An Interview with with Leon Shahabian and Merym Almoshaikah of "Yemeniettes"

March 24, 2014, 12:25 AM   |   posted by in Filmmakers

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“Yemeniettes”is a story of courage, passion, and female empowerment. Producer and screenwriter Leon Shahabian and his assistant Merym Almoshaikah spoke with The Daily about their own challenges and experiences making the film.

CIFF: Where did the creative inspiration for “Yemeniettes” initiate?
Leon Shahabian: We were filming a Pan-Arab entrepreneurship competition as part Layalina’s most recent reality series, and I was drawn to a team from Yemen that wasn’t part of our show. I fell in love with their story and their contagious optimism, and it took us six months to convince potential funders to believe in these girls.

CIFF: This year 38th Cleveland International Film Festival is honoring films and filmmakers that are traditionally underrepresented, specifically those from the LGBT community. How does “Yemeniettes”contribute to this conversation?
Merym Almoshaikah: These young girls grew up in a conservative society, one that perpetually encourages a traditional, subservient role for women, where not much is expected of them outside the home. They also grew up in a poor society, one that happens to be battling against the threat of terrorism every day. The young girls did not receive the best education possible; they attended public schools, which focus on rote learning and stifle creativity. And yet, despite all these circumstances and challenges the girls are optimistic, and they are proving that much is possible. All too many end up as victims of the social and political circumstances around them, succumbing to the pressures placed on them whether it’s from family, society, or government. This film shows that despite being an underrepresented minority like that of the LGBT community, struggling against enormous odds every day, achievements – however small – are possible with the right tools and support systems.

LS: Our crew was mostly female since it’s difficult to film in the Arabian Gulf with a male crew, especially if you’re interviewing women for your film. We had LGBT community members in every department of the production, and the film is better for it. It’s one of the reasons that we submitted the movie to CIFF this year.

CIFF: What do you hope audiences will learn from “Yemeniettes”?
LS: Audiences are amazing. They see things in your film that you don’t. I like watching audiences as they’re watching my films to see which themes resonate, and which don’t. If anything, I hope that audiences walk away with an appreciation for the oneness of the human experience despite geographic and vast cultural differences.

CIFF: Is there anything else that will interest CIFF audiences?
MA: Although it focuses on a heavy subject matter, “Yemeniettes” has many facets to it that I think will interest and entertain audiences. CIFF audiences will definitely find themselves chuckling at some of the mannerisms depicted in the film that, although are very cultural, are also still very relatable.

LS: While we don’t have any of the amazing young women featured in the film in attendance at CIFF, audience members who have questions will find a fountain of knowledge about the Arabian Gulf in my colleague Merym Almoshaikah.

— Interview by Molly Drake

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Related Screenings:
03/24/14 @ 3:15 PM – Yemeniettes and The Red Carpet
03/25/14 @ 11:35 AM – Yemeniettes and The Red Carpet

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Living Life to the Fullest

March 24, 2014, 12:20 AM   |   posted by in Filmmakers

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Ricardo Villareal’s documentary, “Ride with Larry,” tells the story of Larry Smith, a man battling Parkinson’s disease, and his desire to live as full a life as possible.

“Powerful stories of courage, of hope, and of love, and those that contribute to humanizing societies, are important to make and to share with the world,” says Villareal.

The co-director and producer met Smith about ten years ago through one of his fellow producers.

“Larry mentioned that he wanted to ride his bike across the United States,” says Villareal. “[He hoped] to promote the benefits of exercising with Parkinson’s and inspire others to live life to the fullest.”

But when they met again in 2010, Larry’s disease had developed so much that he could not longer conquer that feat.

“It was clear the distance was not really the most important thing in his story,” says Villareal, “but his powerful message and incredible spirit to live.”

Villareal decided to go ahead with the filming because he believes Larry’s story is a necessary one to share with the world. “You learn that real heroes are often found in ordinary people,” he says.

“Ride with Larry” is sure to inspire and captivate CIFF audiences. Villareal says the subject matter is powerful and relatable.

“Everyone in the production team has Parkinson’s in their families,” says Villareal, “and we wanted to do something that served as a tribute to those we love and those who suffer this incurable condition.”

And the film directly connects to Cleveland. Dr. Jay Alberts from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation does research on cycling and Parkinson’s.

“[Dr. Alberts] shares some incredible revelations of his studies,” Villareal says.

Villareal is excited to bring his feature film “Ride with Larry” to CIFF audiences. This moving tale of a man defeating his odds and confronting this horrible disease “will truly change the way you see life.”

Molly Drake

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Related Screenings:
03/24/14 @ 5:20 PM – Ride with Larry
03/25/14 @ 7:20 PM – Ride with Larry
03/26/14 @ 9:20 AM – Ride with Larry

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The Roma Community: Europe's Forgotten People

March 24, 2014, 12:15 AM   |   posted by in Filmmakers

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Two women filming in freezing temperatures, tight quarters, and feces-filled mud might not be ideal conditions for storytelling, but Kate Ryan was determined to reveal some devastating truths.

Since age 9, Kate Ryan knew she wanted to work in the film industry. In film school, Ryan worked as a videographer with various non-profit organizations.

“These experiences helped me realize that my strength was in documentaries and non-fiction,” Ryan recalls, “and that instead of being a famous actress or director, I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless.”

One of these groups for which she provided her video services worked with the Roma people in Eastern Europe, a path that would inspire her first feature film, “Welcome Nowhere.”

“I traveled for three summers to Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey, where we visited Roma camps,” Ryan says. “It was here that I was first exposed to the racism and marginalization that this group faces, and was shocked to discover that such outward discrimination still existed in the 21st century.”

Seeing these issues firsthand raised a number of questions, and what initially began as curiosity turned into an intense research project that took over five years to complete.

The Roma people live in squalor. Years of prejudice isolate them from the rest of society. Their homes are dilapidated boxcars where disease runs rampant. Children often do not have access to medical care and are sent to segregated schools. Locals discouraged Ryan from even associating with the Roma community. Above these difficult circumstances was still a greater one.

“The toughest challenge I faced personally was convincing this community that
 I would fairly tell
 their side of the 
story,” Ryan says.
“They had been so
 misrepresented by 
the media that they
 distrusted anyone
 who came in, no matter what they claimed. Thankfully, a couple who work with them served as my ambassadors to let them know my intentions to tell their story were sincere. This allowed them to trust me to do justice to their story, which in turn was a whole new challenge and level of responsibility.”

Ethan Hawke narrates the film, and his connection to the story is a personal one. “Ethan’s mom, Leslie, runs an incredible organization in Romania called OvidiuRo that works to provide early education to impoverished children in Romania, many who are Roma,” Ryan comments. “Ethan is acutely aware of the issue and therefore was willing to lend his voice to the film.”

Ryan wants “Welcome Nowhere” to expose audiences to an issue they knew nothing about. “I hope that they can see themselves in the characters, and can see the universality of what this story represents—poverty, human rights, and tolerance.”

—Amy Kersey

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Related Screenings:
03/24/14 @ 9:30 PM – Welcome Nowhere
03/25/14 @ 5:20 PM – Welcome Nowhere
03/26/14 @ 12:10 PM – Welcome Nowhere

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From Tragedy Comes Hope: An Uplifting Movie about Death

March 24, 2014, 12:10 AM   |   posted by in Filmmakers

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Joshua Shreve was shooting a horror movie when producer Molly Mayeux sent him a script to review.

“When I read the script, I really liked the idea of doing something challenging and completely different,” he says.

So he took on “Chasing Ghosts,” a family-friendly drama/comedy. Shreve, a filmmaker based in Nashville, Tennessee, via Sweden and Tulsa, Oklahoma, always knew he wanted to be a filmmaker since childhood.

“I used to get my friends together and make little movies,” he says.

Although Shreve is no longer a kid making movies, 11-year-old Lucas (Toby Nichols), the film’s main character, is. He’s a young filmmaker obsessed with death.

“The character Lucas is starting to go down a dark path,” says Shreve. “He has lost his brother, and the family is broken.”

A challenging role for a child actor, but Shreve said Nichols fit the bill perfectly.

“I wanted someone who could portray this closed-off side, but also show a sense of vulnerability,” he says. “Toby was the right person for the job.”

Producer Mayeux agrees: “We all knew this kid had something special and that he was Lucas.”

Also cast in the film is Tim Meadows, who many may recognize from “Saturday Night Live.” Although Meadows is known for comedy, Shreve had a gut feeling that he would be perfect for the role of Chris Brighton, who befriends Lucas.

“From the very first moment I read the script, I saw him [Meadows] playing the part in my head and I couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Shreve says.

Meadows was sent the script and accepted the part. He told the filmmakers “that he read it [the script] three times and cried every time.”

If you think that “Chasing Ghosts,” which is premiering at the Cleveland International Film Festival, is just about death and dying, you’re dead wrong, say the filmmakers.

“It’s funny, touching, a little bit mysterious and has a lot of heart,” says Shreve.

If you’re like Lucas and recently lost a loved one, “this is a perfect film to watch,” says Mayeux.

“I’d be really honored if a family coping with grief watches our movie and is uplifted in some way.

After all, the film is about learning to live life again to its fullest.”

—Anne M. DiTeodoro

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Related Screenings:
03/24/14 @ 8:30 PM – Chasing Ghosts
03/25/14 @ 5:30 PM – Chasing Ghosts

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CIFF Night at the Beachland Ballroom

March 24, 2014, 12:05 AM   |   posted by in Festival Events

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As a recent transplant to Cleveland who is still exploring all the city’s hot spots, I ventured out to Collinwood to experience the 38th CIFF’s first ever film screening at the legendary Beachland Ballroom, sponsored by Cellar Door Cleveland.

Walking through the front door was a refreshing step back in time. Originally built in 1950 as the Croatian Liberty Home, the venue was converted in 2000 to host a diverse range of musical acts in the main ballroom and smaller gigs featured in the tavern. The place holds plenty of its original character with its wooden-slatted gym floor, brassy crown molding, and intimate setting for concert-goers.

Both films shown last night were part of yet another first for the festival this year, the Music Movies competition. The night began with “Mistaken for Strangers,” a comedic and touching rock-doc about The National, an indie rock band who graced the Ballroom’s stage in 2003.

“The National played here on September 3, 2003, and we paid them $150 to play in the tavern,” said Cindy Barber, one of the owners of the Beachland Ballroom as she introduced the film. The popular band has gone on to find international success and had a recent guest appearance on Saturday Night Live.

Cleveland local Cory Paul was highly anticipating the second film, “The Ballad of Shovels and Rope”. “This is one of the main places I come to see a show in Cleveland,” said Paul. “I attend the film festival as often as I can, and I’m excited they’ve started showing screenings at Beachland.”

Thankfully, Cleveland’s historical landmark is only the beginning of this burgeoning neighborhood. After the show, I wandered into a record shop, Music Saves, and Star Pop Vintage & Modern, offering a hodgepodge of action figures and collectors’ items. After being newly branded a local, I’m happy to say it was my first of many visits to Collinwood’s Waterloo Arts District. Cheers, Cleveland! You’re starting to feel like home.

Amy Kersey
Photo by Hilary Bovay

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Related Screenings:
03/23/14 @ 6:00 PM – Mistaken for Strangers
03/23/14 @ 8:00 PM – The Ballad of Shovels and Rope

Related Events:
03/23/14 @ 6:00 PM – Evening at the Beachland Ballroom

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