Surrounded by Fire and Magic in the Desert

April 09, 2016   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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The Cleveland International Film Festival has many “firsts” this year: our first showing of a film in a 2,800-seat theater in PlayhouseSquare, our first screening of a music video program, and our first virtual reality exhibit, among others. Another huge first occurred this Friday, when the festival screened its first 3D film, “The Art of Burning.”

3D films have, of course, been around since the 1950s, although the technology only truly came into its own starting in 2003, and Tower City Cinemas installed equipment to play them in 2009. Most of the films made in 3D have been IMAX extravaganzas, big-budget blockbusters, or re-releases of older classics—not really the sorts of films that tour the festival circuit.

“We didn’t want to make the jump to 3D just for the sake of it,” CIFF Artistic Director Bill Guentzler explains. “We wanted a film to do justice to the art of 3D. When we came across ‘The Art of Burning,’ we knew this was the film to do just that.”

The subject of the film also had a strong festival connection. Allie Freeman, CIFF’s development assistant, is a regular attendee of Burning Man (the annual event dedicated to community, art, self-expression, and self-reliance held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert and attended by tens of thousands) and even made it the theme of her wedding. “We couldn’t pass it up,” Guentzler says.

Freeman adds, “I’ve already started tearing up thinking about it.”

Director Arnaud Paris, who studied film at Bowling Green State University and lives in Los Angeles, already knew many of the artists who regularly attended Burning Man when he conceived the documentary. Burning Man is a “very special form of artistic expression ... strongly influenced by nature and the festival’s values, and by its transience and its relationship to fire,” he told French news site Slate.fr.

He and his crew established relationships with most of the artists that they planned to profile, “so that our cameras were not intrusive when we were filming them in their work.” That advance planning turned out to be essential. “Without knowing the people first-hand,” he says, “it is almost impossible to find them in the middle of 68,000 participants.”

Taking 3D equipment out into the desert was not without its hitches, particularly when a sandstorm struck the festival and Paris’ crew had to scramble to protect the delicate
machinery. “We could see no further than the tips of our noses,” he recalled.

The payoff, however, was all worth it, particularly when he and his cameras were suspended in a crane 150 feet above an installation called The Temple. Festival attendees had been leaving memorial messages and small mementos inside it for days in preparation for its transformation into a bonfire. For its lighting, 30,000 people gathered, and Paris caught the moment from high above. “This time of fellowship,” he recalled, “was simply magical.”

Lara Klaber

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Related Screenings:
04/09/16 @ 9:25 PM – The Art of Burning (3D)
04/10/16 @ 1:45 PM – The Art of Burning (3D)

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Not Your Average Romance

April 08, 2016   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

The suicidal Benek is ready to leave the world behind when he runs into the eccentric Lena. He is enthralled by this woman who seems to share his fascination with death. As they set off on a journey together, Benek discovers Lena has cancer but has refused treatment. Falling for each other, the two regain a lust for life.

Bartek Prokopowicz, one of Poland’s leading cinematographers, makes his directorial feature debut with “Chemo,” with his brother Jeremiasz taking over as cinematographer. It is a fitting project for Prokopowicz to take the helm, as key elements of the film draw from his own life.

The story is inspired by Prokopowicz’s wife, Magda, who died of cancer in 2012. She founded the Rak ‘n’ Roll Foundation, an organization that works to help patients fight the disease with dignity and live with joy. But Prokopowicz insists the film is not a biopic.

As Prokopowicz told Variety in a July 2015 interview, “I did not want to make a biography, a therapeutic film or a film accounting for the past. I wanted to find a form that in a delicate and subtle way would tell about experiences related to love, life and death. I hope that I made something like a ‘positive guide to dying’ where love is stronger than fear.”

Shot on location in Warsaw, “Chemo” is described by Variety as “careering recklessly in form and tone from magical-realist romantic comedy to abrasive domestic drama to four-handkerchief weeper.”

The screenplay, written by Katarzyna Sarnowska, is unconventional. “It was driven by emotions,” Prokopowicz told Variety. “It looked more like a diary with notes. And that’s what our movie looks like.” “Chemo” is stylized to reflect the tumultuous relationship of the lead characters—including surreal, music video-like sequences as well as animated sequences depicting Lena’s cancer. The film is a unique take on the universal themes of love and loss.

—Avinash Chak

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Related Screenings:
04/08/16 @ 7:15 PM – Chemo
04/09/16 @ 9:10 AM – Chemo
04/10/16 @ 4:40 PM – Chemo

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When Majority Doesn't Rule

April 08, 2016   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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The last several years have been littered with violent shootings across the nation and matters don’t seem to be improving. Setting politics aside and placing citizens at the forefront, director John Richie’s “91%” paints a picture of gun violence in America and the people’s call for sensible change.

Prior to pursuing “91%,” Richie was teaching documentary film classes in the New Orleans Public School System. His first feature film, “Shell Shocked,” focused on youth gun violence in New Orleans, giving students a platform to open up and share their personal experiences.

“Teenagers are suspicious of adults in the first place, so we spent time to build relationships and trust,” says Richie. “The interviews were candid and real.”

Then, following the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, MA, in 2013, Quinnipiac University conducted a poll that revealed 91% of Americans support comprehensive background checks. This overwhelming statistic, along with research vetted by Johns Hopkins University, became the face of Richie’s next film that interviews Americans directly affected by gun violence, their desire for gun reform, and the opposing forces that are stalling the process.

For most of the victims of gun violence featured in the film, the guns used in the incidents were purchased through a background check loophole. Richie says they count their experience as the worst thing that’s happened in their lives. Although difficult to talk about, many people were still bravely willing to share their stories.

Given the divisive nature of this controversial issue we’ve seen play out in the media and in our political system, Richie hopes audiences recognize that even when we have opposing opinions, we must remember the areas on which we agree.

“Regardless of what you believe,” Richie says, “we’re not as far apart as we think we are.”

As the debate continues to reside in the headlines, Richie is already receiving promising praise and even earned an unlikely fan whose feedback has stuck with him.

“We did early test screenings in Lafayette, LA, a community with a traditionally conservative population and many avid hunters,” Richie recalls. “In the surveys afterward, there was a female hunter who said she loved the film and appreciated its non-partisan views.

“I didn’t think I was making a non-partisan film,” laughs Richie, “but I’m glad she felt that way.”

Further proof that Richie has made a conscious effort to avoid polarizing politics in order to keep the conversation on the resounding majority asking for progress.

91% is sponsored by God Before Guns, a coalition of individuals from a variety of faith-based communities in Northeast Ohio. The group was created in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2013 with the mission of reducing gun violence in the community.

—Amy Brown

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Related Screenings:
04/07/16 @ 11:45 AM – 91%
04/08/16 @ 1:50 PM – 91%
04/09/16 @ 4:00 PM – 91%

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Molly Bernstein's Film Focuses on the 'Doyenne of Decay'

April 08, 2016   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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Junkyards, libraries, bones … What do these have in common? Probably nothing to the average, naked eye. But for photographer Rosamond Purcell, they have a heartbeat.

Purcell has a gift. An artistic eye that translates something mundane into something fascinating. Director Molly Bernstein explains, “I would say her work is mesmerizing because it transforms the apparent nature of the object she photographs, but without losing sight of what the object is.”

In the film “An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell,” we get to see the process and the brilliance of an incredible photographer. Purcell told National Geographic in 2013, “I don’t need subjects that are conventionally beautiful. With, say, a parrot, there’s not much for me to figure out. Something that is obviously beautiful gets all the credit, and then I don’t have to do much work.”

Purcell prefers the challenge of digging into the much less obvious beauty. “For example,” she says, “skulls are fabulous. And bones have such a variety of shapes to suit specialized purposes. What I really like about a femur, for example, is the way it twists.”

Unlike many photographers, Purcell doesn’t use fancy tricks or artificial light. “She has created an enormous body of varied work by using basic tools,” Bernstein says. “She started with Polaroid instant cameras …. She shows us that complicated technology is not necessary to create sophisticated work.”

Bernstein’s film exposes the extraordinary talent and creative process of Rosamond Purcell, or the woman who has been called the “doyenne of decay.”

—Molly Drake

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Related Screenings:
04/08/16 @ 3:00 PM – An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell
04/09/16 @ 5:10 PM – An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell
04/10/16 @ 9:30 AM – An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell

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Filmmaker Makes a Movie He Had 'Never Seen Before'

April 08, 2016   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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In “Morris from America,” Craig Robinson and Markees Christmas play an African American father and son adjusting to their new life in the not-so-diverse town of Heidelberg, Germany. The 13-year-old aspiring hip-hop artist struggles to adjust as the only black kid around, facing racist assumptions made by his teachers and fellow students, and finding a new dynamic to his relationship with his father.

Writer and director Chad Hartigan wanted to tell a coming-of-age and first-love story. He made the characters African American early in his writing process. “It became a movie I felt I had never seen before,” he says, “And that’s what I’m always striving to make.”

Hartigan says at one point he questioned if he was the right person to tell the story, but he decided it was no different from him writing characters outside his specific economic or demographic background. “You’re always just trying to find what’s universal about characters and experiences so that audiences can relate,” he says. The writer/director draws from his own experiences of growing up in Cyprus as an Irish American. Like his previous feature, “This is Martin Bonner,” “Morris from America” revolves around outsider identity and themes of uprooting and dislocation.

As he spoke no German when he wrote the script, Hartigan felt like a bit of an outsider during shooting. Although he took some lessons before flying to Germany and lived in Berlin for nine months, he says he didn’t progress much past being able to order in coffee shops and markets. It helped that the cast and crew spoke English on the set.

“For the scenes in German,” Hartigan says, “I found it actually refreshing to be able to watch the actors and just try to instinctually feel if I believed what they were saying or not, without the exact words to lean on, just body language and emotion.”

Hartigan found Christmas, considered one of the young discoveries of the Sundance Film Festival where “Morris from America”premiered, after a friend told him to check out a Channel 101 short video series called “Markees Vs.” “I cast him because his attitude and energy is just so infectiously joyful,” Hartigan says. Before the film, Christmas’s other acting experience consisted of school plays. “By week two,” Hartigan says, “he was a total pro, asking the director of photography how tight the shot was so he’d know how much he could move in frame.”

Hartigan is full of praise for Robinson. “He showed up 110 percent committed and prepared and he just knocked the role out of the park with very little help from me,” Hartigan says.
“I think he relished the opportunity to stretch his muscles a little bit and show people what he’s capable of.”

—Avinash Chak

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Related Screenings:
04/08/16 @ 7:20 PM – Morris From America
04/10/16 @ 4:50 PM – Morris From America

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