Cleveland International Film Festival } March 27 – April 7, 2019 } Tower City Cinemas

"Dark Money" explores the shady side of political influence

April 13, 2018   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that entities such as corporations, nonprofits, and unions could fund electioneering communications (e.g., political ads) to try and sway elections—and they could keep their identities a secret in the process.

The ruling reverberated around political circles, in the form of "dark money" that started influencing elections across the U.S. This worrisome trend piqued the interest of director Kimberly Reed, who spent more than five years in her native Montana filming the documentary "Dark Money," which premiered earlier in 2018 at the Sundance Film Festival.

"Super PAC money can be unlimited, but with dark money groups, money can be unlimited and anonymous," Reed told realscreen. "I could see this would be a loophole that would be exploited more and more, and I could see that Montana would be the main spot where this clash was going to happen.

"I started following the election cycles with the idea that this is the canary in the coal mine," she added. "I thought this would be a good microcosm of a story for what the whole country is going through."

This certainly wasn't easy, especially since Reed bootstrapped the film herself, and was dealing with a vast expanse of land. "Montana is enormous, so that sense of scale is pretty rough, everybody is spread out all over the place," she told realscreen. "I spent a lot of the time in the car driving from one place to another."

Yet Reed's hunch about Montana being ripe for storytelling was proven right: "Dark Money" uses the state to examine how these shady funds were pushed toward Republican campaigns.

Even still, the documentary isn't a downer; in fact, "Dark Money" also shows how Montana residents successfully helped enact campaign finance reform in the state.

Indeed, although it might be easy to give into political cynicism—and the starting point of "Dark Money" certainly is bleak—Reed stressed to realscreen that all is not lost when it comes to changing the status quo.

"People think there is nothing you can do about the influence of money in politics," she said. "That’s not true and that’s what the folks in Montana showed us. Especially following a red state where Donald Trump won by a bunch, if you can have strong campaign finance reforms there, you can have them anywhere."

—Annie Zaleski

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Related Screenings:
04/13/18 @ 5:30 PM – Dark Money
04/15/18 @ 11:40 AM – Dark Money

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German Film Focuses on Family, Conflict, and Confronting the Past

April 13, 2018   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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Nick Baker-Monteys asks: “Who doesn’t have a family with secrets and conflicts?”

In fact, he builds his latest film, “The Final Journey” around that very premise. The feature follows a German grandfather, Eduard (played by Jürgen Prochnow from 1981’s “Das Boot”), and granddaughter, Adele, who together go to the Ukraine, where the grandfather fought during World War II. He is in search of a lost love, who he hasn’t heard from in over 50 years.

“It’s about confronting the past, discovering how the past has shaped us, and hopefully coming to terms with that,” Baker-Monteys says.

The story idea came from his co-writer, Alexandra Umminger, whose own grandfather was an officer in the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of Nazi Germany. As they were crafting the script, the two writers also learned about a German soldier who went on a similar journey to the Ukraine looking for the love of his life.

“The story grew and developed over time,” says Baker-Monteys. “[Then] the conflict in the Ukraine began.”

During the filming, there was civil war on the border between the Ukraine and Russia, which became part of the story, too.

As the script continued to develop, “increasingly, I realized the story was about my own family, too!” Baker-Monteys says, and adds that others come up to him after the film’s screening and mention that they found similarities that reminded them of their own families—no matter what nationality they are.

Audiences will get to know more than Eduard and Adele, as the other characters that the two meet along the way also play into the plot.

“It’s a great story about characters who we can relate to,” he says. “The history we delve into is also fascinating. But permeating everything is the human face of war and conflict. Not the issue of who is right and wrong. Good guy or bad guy. It doesn’t matter whether during World War II or now in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

“I’m interested in what unites us, not [what] divides us,” he concludes.

Molly Drake and Anne M. DiTeodoro

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Related Screenings:
04/12/18 @ 1:20 PM – The Final Journey
04/13/18 @ 7:05 PM – The Final Journey
04/14/18 @ 11:50 AM – The Final Journey

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Art as Medicine

April 13, 2018   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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For “Kusama-Infinity” director Heather Lenz, Yayoi Kusama is an inspiration, one she has studied, written, and even lectured on before making a film about her. For many people in the general public, Kusama is an enigma whose imagery has flirted on the edges of their awareness. Now, she’s taking her rightful place as one of the top artists of the time.

“Kusama-Infinity” explores Kusama’s impressive and versatile body of work, and the equally fascinating—and frequently tormented—artist who creates it. The polka-dot “infinity nets” that have become her trademark, after all, are also hallmarks of the hallucinations she experiences.

“I fight pain, anxiety, and fear every day,” she says in her autobiography, “and the only method I have found that relieves my illness is to keep creating art.”

Kusama first made a name for herself in the 1950s and 1960s, when she came to America with the intention of shaking up the art world and becoming one of its stars.

“She’s a trailblazer,” says Lenz, “who had to overcome racism, sexism, and mental illness on her way to become the world-famous artist she is today.”

Kusama’s work challenged viewers—her phallus-adorned chairs and body paintings were so racy that, upon her later return to Japan, she was considered scandalous—and also challenged the art world itself.

“She rivaled people like Andy Warhol in the ’60s,” Lenz points out. Warhol only “won” that friendly rivalry when Kusama left New York and returned to Japan, checking herself into a mental hospital and “falling into obscurity for decades, and then having a comeback.”

In the 1990s, art connoisseurs began to rediscover her work, with canny buyers snapping up vintage pieces that had ended up in consignment shops. Today, her signature polka-dotted pumpkins have been rendered as Limoges boxes and Louis Vuitton bags.

“She is currently the world’s top-selling female artist,” Lenz adds.

A 50-year retrospective of Kusama’s work began touring the United States in February of 2017, and broke records for attendance and demand at the Smithsonian Institution’s Hirshhorn Museum. Lenz’s film comes at a particularly opportune moment: the exhibition, currently on display in Toronto, is scheduled to arrive at the Cleveland Museum of Art this summer.

From July 7 to September 30, a broad array of artwork, including six of her legendary Infinity Rooms, will be on display. CMA members can already purchase tickets, which will go on sale to the general public on April 16.

Lara Klaber

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Related Screenings:
04/11/18 @ 1:50 PM – Kusama - Infinity
04/13/18 @ 7:40 PM – Kusama - Infinity

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Weathering the Storm

April 12, 2018   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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For Reuben Atlas, filmmaking and law were both in his blood, but neither felt like quite the right fit. “My mom was a filmmaker,” Atlas told the Montclair Local. “She had a Steenbeck in the attic. I did not go to film school. I studied political science. I did that because I didn’t have to commit too much. I ended up going to law school.”

His father, John Atlas, is a lawyer and the founder of the National Housing Institute. But law didn’t feel quite right to him, either, and he took some time off after college to travel in South America before coming back to law school. “It was not for me at all,” he admits. “At the time, I was going through the motions and really trying to do it. I did it, graduated, passed the bar, and practiced for a while.”

It was during that time that he began to get an inkling of his real calling. “I started working wth Rockefeller drug law inmates who I thought were unfairly incarcerated. I was trying to make advocacy videos to help them get released early. Guys could get caught with a gram of cocaine. It would be their third strike. They’d be in for 15 years for like nothing. That started it, I guess.”

A few years later, the ACORN scandal struck. When a heavily edited video, constructed by activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles and purporting to show the grass-roots advocacy organization assisting a prostitute and pimp in setting up an underage brothel, began circulating in 2008, it ultimately brought down an organization that had been serving underprivileged citizens for 40 years, and positioned a little-known media organization, Breitbart News, to become a major player in the political climate to come.

“I was shocked and surprised that ACORN became such a big deal in the [2008] elections,” he recalls. “Looking back it makes sense. The film provides a good idea of why.”

His father, in fact, wrote a book about the scandal, Seeds of Change, which was published in 2010. The subsequent shutdown of ACORN would ultimately compel him to make a documentary on the subject, but first he needed to get a few other projects under the belt.

His first feature film, “Brothers Hypnotic,” was inspired when he heard the eight sons of jazz legend Phil Cohran performing on the streets of New York City. It took him a while to convince them to let him tell their story, but it ultimately paid off in an award-winning documentary spotlighting both their music and their journey as artists. From there, he turned to “Sour Grapes,” the story of a counterfeiter who infiltrated the wine connoisseur community and then began selling its members fake vintages. Both films served as preparation for the weighty subject matter he was about to take on: the targeting and destruction of an organization that, until it was suddenly thrust in the spotlight and vilified, had been quietly helping and empowering the underprivileged for decades.

Atlas “really wanted to come to understand how ACORN on the one hand could be all at once this sort of amazing progressive institution that fought for justice for 40 years, and simultaneously a chant at tea party rallies, representing everything wrong with liberalism,” he recalled. One of his big goals was “making a film that both sides would watch.”

He teamed up with veteran documentarian Samuel D. Pollard, who had previously served as a producer on “Brothers Hypnotic.” The two focused on telling the story of what happened, behind all of the hype and hysteria that swirled around the media circus.

“ACORN had 400,000 members at its peak. There were tons of devoted staff people who were all interesting characters, and fought tons of battles,” he told the Montclair Local. “I was very inspired by these 60-70-year-old women I would meet who at their age were willing to lie down in the streets for what they believed in.”

Lara Klaber

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Related Screenings:
04/11/18 @ 4:15 PM – ACORN and the Firestorm
04/12/18 @ 9:30 PM – ACORN and the Firestorm

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Dawnland: An Eye-Opening Documentary

April 12, 2018   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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According to co-director Adam Mazo, “Dawnland” reveals the untold story of how generations of Indigenous children have been taken from their families and cultures and the historic investigation into this devastating practice.

Audiences will see the first government-sanctioned truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) in U.S. history which ran from 2012-2015 in Maine. The film centers the testimony of Wabanaki people impacted by the child welfare system.

Initially, he was shocked and angry that so many Native families had been broken up by the State.

“I felt like this story has to be shared to prevent these atrocities from continuing,” says Mazo. During the filming, he admits, he was moved by the courage of the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot, and Passamaquoddy—“people who courageously spoke the truth on the record to the commission. Witnessing this testimony in person reinforced the responsibility we as filmmakers have, to make sure that Wabanaki peoples’ stories are widely seen and believed.”

Co-director Ben Pender-Cudlip, explains that the film is about state agents targeting specific families and deliberately breaking them apart. “‘Dawnland’ tells a human rights story that is broadly relevant to many ongoing conversations in our society,” he says. “It is also a call to action, especially to those of us who are non-Native, about how we can support Native-led movements.”

“I hope viewers will walk away feeling deeply impacted by the courage of Wabanaki people to share their most intimate stories,” says Mazo. “I hope viewers will see this as a wake-up call and transform that into action to honor and acknowledge Native peoples and their land.”

As a call to action, the co-directors recommend that viewers will support the National Indian Child Welfare Association in their essential defense of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Here’s more from the co-directors:

Mazo: “In this era of fake news we need truth tellers and the Wabanaki people featured in “Dawnland” should be role models; indeed they are upstanders who speak out to prevent injustice by speaking the truth.

“While these truths are difficult and often painful, the Wabanaki peoples’ choice to share their stories represents an incredible moment of hopefulness, we believe, for Wabanaki people and all Native people,” he continues. “Native peoples are so frequently historicized that we need contemporary stories that affirm the strength, independence, and vitality of Native communities. The truth commission in Maine is an historic and contemporary event that can and should be a model for other much needed truth and racial healing efforts in the U.S. and in other countries grappling with colonialism currently.”

Pender-Cudlip: “This commission’s mandate instructed them to investigate one specific issue (the implementation of of the Indian Child Welfare Act between 1978 and 2012) in one specific state (Maine).

“Clearly we, as a nation, have a lot more work to do,” he says. “This commission is an inspiring start, and we hope that ‘Dawnland’ helps other communities design their own truth-telling, restorative justice, and decolonization processes.”

Mazo: “I hope that CIFF audiences will learn that the Wabanaki people are survivors who are their contemporaries living across the dawn land (Maine and Atlantic Canada) today. I hope CIFF audiences will see that Wabanaki people have been incredibly courageous in opening their hearts and sharing their stories.

“We hope ‘Dawnland’ can help show CIFF audiences that there is a path toward healing and perhaps even reconciliation through truth-telling, authentic listening, and acknowledgement of past and current harms.”

Pender-Cudlip: “I hope Indigenous viewers will feel that their stories are being told. I hope they will see themselves in the people on screen and feel represented, heard, and honored. It’s a big dream, but we hope that ‘Dawnland’ can in some small way provide a shared cultural affirmational moment in much the same way that Black Panther has done for so many Black people around the globe.

“We hope Indigenous people will feel strengthened by seeing other Native people speaking truth, being empowered and having self-determination and how this leads to great things being accomplished.”

—Molly Drake

PDF  Download Related PDF [1.2 MB]

Related Screenings:
04/13/18 @ 8:30 PM – Dawnland
04/14/18 @ 1:20 PM – Dawnland
04/15/18 @ 9:20 AM – Dawnland

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