March 25, 2015 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
Even if you are not a huge country music fan, most likely you probably have heard of Merle Haggard or Buck Owens. But have you heard of Billy Mize?
Filmmaker Joe Saunders wants to change that. His film, “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” is a story about a music legend that many people may not be familiar with—his grandfather.
Saunders found a goldmine when his mother asked him to help organize and digitally transfer old film footage of his grandfather.
“The more I questioned what the material was, the more I found out about Billy and the entire music scene of Bakersfield,” says Saunders.
What Saunders found out was that his grandfather was a “country singer who revolutionized the music industry, inspired Elvis’ fashion,” and also someone who hosted more than 7,000 hours of television shows.
“Billy and the musicians out of Bakersfield were ... creating a new variety of music that went on to inform and change the culture of California and the music industry,” says Saunders.
Stardom was calling, but the ties to his family were stronger. That was the story that Saunders wanted to tell.
After sifting through plenty of archived material and vintage TV footage, Saunders found he had “great elements for a documentary.”
His family, including Billy, were all “on board to celebrate Billy’s life,” says Saunders. “Every time I would ask him [Billy] if something was okay to do, he’d say, ‘Whatever you want.’”
But there were personal tragedies that were part of the story. Those were difficult for the family to recount and relive. “I just told them if they don’t want to talk about something, then tell me and I’ll move on,” he says.
The documentary is definitely a labor of love for Saunders, who began his career with NFL Films. This project took about six years of on-and-off shooting and editing. “I actually shot another film between the time I started this and its completion,” he says.
As Saunders writes in his director’s notes on the film’s website: “It is not my intention to glorify my grandfather. He is human, and has flaws like the rest of us. Those flaws are an integral part of this film and create a richer, fuller story.”
Today, Billy is 86 years old and his age is showing, says Saunders. “But he still has that magnetic smile and wonderful sense of humor.”
March 24, 2015 | posted by Lara Klaber in Festival Events
Through CIFF’s FilmSlam program, students from Northeast Ohio junior high and high schools have the opportunity to see new films by some of the world's most innovative filmmakers, including short film programs in English, French, German, and Spanish. Participating teachers receive study guides with background information on each film, discussion topics, curriculum links, and an introduction to media literacy. Many of the FilmSlam screenings are followed with short presentations by filmmakers and other speakers who briefly answer questions posed by students.
“This year, we broke records,” says Beth Steele Radisek, who coordinates the program. “We have 8800 students from northeastern Ohio and Pennsylvania, and we have about 96 schools from all over attending the Festival this year.”
This year the program has added two exciting new features. “We have a new map that has all the different schools attending,” says Radisek. And then this year is the first year that students get to vote on their favorite short film and their favorite feature film that play in the Festival.” (Winners of each award receive $1,000) “And we will present that on Closing Night.”
The program has been very successful over the years. The experience has a great impact on the students who participate, as many of them have not been exposed to international and independent film.
“One of the schools that attended this year, they said that every year, they’re like: ‘oh, are we going to the Festival?’ And he said that they love it so much that two of their students talked about the Film Festival in their  graduation speeches. They said how much they loved the Film Festival and actually talked about certain shorts they loved.”
March 24, 2015 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
A fictional story portrayed as a documentary, Thomas Southerland’s “Proud Citizen” weaves the tale of a young Bulgarian woman’s unfulfilled dreams with a little taste of Kentucky living. Almost as important as the storyline was the voice to tell it.
“I heard Katerina Stoykova-Klemer's voice on the radio one day, and I was looking for someone to collaborate with on a film project,” Southerland says. “I found her voice fascinating and wondered if she was as interesting in person as she sounded. Turned out she was even more delightful in person.”
Southerland and fellow screenwriter, Stoykova-Klemer, approached the film with open minds and chose to let the story unfold as they went along.
“We shot without a script and filmed with little regard for future success,” says Southerland. “We simply focused on telling the story we found interesting and hoped others might be drawn to it, too.”
Horses may be top-of-mind when thinking of Kentucky, so there is no doubt some thoroughbreds make an appearance. Yet, for Kentucky native Southerland, the people prove to be more noteworthy.
“My favorite trait that a small city like Lexington has to offer is the openness of its citizens,” Southerland remarks. “Our main character, Krasimira, doesn't quite find the Southern hospitality she expected, but she does encounter people curious about her past and where she's headed. In Kentucky, people often take the time to listen to someone's story, provided you have a good one to tell.”
And Southerland has plenty of those to share including his early days working on set for free.
“I was first truly bitten by the film bug when I worked as an unpaid production assistant on a Civil War era film and got to hand bottled water every day to Chris Cooper and occasionally wrangle chickens,” Southerland recalls.
After almost fifteen years in the filmmaking industry, with a brief stint in chicken wrangling, Southerland has some insightful advice to offer up-and-coming filmmakers.
“Whatever story you have to tell, be sure it originates from a real interest in the characters,” says Southerland. “All good storytellers need to be very curious about the world and their fellow humans as well. Be an eavesdropper and learn to interview people, to ask questions and listen to answers.”
March 24, 2015 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
College friends come and go, but others stick around—sometimes long enough to help pave your way to the Winter Olympics. It’s maybe not as common as bonding over English 101 or the self-serve ice cream cones at the dorm’s food court, but for Galen Knowles, director of “Far From Home,” he not only found two lifelong friends, but an opportunity to make incredible history.
Brolin Mawejje, born in Uganda, had a challenging childhood before arriving in the United States when he was ten years old. Settling in America wasn’t much easier with multiple moves and troubles at home. Brolin soon took up skateboarding, and eventually snowboarding, which ultimately led to the dream he’s pursuing.
“Brolin, Phil Hessler (producer), and I lived in the same dorm our freshman year at Westminster College,” Knowles says. “At the start of our second year, the pair approached me on campus and told me Brolin had this far-fetched story and even larger-than-life dream of snowboarding in the Olympics for Uganda. As an aspiring filmmaker, I looked at this as a great opportunity, and as we began telling the story it only got bigger and bigger than our original vision.”
Naturally, Salt Lake City, tucked into the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, served as a perfect playground for these events to unfold. Even as a ten-year-old, Knowles found himself immersed in the outdoors, always searching for a new challenge.
“I sought out Utah for bigger mountains as a continuation of that childhood curiosity,” Knowles says. “The filmmaking process allowed me to access larger terrain and capture it to share with others.”
While filming plenty of impressive acrobatics, as well as vistas of mountaintops blanketed in feet of snow, it was just as important to keep filming the downtimes of casual conversation and sometimes deeper thoughts that would surface related to Brolin’s story.
“The greatest challenge was learning how to keep camera and sound running while we captured some very personal moments,” Knowles admits. “It seemed like every time we thought our heads would explode, we found just a little more room up there than we thought.”
At just 21 years old, Knowles continues to hone his craft as a young filmmaker by not only thinking “big picture” on this particular project, but by also taking on smaller jobs, meeting new crews, and challenging himself every day. He is already finding early success, but that is no accident.
“Luck will come, but it will only find you working,” says Knowles. “Hopefully those in a position to enable others will see this story as inspiration to reach out and create opportunities for youth like Brolin.”
March 24, 2015 | posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers
Cleveland native Rob Montague always knew he wanted to make movies. Music was his life, but movies are his first love. When he was ready to make his first feature, he wanted to write about something he knew.
“My music career had slowed, and I was working as a waiter,” says Montague. “I decided I’m buying a camera, I’m making something, and it snowballed from there.”
The idea was to make a film about friend Joe Willis’s band, from the making of their record all the way to its release. After talking it through, they decided to involve more bands; so he started calling friends and asking them to do interviews. The resulting film is “Long Way to the Top,” a feature-length documentary that goes behind the scenes to share the trials and tribulations of working musicians.
“I think the audience will connect with the bravery and the struggle that comes from following a dream and loving something so much you have to do it any cost,” he says.
Montague was curious about what inspires musicians to play music, so he interviewed musicians from varying levels of the business. He also followed alternative rock band Grizfolk, independent singer/songwriter David Ramirez, and doom metal favorite, The Sword, across two continents. Three years in the making, “Long Way to the Top,” features interviews with members of Taking Back Sunday, Nine Inch Nails, Weezer, and Def Leppard, among others.
“It was so surreal making this film,” says Montague. “I guess the biggest surprise was it felt like home, being on the road. We all really do have the same experience. The details are different but the result is always sacrifice—time, money, love. There’s a ton of risk and unknowns; but you have to live and breathe it to survive. It’s not just about paying the bills; it’s deeper, it’s the need to be a part of something bigger. Connecting.”
Montague has been a member of the CIFF audience in the past, but this is his first screening here.
“It’s very exciting being in my hometown,” he says. “The sense of community is overwhelming.”
As for what’s next, he’s currently developing a few things and growing Late Morning Films, his production company, with Rico Csabai and former tour mate Taylor Wallace.
Montague hopes that audiences watching “Long Way to the Top,” will be reminded that if you love something and have the talent, you can do it. You just have to be willing to go the full mile and not take short cuts.
By following that advice in his own career, Montague is certainly on his way to the top.