some risk.
"It's kind of an artistic Mardi Gras where people will let down their blinders and try new things."
Back to Where It All Began
While most of the movie magic unfurls at Tower City, the Festival shares the love with a number of other Northeast Ohio venues that host more than two dozen CIFF events.
One neighborhood program harbors the lion's share of the event's history. The Festival got its start at the Cedar Lee Theater in 1977 with eight films that ran over the course of eight weeks. This year, the original home of the festival will screen two features on March 26, for an event dedicated to one of the Festival's founders, Rick Whitbeck (1946-2008).
This year will mark the ninth that the festival returns to the Cedar Lee, a detail that's not lost on Dave Huffman, director of marketing at Cleveland Cinemas, the umbrella organization that includes the Cedar Lee and Tower City Cinemas, among others.
"For the Cedar Lee," says Huffman, "it’s like coming back to where it all started. The Cedar Lee is what I think everyone in Cleveland identifies as the home for film festival-like programming; we're showing interesting foreign films and documentaries year round. The energy and excitement [of the CIFF] brings a few more people in on a weeknight than we would normally have.
"The president of Cleveland Cinemas, John Forman, started the Film Festival back in 1977, so it's always been a part of us in a way," adds Huffman. And while the CIFF and Cleveland Cinemas are separate entities, Mr. Foreman keeps tabs on what he hath wrought. "He's at the festival every day. He checks in every day."
The Cultural Event of the Year
In 2013, 730 volunteers logged more than 8,300 hours of service at the Festival, but only one was named Volunteer of the Year: Vladimir Swirynsky, whose love of the theater began at the now-defunct Cloverleaf Drive-In.
"The screen was so incredibly large," recalls Swirynsky, particularly to a little boy who had just emigrated from Ukraine.
So it began. And while the Cleveland poet and founder of New Kiev Publishing has enjoyed much creativity over the years, projecting onto the silver screen was a dream he never realized.
"Like most of us, I never got to act or direct," says Swirynsky. "The film festival is as close a thing to the movies that we can get."
In one sense, he did get to direct -- at least when it came to confused festival attendees. Swirynsky volunteered every day in 2013 doing an array of tasks such as helping festival-goers, handling ballots and contributing to the fanfare of the event.
"We're people people," he notes of the volunteer contingent. "We connect. It's just our perception and how we relate to the world with the cinema. We're kind. We get along. We're cognizant of what's happening."
Swirynsky decided to volunteer after attending the festival and getting drawn into the excitement. "There's an energy there. It's almost like one big party," he notes, adding that the CIFF, with more than 90,000 attendees, is the cultural event of the year.
But what draws all those thousands of people together?
"The one common denominator with movies is, when we go to a movie and the lights go off and the movie starts, we all turn into kids," says Swirynsky. "We want to be taken somewhere. It doesn't matter what age."
Swirynsky met droves of people both local and from across the area, including Toronto and Erie, Penn. Everyone had a specific must-see title. "They all go through that program guide like it's the Bible," he says. When they hone in on a title, "it doesn't matter if there's a blizzard or a snowstorm. They’re coming. They’re coming like salmon to their spawning area. They're going to get here by hook or crook to see that movie."
As for his 2014 selections Swirynsky's tapped Just About Famous and Song from the Forest. He plans on attending the latter with his 11-year-old granddaughter. "She is smarter than me."
The self-described "last volunteer standing" was dubbed Volunteer of the Year on the last day of the festival during a special appreciation breakfast in the English Oak Room. When the award was announced, Swirynsky could hardly believe it.
"I felt like I was elected to go on Apollo 11 to the moon," he says. But will he be volunteering for the 2014 event? You bet.
"Nothing comes close to the International Film Festival. It’s the event of the year, bar none."

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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