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

Quality Time with Technicolor Poodles

March 30, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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Rebecca Stern thought she was going to be a lawyer, but life had other plans for her.

“The plan was always to go to a good school, read a lot, spend some time in an office, and then go to law school,” she told Gabriella Rico of Women and Hollywood earlier this month. Instead, she found herself in New York, crewing for Matt Heineman on his 2015 documentary, “Cartel Land.”

“That experience taught me about verite filmmaking and about moving fast,” she recalls, “and I got addicted to the documentary form and to the pace of the work.” From there, she moved on to producer duties on several documentaries before finally taking the directing helm with “Well Groomed.”

Many of the productions she has worked on have covered dark or heavy topics—internet harassment, nuclear weapons, and the war on drugs, to name a few—but “Well Groomed” journeys into a lighter, and much brighter, world as Stern explores “a niche community of women spending quality time with their technicolor poodles.”

From the beginning, the project kept taking her by surprise. “The first thing that drew me in was the images of the dogs,” she recalls. “The sensational colors and designs were something I had never seen before.”

Equally surprising was the controversiality of the hobby. “Fifty percent of the people who see pictures of creative dogs are in awe and laugh,” Stern muses, “and the other 50 percent are also in awe but say ‘poor dog!’ The women were understandably frustrated by the negative reactions.”

She decided to address the controversy head-on within the documentary, although it was somewhat difficult because many of the most vocal critics were anonymous voices on the Internet. “I wanted to cover this controversy in the film in a way that took the concerns, and the women’s answers, seriously,” she says, “but also stayed true to my goal of making a movie that would let people relax and smile and be along for the ride with the women as they groom.”

But “Well Groomed” is definitely more than a light-hearted romp, delving deep into both the artistic impulses and the emotional relationships with their dogs that her four main subjects share. “When I got to know Adriane, Angela, Cat, and Nicole,” Stern remembers, “their earnest search for creative outlets and deep bonds with their animals got me further into their stories.”

She hopes that this will be true for audiences as well. “I wanted to communicate how much the women love both art and their dogs, and I wanted to leave audiences thinking about their own passions and what makes them happy during the day-to-day when they leave the theater.”

–Lara Klaber

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Related Screenings:
03/30/19 @ 6:10 PM – Well Groomed
03/31/19 @ 1:50 PM – Well Groomed
04/01/19 @ 11:50 AM – Well Groomed

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Hugh Hefner: Groundbreaking TV Host

March 30, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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Thoughts of Hugh Hefner typically conjure scarlet smoking jackets and the Playboy centerfolds he infused into popular culture. Hefner’s legacy, though, runs much deeper—a legacy that still sheds light on the current fractured state of civil rights and free speech in America.

“Hugh Hefner’s After Dark: Speaking Out in America” explores the lesser known—or at least less remembered—side of the publishing giant. The film from Academy Award-winning director Brigitte Berman, in fact, isn’t so much about Hefner the man but rather his groundbreaking TV shows and the progressive ideas he promoted on those shows.

Hefner’s “Playboy Penthouse” and “Playboy After Dark” programs took great risks to give a voice to black artists and other activists, decades even before MTV was pressured to play black artists. Berman says activists like Cleveland Browns legend Jim Brown, who is featured in the film, state that to be black in America today can still be a very debilitating experience despite civil rights breakthroughs.

“The challenges today run alarmingly parallel to the challenges Hefner was addressing in the late ’50s and ’60s and civil rights issues are still problematic,” Berman says. “What the film points out is that we need to be ever vigilant and not take any gains for granted, for fear of slippage back to where you do not want to be. And we still have a long way to go to reach full equality of opportunity, and equality of respect.”

The guest list on Hefner’s programs is nothing short of remarkable: Smokey Robinson, Pete Seeger, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Garcia, Taj Mahal, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr., Moms Mabley, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, and Linda Ronstadt, among others.

Berman says Hefner’s interview with folk legend Joan Baez is particularly amazing for that time, because both Baez and Hefner speak out at great length against the Vietnam War. Also,
Berman says, Smokey Robinson passionately talks about what it was like for black people during the ’60s—even for a successful artist like himself.

This isn’t Berman’s first film exploring Hefner’s legacy. In 2010, she and her late husband, producer Victor Solnicki, released “Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist and Rebel.” Berman says they noticed that the audiences, and especially young people, were intrigued by the few clips of Hefner’s early TV shows and they wanted to see more.

It was Solnicki’s idea to approach Hefner and ask whether he might provide access to these long-ago shows. Hefner agreed. Sadly, neither Hefner or Solnicki are here to see the finished product.

“Wherever our film is shown, it entertains, it makes people think, and it opens their eyes,” Berman says. “So yes, our film is encouraging audiences to see Mr. Hefner in a fuller perspective instead of a one-dimensional presentation. The film provides insight into the human condition and all its complexities.”

— Timothy Magaw

PHOTO: From left, Leon Kennedy, Brigitte Berman, Smokey Robinson, and Victor Solnicki. This is Toronto-based Brigitte Berman’s second documentary on Hugh Hefner. Her 1985 doc, on clarinetist and band leader Artie Shaw, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

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Related Screenings:
03/30/19 @ 8:30 PM – Hugh Hefner's After Dark: Speaking Out in America
03/31/19 @ 11:20 AM – Hugh Hefner's After Dark: Speaking Out in America

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Ohio Filmmakers Go Back: 'Let's Make a Real Documentary, Not a Promotional Film'

March 30, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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The Fuyao Glass Company knew it had a story to tell.

Nine years ago, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar told another story. Their documentary, “The Last Truck,” which screened at CIFF34, was about the closing of the General Motors Moraine truck assembly plant outside of Dayton, Ohio.

Fast forward to 2014: that same plant, now empty, was bought for $15 million by Chinese automotive glass manufacturer Fuyao. According to the Dayton Daily News, the deal by Fuyao was the largest Chinese investment in Ohio history. The company then invested another $600 million in refurbishing the plant.

“The team at Fuyao realized that what they were about to do was historic,” recount Reichert and Bognar. “They were going to bring life back to a huge, dead factory, hire thousands of Americans, bring over hundreds of Chinese nationals, and create the biggest factory in the world for the creation of automotive glass.”

During a visit to Ohio, one of the Chinese leaders at Fuyao met with representatives from the Dayton Development Coalition (DDC), and the idea of documenting this historic event came up. “The DDC folks knew our work, and said ‘why don’t you talk to Steve and Julia?’” say the filmmakers. And they did.

Bognar and Reichert began meeting with the Fuyao team and were intrigued by the project. The filmmakers had one stipulation—the film had to be independent. That meant that the directors would “have complete editorial control, own the film, take no funding from the company, and get full access,” says Reichert.

The company agreed. In fact, the filmmakers recall, the company’s Global Chairman Cho Tak Wong, said “let’s do it. . . . Let’s make a real documentary, not a promotional film.”

Reichert and Bognar were impressed with the chairman. They note that he “believes in transparency, and as a leader, he is very confident, a maverick, and he thought this story should be told.”

He also realized that there would be big challenges. But every good story has to have conflict and resolution.

As Fuyao updated the plant and brought it back to life as a functioning facility, the film crew had access to workers inside and outside the plant. Reichert and Bognar were “astonished” by the speed with which the Chinese engineers and leaders worked.

“They pushed the American contractors and construction workers to bring that factory back to life at a remarkable pace,” the filmmakers note. “But it’s a normal pace in China, where big things happen at a speed that would leave Americans dizzy.”

The crew needed to set aside their “cultural assumptions” and “learn to be careful not to judge things we were seeing from our own Ohio perspective,” they say.

During the screenings at CIFF, both Reichert and Bognar will be present, as will some of the factory workers from the film.

“We’re proud of this film,” conclude the two directors. “It’s a fast, funny, epic, and intimate look at a huge endeavor that speaks to global forces at work, launched right here in Ohio.”

—Anne M. DiTeodoro

PHOTO: Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert “both are drawn to telling stories to make the world a better place, to generate com- passion and empathy, to move people to action, for social change,” they say. Photo by Eryn Montgomery.

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Related Screenings:
03/30/19 @ 6:45 PM – American Factory
03/31/19 @ 11:05 AM – American Factory

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South Bronx Locals Tell their Story through a "Decade of Fire"

March 29, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in

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Throughout the 1970s, the South Bronx went up in flames, much like its reputation in the years to follow. Unjust government policies and redlining were among the factors that fueled the community’s demise, leaving its minority residents among the ashes. Fortunately, Co-Director Gretchen Hildebran partnered with South Bronx native, Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, who lived through the neighborhood’s highest highs and lowest lows, to tell a new story about New York City’s misunderstood borough in their documentary, “Decade of Fire.

Hidlebran and Vázquez Irizarry met through the creation of this film and became friends and creative collaborators. Of Vázquez Irizarry, Hildebran says, “She taught me how to be a better listener and also the power of language. We rewrote the narration to this film maybe 50 times. Or maybe 100? I can't even remember. I could never have understood this story without her, much less figured out how to make it into a film.”

Sharing this honest perspective from South Bronx locals was so crucial, since history and the media have always dictated the storyline, frequently leaving out important truths about the real challenges the community and its residents faced.

On a local scale, it is evident Cleveland has been no stranger to similar cycles of neglect and displacement like the South Bronx. But the two communities are also home to passionate individuals who are dedicated to rebuilding and restoring their neighborhoods for generations to come. Hildebran believes audiences from any pocket of the U.S. will be able to relate.

“While each city is unique, so many cities in our country had a place comparable to the South Bronx--places where people and where they lived didn't count for much in budget spending or political calculus,” Hildebran says.

After 10 long years from inception to premiere, Hildebran and Vázquez Irizarry were finally able to complete the story they wanted to tell. As Hildebran puts it, they were “telling such a small piece of such an enormous history,” turning critiques into constructive motivation, and settling on which personal interviews would best tell the story they sought to illustrate. While not all accounts could feasibly make the final cut, the finished product speaks to the incredible resilience of the residents and the enduring love for the South Bronx.

“The best impact we could hope for is to start a public dialogue about decent, affordable, and stable communities,” says Hildebran, “and inspire everyday people to join the fight for their homes alongside their neighbors.”

Amy Brown


PHOTO: From left: Gretchen Hildebran, co-director, is a documentary filmmaker and editor. Vivian Vázquez Irizarry, co-director, has worked in the youth development and education field for more than two decades.

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Related Screenings:
03/28/19 @ 6:00 PM – Decade of Fire
03/29/19 @ 5:10 PM – Decade of Fire
03/30/19 @ 9:30 AM – Decade of Fire

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Director Flavio Alves Seeks Understanding for Transgender Community

March 29, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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Director Flavio Alves returns to Cleveland for his third CIFF appearance, this year marking his first visit as a feature film director.

“Cleveland saw me maturing from a student filmmaker to a professional one,” says Alves, who will unveil his latest project, “The Garden Left Behind,” about a Mexican transgender woman navigating life in New York City as an undocumented immigrant.

Although Alves originally studied political science, including a position working for then-New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, he later discovered filmmaking was a more effective platform to make a difference and impact people’s lives. In the case of his latest film, Alves focuses on bringing the rights and visibility of the transgender community front and center.

“I believe it’s my responsibility as a Latinx queer filmmaker,” Alves says, “to bring to the forefront stories of people who have historically been underrepresented, misunderstood, and marginalized for being who they are.”

As these topics gain more traction in mainstream conversations, films like this provide a valuable outlet to portray the unique challenges and experiences of transgender men and women. Of course, no two stories are the same, and Alves made the effort to interview several trans men and women from all different backgrounds to write a genuine, true-to-life script.

“In order to do the story justice, we met with more than 30 trans-led organizations, with hopes of including their concerns about the fictional story we were building,” Alves recalls. “Shortly after starting our research, we understood that it would require us to do a lot more homework in order to develop authentic characters.”

Both cisgender men, Alves and screenwriting partner John Rotondo, recognized the limits of their own personal experiences, and worked hard to fairly represent transgender individuals for which they care so deeply.

“It was important that we do our due diligence by listening to and incorporating the narratives that the trans community themselves provided to us.”

Tackling timely issues like transgender rights layered with citizenship challenges is no easy task, especially when you are bound by the inherent limitations of a small, independent film production company. Nevertheless, with the finished product ready for eager audiences, Alves looks forward to the responses of Cleveland viewers.

“I hope that after watching our film, the next time my audience meets a trans person, they see them as people,” says Alves. “As a director, my hope is that my audience will find something relatable in my characters.”

Amy Brown

PHOTO: Filmmaker Flavio Alves’ recommendation for CIFF audiences: “Make sure to bring a pack of Kleenex with you. You’re going to need it.”

Popcorn, soda, and tissues. Check.

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Related Screenings:
03/29/19 @ 6:15 PM – The Garden Left Behind
03/30/19 @ 1:45 PM – The Garden Left Behind

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