Cleveland International Film Festival } March 25 – April 5, 2020 } Tower City Cinemas

Filmmaker Provides Roadmap to Teens with Cancer

April 01, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers


Cancer does not discriminate. That’s hardly a surprise given that most people have been affected by the devastating illness one way or another.

With “Cancer Rebellion,” though, filmmaker Hernan Barangan is shining his light on the roughly 70,000 teenagers and young adults diagnosed with cancer each year. Right now, this age group is commonly diagnosed at a late stage of cancer simply because most don’t expect young people to get it.

It’s a deeply personal topic for Barangan, himself diagnosed with leukemia at age 15, just as his life was beginning to unfold. Years later—now cancer-free and using a wheelchair—he traveled to every state to tell the stories of the young men and women courageously fighting cancer.

“The scariest thing about facing a cancer diagnosis is that when it happens to you, you’re absolutely facing the unknown,” says Barangan. “So I wanted this film to act as a sort of road map—emotionally and physically—for all the stages of going through treatment and coming out the other side. When you have a map, being lost isn’t so scary.”

As Barangan started making films about people’s cancer experiences, he was fascinated by how individual these experiences are. He also saw commonalities in these experiences—elements that rang true for everyone. He says he learned there’s more that ties us together than keeps us apart.

“It took a feat of courage to be able to hear these stories at first,” he says. “I was afraid of welcoming these emotions back into my life afraid of having to say the word cancer again and again. Like it was the boogeyman, and by invoking his name he would reappear. Honestly, I still have that irrational fear. But the more stories I absorbed … the more I learned about my own story. So much of my identity and my world view is built on the foundation of my cancer experience.”

In many ways, he hopes to shift the prevailing narrative in media and film about cancer.

“This is happening all around us, and we can’t ignore it anymore,” says Barangan. “We can’t push these fears away like they are some imaginary boogeyman. Teenage cancer is real and it’s cutting lives short­­—every day.”

Timothy Magaw

PHOTO: Hernan Barangan’s LinkedIn profile lists him as “Chief Rebellion Officer.” His focus: empowering teen and young adult cancer fighters through storytelling. He travelled to all 50 states and interviewed 100 teen cancer patients for his film.

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Related Screenings:
04/01/19 @ 1:45 PM – Cancer Rebellion
04/02/19 @ 5:00 PM – Cancer Rebellion
04/03/19 @ 11:50 AM – Cancer Rebellion

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A Journey into the Hidden History, and Hopeful Future, of a Filmmaker's Hometown

March 31, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers


When “While I Breathe, I Hope” director Emily Harrold realized that Bakari Sellers, who holds the record as the youngest African American politician to take office in the United States, was running for South Carolina’s Lieutenant Governor, she knew that his story was one that she had to tell.

“I thought his journey through the campaign, win or lose, would be a very interesting and important way to explore the role of race in southern politics,” she recalls. “And it was also a film that I knew nobody else would make if I didn't make it.”

Harrold had grown up in Orangeburg, South Carolina, site of the 1968 Orangeburg Massacre, where three black SC State students were killed and 28 were wounded by state troopers during a protest. While all nine of the state troopers were acquitted for their roles, activist Cleveland Sellers was arrested, tried, and convicted for inciting a riot. It would be 25 years before he received a full pardon, but he chose not to have the record expunged, calling it a “badge of honor.” Bakari is his son.

“I learned about the Orangeburg Massacre when I was middle-school aged,” Harrold says, “but not in middle school. Surprisingly it wasn't part of the curriculum.”

It’s one of many stories that she feels the South keeps quiet. “I'm working a number of projects from South Carolina because I feel that many stories from my home often go overlooked. As a southern filmmaker, I believe that I have a unique opportunity to help change this.”

When she learned that Bakari Sellers was running for office in 2014, she reached out right away to his campaign. “I had a family friend who was active in South Carolina politics and he made an intro for me,” she remembers. “It also helped that my mother, Judy Harrold, taught Bakari when he was in high school at Orangeburg-Wilkinson. Bakari said ‘yes’ pretty quickly, and then it just became about trying to keep up with him and his campaign team. It was an incredible adventure.”

South Carolina was a much different place, even five years ago. “In 2014, the Confederate flag was still flying on the South Carolina State House grounds—and it was politically risky for Bakari to say he wanted it down,” she says. “But he did it. His opponent started in politics working for Strom Thurmond and was a member of a whites-only country club that he refused to leave (they now have one African American member). The vestiges of a racially unequal political system are still very much fused into the fabric of the American South. And Bakari's campaign was a great way to shine a light on this.”

The project was a labor of love, funded on a shoestring budget. “I borrowed equipment,” she says. “I used my parents mini-van as our production vehicle. I called in so many favors. But I knew this was an important story that was getting overlooked.”

Post-production was slow and piecemeal, with Harrold editing the project in between other paying gigs. During that time, she says, “We kept filming Bakari in order to ensure the film would stay up-to-date.” Then everything took a surprising new turn.

“I had no idea, of course, that part of the film would include the events of the Charleston Massacre,” she reveals. The infamous shooting “really brought into sharp focus the extent to which race relations and civil rights are battles we are still facing today.”

If there’s anything that she wants audiences to take away from the film, it’s definitely that. “I want audiences to really think about how ingrained race is in the fabric of the United States,” Harrold concludes. “I think this film really shows what it means to be a young African American fighting to build a more equitable tomorrow. But our original sin of racism runs very deep, and it is something that hasn't gone away. Even though we might like to think that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s solved everything, it has become particularly evident in the last few years that this isn't the case. Until we face this, until everyone faces this, I don't think our country can fully heal.”

– Lara Klaber

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Related Screenings:
03/31/19 @ 6:35 PM – While I Breathe, I Hope
04/01/19 @ 2:10 PM – While I Breathe, I Hope

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T Cooper's Film Gives a Voice to Trans Bodybuilders

March 31, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers


T Cooper is many things: a best-selling fiction author, a writer for TV, and an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Emory University.

Now Cooper is adding to his résumé and stepping into the director’s chair with the full-length documentary “Man Made,” which follows four men competing at Trans FitCon, the world’s only all-transgender bodybuilding competition.

“I wanted this film to reflect on what it means to ‘be a man’ or ‘be a woman’ at this particular cultural moment,” Cooper says. “The metaphor of bodybuilding of course dovetails nicely with this larger pursuit, because in many ways we are all bodybuilders in our lives.

“As humans, we build our lives and worlds (and bodies) in the ways we desire, and we are constantly evolving as humans, from the moment we are born to the moment we leave,” he continues.

Accordingly, the stories Cooper tells in his film are compelling and transformative, and address things such as identity, politics, and mental health with both sensitivity and nuance.

“As I filmed more and more with these subjects, it became more and more clear to me what an incredible story I had on my hands—both individual stories and on the level of a collective story about trans masculine life in our culture and country at this moment,” Cooper says.

“A challenge that frequently reared its head was the pressure of wanting to make sure I told these guys’ stories in a way that was authentic and true.”

One of the documentary’s main subjects is Cleveland-based bodybuilder Mason Caminiti, who, in addition to training for Trans FitCon, has also participated in mainstream competitions.

In 2014, Caminiti was the first transgender man to win a gold medal in bodybuilding at the Gay Games.

His impressive training regimen and openness to discuss his path to self-acceptance—he once attempted suicide and lives with bipolar disorder—make him one of the most poignant subjects featured in “Man Made.”

“In Mason I think I was given the heart of the film in some ways, maybe even a thesis,” Cooper says. “I mean, he’ll tell you himself: Bodybuilding literally saved Mason’s life, in more ways than one.”

In a separate interview, Caminiti shares that being in the film has “changed people’s hearts and minds,” including, and especially, people in his own life.

“It’s changed the relationship between my parents and I,” he shares. “After they saw the film at a screening near them, it was one of the first times in my life my father actually said he was proud of me.

“I can’t say enough how much I appreciate T or the opportunity to be part of such an amazing project,” Caminiti adds. “T being transgender helped myself and the other subjects connect and create a level of trust that is unparalleled.”

—Annie Zaleski

PHOTO: Filmmaker T Cooper wanted to “wholly represent the FTM (female-to-male) side of trans life,” he says, “because we don’t see it represented as much as we see MTF (male-to-female) trans stories, for instance.”

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Related Screenings:
03/31/19 @ 7:20 PM – Man Made
04/01/19 @ 2:05 PM – Man Made

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For the Love of the Game

March 31, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers


Tim O’Donnel, the director of “Life Without Basketball,” followed his subject, Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, for four years. Over such a time period, O’Donnel became almost family with the Abdul-Qaadirs.

He remarks, “We would hop in the family van and go on road trips, to the mosque, and events, and it always felt like I was back home with my own family.” O’Donnel followed Bilqis and her family through a difficult time of transition where basketball, Bilqis’ love, was no longer possible.

Prior to being the subject of “Life Without Basketball,” Bilqis shattered male and female high school basketball records with 3,000 points in high school. She went on to play Division 1, meet President Obama, and sign an agent. She was also known for practicing her Muslim beliefs, which meant playing while showing no skin, except her hands, and wearing a hijab.

However, FIBA, the International Basketball Federation, ruled that she would be unable to compete professionally while wearing the hijab. The film follows her transition from basketball star to advocate, a journey that O’Donnel calls “both beautiful and heartbreaking.”

The film progresses as Bilqis moves from player to coach to advocate, as she finishes graduate school, gets married, and moves to Memphis, Tennessee. Yet, O’Donnel says, “The minute she wasn’t allowed back on the court at the pro level, a piece of her identity died.”

As an observer during this time of struggle, O’Donnel had nothing but praise for Bilqis. “I’ve never seen so much resilience and grace,” he says. “She turned that pain and sadness into motivation to help others.”

The film covers how she endured and fought for the rights of others, but the story is not limited to Bilqis’ experiences. It touches upon broader themes as well. “We hear from other Muslim youths and how the current climate has affected and increased stereotypes and acts of hate,” says O’Donnel.

Although this was not the initial intention, it was a natural byproduct of being present, notes O’Donnel. “We tried not to force aspects we thought were important into the storytelling, but rather let everyday life pull out the themes,” he says.

As Bilqis continues to travel as an advocate and motivational speaker, she, her family, O’Donnel, and the rest of the crew are left with a treasure trove of four years of their lives. “Now that the film is finished, every screening feels like home movie night,” O’Donnel says. “Most of the times all of our families are in attendance. And we laugh, cry, and cheer for the center of the story—Bilqis.”

—W. Connor Drake

PHOTO: Filmmaker Tim O’Donnel takes audiences on a journey with Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir, pictured. We not only witness her love for the game of basketball, but also see her tenacity as she fights against discrimination from the International Basketball Federation and its ban on headgear.

PDF  Download Related PDF [1.5 MB]

Related Screenings:
03/31/19 @ 7:10 PM – Life Without Basketball
04/01/19 @ 4:45 PM – Life Without Basketball
04/02/19 @ 9:30 AM – Life Without Basketball

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Traveling into the dark and brilliant world of a wounded child

March 30, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers


One in four girls, and one in six boys. That, according to the CDC, is the number of children who will be sexually assaulted before reaching adulthood. It’s a sobering statistic, one that has been brought into sharp and painful focus in the wake of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Even before the hashtags began to proliferate, director Emily Kassie had found her own focus: the titular subject of her documentary, “A Girl Named C.”

An investigative journalist, Kassie has used film to tell hard stories before. Her Academy Award-winning short, “I Married My Family’s Killer,” took audiences into the aftermath of Rwanda’s devastating 1994 genocide, and the fraught reconciliations between survivors on both sides of the machetes. This time, her story came to her.

Assaulted at the age of 11, “C” began to use art and film to work her way through her trauma. She and her family struggled to piece their lives back together, moving across the country in the process, and began reaching out to other survivors and experts. In the process, they connected with Kassie.

“When C and her family came to me with what happened to them,” she recalls, “I couldn’t shake the sense that this was a story I needed to tell.”

A rape survivor herself, Kassie recognized not only a kindred spirit, but one whose artistry would help others relate to her as well. “I saw myself and the stories of my peers through C,” she explains, “and believed her perspective could elevate the conversation and give an audience real insight into what it means to go on living after an assault.”

She decided to focus less on the assault itself than on the aftermath, the personal impact on C’s psyche. “This film isn’t about proving something happened,” Kassie points out. “This isn’t about holding a particular assailant responsible.” Instead, it’s a journey into the mind of a child whose life has been derailed, as she and her family find their way back to new wholeness.

One powerful way that Kassie takes us into C’s mind is through her artwork. “We shoot the film from C’s perspective and through her art because it offers a different take on what it means to be a survivor,” she says. She teamed up with Mary Nittolo, the creative director of The STUDIO NYC, to transform C’s drawings and artistic style into vivid animated sequences that help viewers connect with her deepest thoughts and feelings. “This was an opportunity to enter into the body and mind of a survivor. To actually share the doubts, the fear, the disbelief.”

The film had moved into the post-production phase when #MeToo took over social media. With the statistics suddenly feeling more human and immediate than ever to people, Kassie knew that C’s story was more vital than ever. C has invited us into her world, and her mind, to see her wounds and how they begin to heal, and maybe to see ourselves in her. Above all, “this film is about empathy,” Kassie says, “and the common experience of loss that we’ve all felt in our childhoods, men and women alike.”

–Lara Klaber

PDF  Download Related PDF [1.2 MB]

Related Screenings:
03/30/19 @ 4:00 PM – A Girl Named C
03/31/19 @ 2:40 PM – A Girl Named C

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CIFF Tweets

Hey film fans! We’re looking for a few good people to join the CIFF seasonal staff! Take a look at what positions we have available and see if you might fit the bill. For job openings and application form, visit:

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CIFF Facebook Posts

Hey film fans! Were looking for a few good people to join the CIFF seasonal staff! Take a look at what positions we have available and see if you might fit the bill. For job openings and application form, visit: the link!

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Follow us @clefilmfest

Here we go film fans – CIFF44’s Opening Night and Closing Night Films are announced! Join us ‪on Wednesday, March 25th‬ @playhousesquare for our Opening Night Film MILITARY WIVES, and ‪on Sunday, April 5th‬ for our Closing Night Film DREAM HORSE! Tickets for Opening Night are now on sale at, with all other tickets going on sale ‪Friday, March 6th‬ for members, ‪Friday, March 13th‬ for non-members.

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