Cleveland International Film Festival } March 29 – April 9, 2017

From Stuffy to Stylin': Filmmaker Wants Viewers to Appreciate the Enduring Power of Classical Music

April 08, 2016   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers


Dull. Outdated. Stuffy.

Jonathan Keijser begs to differ when it comes to using these descriptors for classical music.

To him, it’s “an unbelievably powerful art form.”

As a classical double bassist, music was always a part of his life. “Music is an essential form of communication and expression that touches part of core humanity within all of us.”

As he started his second career as a filmmaker (he received a master’s degree in film production from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts), he wanted to explore this music genre and show “how classical music is dynamic, engaging, and extremely relatable,” he says.

He combines music and film together into one documentary, “What Would Beethoven Do,” which makes its world premiere at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

Keijser’s film follows composers, conductors, and artists young and old. Notable artists such as Bobby McFerrin, Grammy Award-winning vocalist, and Eric Whitacre, Grammy Award-winning choral and orchestral composer, add their voices to the debate about why classical music is still relevant today.

“I hope to spark a much-needed conversation about classical music and dig deep behind why we create art,” says Keijser.

Viewers of “WWBD” will see “musical renegades,” from composers flirting with modern mediums, to young musicians dedicated to changing the narrative, to a man who’s bringing turntablists and orchestras together.

Through it all, Keijser was adamant about showing diversity.

“There is a large amount of older Caucasian men who dominate the classical music world,” he says. Instead, Keijser tells his story through three diverse musicians: Ben, an exuberant, infectious 76-year-old conductor; Dinuk, a
Sri-Lankan born Canadian composer who sees no boundary between genre; and Britlin, a soft-spoken young woman and authentic composer who writes from the heart.

“All of their stories are vital to a diverse classical music world,” Keijser says.

He also wants the audience to know that his documentary film is not stuffy, either.

“Documentaries are not just about talking heads giving expert opinions,” he says, “it’s about emotional connections from one human to another.”

Keijser leaves us with his final thoughts: he hopes that audiences will realize that “not all classical music sounds the same,” he says. “Just like in any genre—there are exciting pieces, sad pieces, and pieces that convey every emotion in between.”

—Anne M. DiTeodoro

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Related Screenings:
04/08/16 @ 6:20 PM – What Would Beethoven Do?
04/09/16 @ 3:45 PM – What Would Beethoven Do?
04/10/16 @ 9:20 AM – What Would Beethoven Do?

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The Wider Brothers: Giving a Voice to Those Who Are Unheard

April 07, 2016   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers


Todd Wider was a surgeon before he became a filmmaker. In that role, he lobbied for federal legislation to force insurance companies to cover reconstructive surgery for women with breast cancer. The experience taught him that documentary filmmaking was a great way to bring awareness to issues that he cared about.

For his brother, Jedd, an attorney whose practice focused on helping abused women, indigent families, and other worthy causes, documentary filmmaking was a direct and logical extension of his interest in “giving a voice to those who are unheard.”

Their film, “God Knows Where I Am,” tells the story of a mentally ill, homeless woman named Linda Bishop who died alone in an abandoned farmhouse. She lived off of rainwater and apples during one of the coldest winters on record in New Hampshire.

When the two men first read about Bishop in The New Yorker, they had been looking to make a documentary film on homelessness and mental illness. Bishop’s story offered an account of “our systemic failure to adequately protect the most vulnerable people in our society, yet told in a very intimate and highly artistic manner,” they say.

Because Bishop left behind a diary documenting her inner thoughts, dreams, and hopes, they were able to create an experiential documentary to tell her story.

“We focused the film on Linda's journey as she falls through the cracks of our failing mental health system and ultimately victim to her own illness,” they say. “But we also pay tribute to her spirituality, intelligence, and joy for life.”

For the two men, one of the challenges was trying to build empathy for Bishop, “but how do you do this for a woman who is no longer alive and who was largely delusional at the end of her life?” they asked.

A large percentage of the film was shot in the same historical farmhouse where Bishop lived and was found. At times during the shoot the farmhouse was close to zero degrees because there was no heat. While shooting, they used a combination of 35mm, super 16mm, and digital video.

They started by filming many of the things that Bishop wrote that she saw and dreamed about, such as bluebirds, clouds, constellations, elaborate menus for meals she wanted to cook, Winslow Homer paintings, books she was reading.

They also recorded the sounds that she would have heard inside and around the abandoned farmhouse when she lived there.

“To bring Linda's voice alive, we turned to the actress Lori Singer, who gave a brilliant performance that is deeply disturbing and gripping,” they say.

Both brothers agree that they are fortunate to be able to work together. They feel that they share similar sensibilities which lead to similar creative decisions. The Widers have produced 17 documentary films over the last 15 years. “God Knows Where I Am” is their directorial debut.

—Lisa Curland

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Related Screenings:
04/07/16 @ 4:50 PM – God Knows Where I Am
04/08/16 @ 8:25 PM – God Knows Where I Am
04/09/16 @ 1:30 PM – God Knows Where I Am

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Casting Is Key

April 07, 2016   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers


“You either cast it right or you’re dead in the water,” writer and director Felix Thompson believes.

From the beginning, he knew that getting the right cast for his film would either make or break his first feature film, “King Jack”. By the time he finished casting, he knew he had something special.

He describes King Jack” as a story about a boy, Jack, played by Charlie Plummer, who is the very last person you would give any responsibility to … ever. And it takes place over a weekend when he is forced to look after his little cousin for two days.

“When Charlie came in, he did something you always hope an actor will do: he changed the role for me,” says Thompson. “He brought in something I hadn’t originally seen in the character and the film took on a new shape around him.”

In fact, he says he distinctly remembers everyone’s audition.

“You just know when an actor comes in who is unguarded and honestly living through the moments of a scene,” he says. “And once things opened up, it was amazing to see where they could go. They really brought the scenes to life.”

Thompson sees his film as “an adventure story about these two boys navigating a rough “lord of the flies” type of summer in a small town. It deals with all the excitement of that first kiss and that first beer as well as cycles of bullying and what kids get up to when the parents aren’t around.”

He continues, “At its heart, this film spoke to what I felt growing up was all about: learning to care about others more than you care about yourself.”

“King Jack” doesn’t shy away from showing the violent side of bullying. Thompson stresses that it was important to him that those scenes felt authentic but also inventive.

“We didn’t want to glamorize it,” he says. “Every one of those scenes had to feel like the brainchild of some kid who had way too much time on his hands. The scenes themselves always started with some kernel of truth—but in the writing they ballooned into their own creations.”

He jokes that he kept their stunt designer, Drew Leary’s, hands full. “I could see the cogs in his brain turning as he read the script … ‘how on earth are we going to accomplish some of these scenes safely with a cast of kids?’”

Thompson is amazed to see how much the film seems to hit home for audiences. He suspects it’s because “for most people it brings back really fond (… and not so fond) memories of their youth. It deals with adolescence in a way that is honest and heartfelt.”

—Lisa Curland

PDF  Download Related PDF [6.2 MB]

Related Screenings:
04/07/16 @ 7:20 PM – King Jack
04/08/16 @ 2:35 PM – King Jack
04/09/16 @ 2:00 PM – King Jack
04/09/16 @ 6:15 PM – King Jack

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Portrait of a Relationship

April 07, 2016   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers


“When you decide to become a movie maker or an artist in general, you know that you will need to expose yourself in [one] way or another,” says “Clear Years” director Frédéric Guillaume.

In his autobiographical film, “Clear Years,” Guillaume completely exposes himself and the story of his 10-year relationship with his girlfriend, Claire. “My intention was to be honest, true, and close to the fact, but it’s only my point of view and it’s not the whole truth,” Guillaume says.

His story isn’t only personal, it’s universal.

As their relationship grows, so do Claire and Guillaume, and not always in the same direction. When they get pregnant unexpectedly, the two wonder how having a baby will affect their life together.

For Guillaume, it was not an easy process broadcasting his diary on screen. “It was quite complicated to be immersed in a real love story and try to make a movie out of it,” he says. “Sometimes I was so personally filled with sadness or anger that my editing collaborator said, ‘Okay, Fred, let’s take a pause until you feel better,’ and it took me sometimes three months.”

But we can empathize with the characters, as many of us have experienced love and loss in our lives. “I think this movie can be very reassuring for the people who have difficulties in their love story,” Guillaume says. “Cinema offers us the rare pleasure to share our secret emotions and our loneliness in the darkness of a theater.”

We watch the story of two independent people working together to maintain their relationship for their child, even when Claire begins to doubt her love for Guillaume. “Even if she can appear like my enemy during the bad times,” says Guillaume, it is very important to him that CIFF audiences know he had complete consent from Claire to tell this story. “She said, by watching it, the movie cured our relationship.”

“Clear Years” may at times be heart-wrenching, but it is a beautifully honest portrait of a relationship that comes with the good and the bad.

—Molly Drake

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Related Screenings:
04/07/16 @ 1:45 PM – Clear Years
04/08/16 @ 4:00 PM – Clear Years

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Deadbeat Dads Deserve a Break

April 07, 2016   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers


Emily Abt thinks our court system and overall culture have an antiquated way of viewing fathers.

Fathers are seen primarily in terms of “their ability to provide for their children financially versus their ability to be nurturing caretakers,” Abt says.

“…[This] needs to change,” she continues. “It hurts men and women alike, but most especially, children.”

Her film, “Daddy Don’t Go,” follows four impoverished fathers in New York City who defy the deadbeat dad stereotype. (Clevelander Omar Kennedy is one of the film’s subjects.) The subject matter is very personal for Abt. Her own grandfather, an immigrant from Germany, was pushed out of her father’s life “simply because he was impoverished” and unable to pay child support. Even though he loved his son, the judge ruled against him.

“Stories like this have always made me empathize deeply with disadvantaged dads,” she says. “A man who doesn’t have a job or can’t afford child support can still be there for his kids. We must find a way to empower disadvantaged men to stay present for their children against the odds.”

For the two years she was shooting “Daddy Don’t Go,” she became a part of four families during some intense and very personal happenings. As a former New York City caseworker, she has experience with subjects dealing with urban poverty, but it does not make it any easier.

“You only get intimate access to people’s lives if you’re there with your heart,” she says.

Abt and her crew gathered more than 280 hours of footage during that time.

“The editing process is always part heaven, part hell,” she says. “There are so many scenes we had to cut that I still cherish and think of often.”

She and the four dads continue to talk on the phone and keep in touch via Facebook. “The dads and their families will be part of my life for many years to come,” she says. In fact, a trust has been started for the children to ensure that good things come from their involvement in the film. (See:

The Cleveland International Film Festival programmed Abt’s last three feature films and awarded her the “Someone to Watch” honor in 2010 at CIFF 34.

“I love the diverse and enthusiastic audiences that this festival pulls in so successfully,” says Abt.“You don’t see that kind of diversity at most festivals but it’s what I crave most for my work.”

Anne M. DiTeodoro

PDF  Download Related PDF [6.2 MB]

Related Screenings:
04/07/16 @ 6:45 PM – Daddy Don't Go
04/09/16 @ 11:40 AM – Daddy Don't Go

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CIFF alum Steve James named #CIFF41 Director’s Spotlight Award recipient! Program info released this Friday 3/3.…

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Acclaimed documentary filmmaker and CIFF alum Steve James named as CIFF41 Directors Spotlight Award recipient! Full program information announced this Friday, March 3rd.

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