Cleveland International Film Festival } April 4 – 15, 2018

'The White King': 'Tom Sawyer' with an Edge

April 05, 2017   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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Alex Helfrecht and Jörg Tittel stumbled upon the material for their first film, “The White King,” purely by chance.

Several years ago, the former spotted the award-winning book of the same name on the desk of producers for whom she was working. Written by the Hungarian author Gyorgy Dragoman, “The White King” is an Orwellian series of short stories told from the perspective of a 12-year-old named Djata.

“[‘The White King’ is] about growing up under a communist regime with all its fear and absurdity, from the perspective of a young boy whose father is taken away.

“What was so striking about the book is that it felt like ‘Tom Sawyer,’ only it had this totalitarian presence hanging over it and giving the material its unique edge,” Helfrecht adds.

After reading the novel, she and Tittel immediately fell head over heels with its cinematic possibilities.

“We thought the book would make an intense movie, an original movie, with an unusual protagonist and relevant themes,” Helfrecht says. “It was important for us to make a first film that was not easy to put in a box. It is a strange blend of drama, sci-fi, and political thriller.”

As Helfrecht and Tittel adapted the screenplay, they decided to set the story from the lead character Djata’s point of view, meaning that moviegoers experience his world (and growing political and personal awareness) just as he does.

That cinematic tactic proved to be the biggest challenge for Helfrecht and Tittel, who also co-directed the film.

“We never break perspective, which can be hard for some viewers who want to know more about or spend time with the other characters,” she says. “You have to be prepared to watch the film and discover the world as Djata does and fill in the blanks, which won’t necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea.”

However, the pair found their ideal Djata in the British-Italian actor Lorenzo Allchurch, who “carries the entire film on his shoulders,” Helfrecht says, and captures the character’s complexities.

“[Djata is] an interesting child, because he’s on the one hand naive but on the other, perceptive. He walks a fine line between innocence and understanding, sweetness, and being outright feral.”

Other aspects of “The White King” may surprise fans of the book. For example, Helfrecht and Tittel chose to set the movie in an entirely new fictional country—a change she admits is “a bold choice”—and took liberties with time.

“We thought that by setting it in the near future, it would be more provocative,” Helfrecht says. “It wouldn’t have the comforting sense of it being all set in the past in a culture far removed from our own.

“By adopting an Orwellian approach, we could all be Djata in a walled-off land, in a family torn apart by politics,” she adds.

The idea that “The White King” challenges audiences to confront their own preconceived notions and biases ultimately makes the movie that much more resonant.

“When a story grabs onto you as a filmmaker, you simply have to try and make it,” Helfrecht says. “It’s a story that found us, and we admired it for its original voice. It’s a conceptual, allegorical film that dares to ask questions that have no easy answers.”

Annie Zaleski

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Related Screenings:
04/05/17 @ 7:35 PM – THE WHITE KING
04/06/17 @ 1:30 PM – THE WHITE KING

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Coffee and (Film) Conversation

April 05, 2017   |   posted by Lara Klaber in The Daily

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From Left: Kathy Heydorn, Lillian Baratko, Tom Heffelfinger, Judith Muzzy, and Pat Metzler (Photo by Amy Brown)

Meet the Breakfast Club, a committed group of die-hard film fans who have been meeting in the Tower City food court each and every Festival morning for the last six years. A combination of east and west siders, these folks became fast film friends after meeting while waiting in line for films and chatting after CIFF screenings. The group compares notes on films they’ve seen, gives recommendations, and enjoys seeing the world through film.

“I don’t have a passport,” says Judith Muzzy, “because my traveling is done during the 10 days of the Festival.”

Amy Brown

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70 Years of 'Fun with a Purpose'

April 05, 2017   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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Highlights magazine is a reliable fixture in the doctor’s office waiting area, or, for kids lucky enough to have a personal subscription, a prized possession snatched from the mailbox. It is also the subject of “44 Pages,” by director Tony Shaff and producer Rebecca Green. The film follows the production of the publication’s 70th anniversary issue and the evolution of the world’s most popular children’s magazine.

“I started seeing kids in my life getting Highlights in the mail, and I noticed they were dropping their iPads to pick up this magazine and devour it from cover to cover,” says Shaff. “I started asking the question: why does this magazine capture so much attention from kids, and how is it still relevant?”

As filming began, new storylines arose concerning the ever-changing state of childhood, the uncertain future of print publications, and how the magazine aims to teach—or protect—its young readers from the larger issues of the world.

“Going into a film, you’re looking for the conflict and drama and all these high-stakes villains,” Shaff says. “‘44 Pages’ is about kind, genuine, ethical, honest people. One of the challenges was shaping a story that didn’t rely on those traditional plot elements.”

Many of those kind, genuine people work out of the publication’s headquarters in Columbus, Ohio.

“The magazine is family-owned and has been kept within the family for 70 years, so there is a strong tie to Ohio,” says Shaff.

Green, who also produced CIFF 39’s Opening Night film, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” adds: “It’s a very positive, uplifting film, something that’s lacking in the news and the documentary space. I think it’s something that’s needed right now. It’s good for parents to see how the creative process impacts kids in a positive way, and how kids can connect to that part of themselves.”

Although Highlights is billed as a children’s magazine, Shaff finds that the basic core human values it teaches “relate directly to us as adults.” He hopes that viewers will not only walk away from the film with more insights into the magazine, “but a better understanding of how we can all be better to each other, and better citizens in the world.”

Highlights has been “illuminating” its readers since 1946, delivering more than a billion issues to children around the world.

“44 Pages” serves to continue spreading that light.

“It’s a film that shows you something you think you know, and gives you something different that you didn’t expect,” says Green. “On the surface, it is a memory from childhood and a magazine. But it opens you up to thinking about bigger topics, issues, and your role in society and your role in kids’ lives.”

Amy Brown

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Related Screenings:
04/05/17 @ 7:30 PM – 44 PAGES
04/06/17 @ 12:00 PM – 44 PAGES

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Easter Egg Hunts Start Early with Dollar Bank!

April 04, 2017   |   posted by Lara Klaber in The Daily

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By now, you’re familiar with the CIFF trailer, and you may have even caught yourself humming its tune while driving or working. We know we have! You have probably noticed another trailer running right before it from Dollar Bank. Dollar Bank has been a staunch supporter of the CIFF for two decades, first as the Opening Night sponsor for 15 years before becoming the Presenting Sponsor in 2013. Movie fans may have noticed that their trailer is packed with film references, or “Easter Eggs,” as they’re often called: little hidden treats for those who go hunting.

This has led to a fun game that many Festival patrons have been playing—comparing notes about which film references they recognize and just how many they have found. Want to join in the fun? The next time the trailer plays, watch and see just how many different famous movie moments you recognize, and see how many your friends can spot! You can even check in with us: post your guesses to Facebook—or if Twitter is more your speed, post the number of film references you think are hidden in the trailer—using #dollarbankeastereggs. The Daily will reveal the full list in its Closing Night edition!

Happy hunting!

Photo by Timothy Smith.

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Exploring a Luminous Soul

April 04, 2017   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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“The Last Dalai Lama?” director Mickey Lemle first met the Dalai Lama in 1984, and was immediately “blown away by how funny he was, and not what I expected,” Lemle says. “He has a real aura, very powerful. You can feel it when he’s in the room with you.” He describes it as an “overwhelming sense of kindness.”

After making two documentaries about the spiritual journeys experienced by astronauts, Lemle approached the Dalai Lama about doing a film about him and, by extension, about the plight of the Tibetan people. “This was 1990, and he wasn’t quite the rock star he is today,” he recalls. Few people knew what was happening in Tibet. “I thought the perfect vehicle for telling that story, was to tell his story, because inherent in his personal story is the story of what’s happened to Tibet over the last 40 years.” Lemle’s “Compassion in Exile” (1993), was his first film focused on the Dalai Lama.

Their lives remained intertwined afterwards; Lemle ended up chairing the Tibetan Fund, and would see the Dalai Lama almost every year.

“A lot had changed in the 25 years since I’d made the last movie, and so I was meeting with him one time, and I said, ‘Your Holiness, I think it’s time we make a new movie.’”

The Dalai Lama was celebrating his 80th birthday as Lemle’s Baby Boomer generation was confronting issues of aging and death. “I thought, well, why not ask the world’s most conscious person about those issues, and see what he has to say about it?”

Mortality, as it applied to the Dalai Lama himself, was also an issue. After the controversy regarding the Panchen Lama—the ninth Panchen Lama died suddenly just two days after publicly criticizing the Chinese government, and then the child whom the Dalai Lama’s divinations indicated was his reincarnation subsequently disappeared, along with his family, shortly before the Chinese government ordained their own candidate—it has become clear that his own succession will be hotly contested.

“This was a harbinger of what was to come,” observes Lemle. When the Dalai Lama said, during a recent German interview, that he would not reincarnate, “the first immediate and vehement reaction came from the government of the People’s Republic of China, saying ‘You don’t decide if you reincarnate; we decide if you reincarnate!’”

Those political machinations aside, however, Lemle feels that the most important message of his film is one of transcendence, whether in terms of Tibetan Buddhist techniques for “overcoming afflictive emotions” such as “anger, greed, jealousy, hatred, violence, or ignorance” or exploring the human power to transform. “All of my movies are about human transformation of some form or other.” Life without transformation, he says, would be dreary.

As a filmmaker, he is also conscious of how the stories he tells transform and illuminate him in the process.

“At every phase of a film you want to make, you must be open to letting go of your preconceived idea,” he says. “The real story is much more complex and much more interesting.”

—Lara Klaber

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Related Screenings:
04/05/17 @ 4:15 PM – THE LAST DALAI LAMA?
04/06/17 @ 7:50 PM – THE LAST DALAI LAMA?

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