Cleveland International Film Festival: The Gem In Your Backyard

After 16 years living in the Cleveland area, mostly in Lakewood, I left last summer to return to the east coast. I had come to love Cleveland, and for what it’s worth I am now a champion, defender and an ambassador. One of the things I talk up, whenever I talk about Cleveland, is the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), returning for its 41st year between March 29 and April 9, at Tower City Cinemas and five neighborhood theaters. I’ll be back for just a weekend, but I know a few people who plan their vacations around the festival, and plot out the movies they want to see the way other people fill out March Madness brackets.

That’s part of the fun of the Film Festival—picking what you’re going to see, since invariably not everything will prove to be memorable (and at $16 a pop for non-members, more than a few movies is not in everyone’s budget). I fell in love with CIFF in 2014 when a friend and I picked three winners: "A Fragile Trust," about Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter caught out fabricating and plagiarizing stories; "Just About Famous," a really fun and funny film about impersonators; and "Antarctica: A Year on Ice," a startlingly beautiful documentary about the “South Pole” and the scientists and their supporters who work there.

Last year, I saw "Atomic Falafel,” an Israeli comedy about an impending war between Israel and Iran (yes, that’s a comedy), in which an Israeli teenage girl, principally preoccupied with seducing a reluctant boyfriend, and an Iranian teenage girl focused mainly on her desire to be a rap star, form an unlikely cyberspace friendship and manage in the end to divert their two countries from destroying each other. A little silly, but it was redeemed by the ending and the movie's cheerful hope that young people—who really do connect with each other across the old contentious borders—hold the secret to peace.

My winner last year was "My Internship in Canada," a satire about politics in French-speaking Quebec, both funny and sobering. Winston Churchill famously said “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” (You may have heard—a large group of people, steeped in a 200-plus year-old culture of self-government can on occasion make a really, really, really bad choice.) In this French language movie with English subtitles, Steve Guibord is a former hockey superstar (the Canadian equivalent, I suppose, of being a reality TV star host) who holds a seat in Parliament from a small town in Quebec. Neither terribly brilliant nor extraordinarily brave, he is nevertheless a good guy doing his best. He is visited (in his office above a lingerie shop) by a young French-speaking Haitian political science scholar named Souverain who will accompany Guibord as an intern while he navigates the turbulent politics of a strike by Canadian First Nation peoples against a logging company doing business on their land. This local conflict becomes ensnared in a larger controversy about whether Canada should go to war in the Middle East, and as a farcical plot unspools, it will come down to Guibord to cast the deciding vote. With him throughout is Souverain—brilliant, highly literate and impossibly, endearingly idealistic. He quotes Rousseau and Alexis de Tocqueville and interprets every plot twist by the lights of an incandescent faith in the rationality and higher purpose of self-government. (He reports all this back by Skype to his people in Haiti, who wonder as a matter of course when someone will be assassinated.)

It's not a deathless work of art. But it’s sharp and funny and thoughtful and well-acted, and you will never see it in your local AMC. Look for more of the same at CIFF this year—like “California Typewriter,” a documentary about the fate of the forgotten typing machine; or “Platelet Dining,” in which a couple on their first Tinder date hit if off until the girl turns out to be a vampire; or “Stronger Than Bullets,” a Libyan documentary about the revival of rock-and-roll music in that country after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi.  The “movies” are an American invention, one of the most quintessential, drawing on a characteristic national fascination with new technology in the early 20th century that succeeding generations of talented entrepreneurs (interested mainly in turning a profit) would experiment with until a new art form was created—one that could be refined and perfected by visionaries interested less in money than in creating something unique and beautiful and lasting, an art form that would nevertheless still be “popular,” enjoyed by regular folks.

Lakewood has, in its own backyard, an exceptional showcase in the Cleveland Festival for this singular American art form. This year’s festival promises 202 feature films and 216 short films from more than 70 countries. Look for listings online (at or in program booklets available at neighborhood outlets everywhere in the Greater Cleveland area.

When I left last summer, it was with a heart full of conflicted emotion and memories, bitter and sweet, I can never recreate. Happily, the Cleveland International Film Festival happens every year, so I will always have at least one reason to come back, if only for a long weekend. See you at the movies.

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Volume 13, Issue 6, Posted 8:14 PM, 03.21.2017