Cinephilia on the Cuyahoga: CIFF40

Tower City Cinemas lies within a shopping complex at the corner of West 6th Street and Canal Road, in downtown Cleveland. Half a mile north lies the Public Square and the Renaissance Hotel, perhaps familiar to you as the stand-in for Stuttgart, Germany in the first Avengers movie. Tower City and the hotel are connected via a series of hallways, staircases, and escalators that carry you through a multi-level mall where the Starbucks, the Cleveland-based American Greetings, and other stores alternate with banners and posters announcing the 40th annual Cleveland International Film Festival. A reflecting pool sits in the center of the second-level where the movie theater is hidden away; above it jut third-level hallways whose meeting rooms have been converted by the Festival into discussion spaces and media centers. As you walk through the food court that is the final space before the cineplex, you can see the curved arch of the Detroit Superior Bridge to the south, stretching out across the gray fog of the Cuyahoga River.  

This jangle of images, spaces and tones--commercial, aesthetic, urban, prosaic, industrial, and cinematic--provides an apt and atmospheric transition into the spaces of CIFF40, a longtime center of cinephilic activity in Northeast Ohio that's brought hundreds of films, from more than 60 countries, to hundreds of thousands of attendees from around the region during its long and rightfully proud history. It started on April 13, 1977, with eight films from seven countries, shown over the course of eight weeks at the Cedar Lee Theatre, in Cleveland Heights.  The enthusiastic response allowed the festival to grow over the next 15 years, eventually transferring to the larger spaces of Tower City, whose multiplex allowed for a greater number of films to be shown simultaneously (stats from CIFF's website suggest this move has grown festival attendance 600% over the last 25 years).  This year's festival will show 196 feature films and 234 shorts to an estimated 100,204 attendees, while also inviting 300 guest filmmakers to participate.  They've also offered satellite mini-fests of select films for residents in Oberlin, Akron, and other nearby cities who aren't able to make it into Cleveland. That's all very cool, but the statistic that draws my eye is this: CIFF employs 1,000 volunteers over the course of its 12-day run, and that doesn't even count the Cleveland educators and community leaders who introduce each film. This is a real communal effort, full of a down-to-earth kindness that all the harried aspects of a festival-- crowded spaces, long lines, occasionally passive-aggressive attendees (dig that dirty look! Yes, sweetie, we all hate waiting for tickets)--cannot wipe out. Framed by the river and the transmutable spaces of a movie-rich city, the Cleveland International Film Festival offers a montage of perspectives and experiences from around the world, while never losing sight of what being grounded in a specfic region means.

I somehow managed to live in this region for nearly 10 years without ever being able to make it over to the Festival (partially this was because it often took place during spring break, which was often a busy period). This year, I've been lucky enough (thanks to this blog, the kind encouragement of Alberto Zambenedetti, and the generosity of the CIFF media staff) to be media-accredited for the Fest. Off and on over the next 10 days or so, I'll be offering thoughts and impressions on the Fest, as well as the films I've been able to see (my screening days were yesterday and next Thursday). This will, by necessity, be only a partial view of everything CIFF40 has to offer, but I encourage anyone who might have the chance to get downtown and get in line: it's not just a chance to see movies, but (as if any other reason were needed!) to be reminded that movie-going at its best is also about the larger meanings that arise from small gestures and interactions, on-screen and off, connected to a vivid sense of place.


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