q & a: bill guentzler, film fest artistic director

Friday at 9:25 a.m., the screens at Tower City Cinemas will begin flickering with some 150 feature-length films and 130 shorts. So begins the 10-day movie marathon known as the Cleveland International Film Festival, which returns for its 35th year.

Finding flicks to fill the roster is the job of Bill Guentzler, who joined the organization in 1998 as an intern. As CIFF's Artistic Director, Guentzler views over 600 films per year in his quest to select the best.

Fresh Water contributor Erin O'Brien was lucky enough to grab a brief intermission with the very busy Guentzler for a peek behind the curtain of Cleveland's big event.

What sets CIFF apart from other film festivals around the country?

The CIFF concentrates on tying the event to the community and vice versa. Community partners are really important to us and this year we have 93 of them. We try to find films that have something to do with their mission. You bring people into the festival to share that mission via film and it perpetuates year after year.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

Having to say no to films -- the films I really like that I just can't place. I also don't like to pick favorites since they're all my little babies.

Getting the films out to the public is hard, as is getting the right people to see the films. We have to make sure people know about films, particularly the films that will mean something to them.

That said, this is my dream job. I watch a film, love it, and then I cannot wait to find its audience. When I do, it's a great feeling.

How do you balance the niche films with the crowd-pleasers? Do you follow a formula?

There is no formula and that's the good thing about our festival. I go to different festivals. I consider what is submitted. Not all films in the circuit fit into Cleveland. Some will only show in major festivals. We have to work with the pool that's out there. We work with what we get.

The fest features 11 sidebar collections covering everything from Global Health and Family Films to Local Heroes. What does it take to be a "Local Hero?"

"Local Heroes" has been a sidebar for over 10 years. It used to focus on Northeast Ohio films. Now we share the love with films that are made in state or produced in Los Angeles or elsewhere that have a strong local tie with an actor, producer or director -- people who had to move to make it big.

This year we're featuring Polka! The Movie, which is all about Cleveland despite the fact it was made for Slovenian television. And there's Danny Greene, The Rise and Fall of the Irishman, which is as local as you can get, tying Cleveland into the gangster world. People love that mix.

What's your personal pick from the "Local Heroes" collection?

In Long Way to Oblivion, a mystery man lands on the streets of Cleveland and is brought into the underground music scene. It's a very strange film but it's so Cleveland. The cast, crew and director are all local.

When I started watching it, I was like, Oh, another Cleveland film, auto-assuming it wouldn't be great. But Oblivion is told in an interesting, experimental way. Its message is not, "I hate Cleveland," but to make it a better place; to fight, to struggle and to not give up.

A "must-see" recommendation or two for the upcoming festival?

Self Made is a documentary from the UK. A director puts an ad in the newspaper: "Do you want to be an actor?" She chooses seven people and teaches them method acting. It's mind-blowing watching these people go through a transformation.

With Love from the Age of Reason is the story of a woman who is turning 40. She has focused mostly on her career and not much on herself. It's sort of like a mid-life crisis. It's a fun film -- beautiful and inspirational. I really think people are going to love it.

What is this year's most challenging film?

One of the most difficult but amazing films is Bibliotheque Pascal from Hungary. A woman trying to gain custody of her child tells the story of her life. Her father sold her into the sex trade and she ends up working in a brothel, Biblioteque Pascal, where each room is based on a novel or literary character. It's dreamy and trippy. You forget she's telling a story. You're not sure what's real and what isn't. Everybody creates their own personal narrative based on truth. Or not. The film shows you can't judge anybody on the surface; you don't know what they've been through. Bibliotheque Pascal is my favorite film of the festival.

On top of all the films, the CIFF special programs range from filmmaker forums to a host of competitions. Can you give filmgoers an insider tip on the programs?

The "Someone to Watch" series is really nice. We include people we think will go on to do something great, and sometimes we get it right. One of the first recipients of the award was Susanna Bier, who was featured at CIFF in 2003. Her In a Better World just won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

Any advice for a CIFF virgin?

It's really overwhelming to pick one or two films out of 150. I tell people to just come down whenever you can and pick a film. That's the easy way to do the festival. And don't be afraid of subtitles. Most of the best films are made outside of the United States.

The CIFF is about more than just going to the movies. It's an experience.

Photos 1 – 3: BillGuentzler, Artistic Director of the ClevelandInternational Film Festival – Photos by Bob Perkoski
Photo 4: movie still from Long Way to Oblivion
Photo 5: movie still from Self Made
Photos 6 & 7: movie stills from Bibliotheque Pascal
Photo 8: movie still from opening night feature Hamill

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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