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

Hitting the Skids with Max Carlson

March 29, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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You have probably seen the stories in the news, lately: the homeless 8-year-old chess champion, or the formerly homeless teen accepted into 17 colleges. These inspiring tales of triumph over adversity warm the heart, but do we think enough about what these children’s lives were like before their big wins? With his new film, Princess of the Row, that is what writer-director Max Carlson wants all of us to do.

“I was born and raised in Los Angeles,” he says, “and have seen, firsthand, the amount of people experiencing homelessness grow over the years.” Although the film is set in Skid Row, a 54-block area of downtown L.A. that, for decades, has been synonymous with poverty and homelessness, Carlson has watched the current epidemic spill out from there and spread. He and his writing partner, A. Shawn Austin, drew in elements from their own lives--Austin exploring father-daughter bonds, and Carlson meditating on his veteran grandfather’s struggles with dementia--to craft a deeply personal tale of a young girl fighting to stay connected to her father.

“Stories like Alicia’s are not uncommon,” he reveals. “There are many foster youth whose parents are homeless, many of which live on Skid Row.”

In fact, many members of the supporting cast and crew had struggled firsthand with homelessness. Many of the extras in the film were played by actual homeless veterans, and one of the soundtrack singers had been repeatedly visited by her own daughter, in much the way Alicia visits her father, during her own eight years on the streets.

Carlson could have approached the story from a documentarian’s perspective--his 2011 film, Bhopali, explored the lingering aftermath of the world’s worst environmental disaster and won eight prestigious awards--but in this case, he felt that a narrative film might work better to bring the audience into Alicia’s world, and into the world of the thousands of real Alicias out there.

“I find the stories that interest me are ones that have powerful emotions and ideas behind them,” he explains. “I’m happy to create things that are purely for entertainment’s sake,”–and, in fact, his blockbuster trailers have earned him Clio, Promax, and Golden Trailer Awards–“but stories that are meaningful are my primary interest.”

With “Princess of the Row,” Carlson hopes to help us see the world through Alicia’s eyes, and feel what it would be like to be her. “It’s incumbent on all of us to recognize that homeless people are human beings who have struggled with more harsh circumstances than most, and now they literally have no homes, and often very little support,” he says. Prior screening attendees have come away with a new way of looking at the issue, and that’s what he wants most of all.

“I hope the film can make people think twice the next time they pass a homeless person on the street, because you never know what their story may be.”

– Lara Klaber

PHOTO: Max Carlson is a writer, director, cinematographer, editor, and a musician, but above all else, he is a storyteller who wants to help people see the world with new eyes.

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Related Screenings:
03/28/19 @ 2:15 PM – Princess of the Row
03/30/19 @ 6:30 PM – Princess of the Row
03/31/19 @ 1:35 PM – Princess of the Row

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A 'Call for Compassion' for Recovering Crystal Meth Addicts

March 29, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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A fellow filmmaker childhood friend, an influential high school teacher, and a love for larger-than-life characters on screen made way for Terrence Crawford’s career as a film director. What began as a 20-minute student film evolved into Crawford’s first feature-length documentary, “Crystal City,” about recovery from crystal meth addiction in New York City’s gay community.

Unemployed and looking for work, Crawford and the film’s cinematographer and editor, John Maidman, decided to create an impactful project in their spare time. For Crawford, it was something deeply personal.

“I personally have been in recovery from crystal meth addiction since early 2015 and share much of the same history as my documentary subjects,” says Crawford. “Sobriety and the 12-step model of recovery have dramatically improved my life for the better ever since. However, for years, I was embarrassed to share my experience in recovery with even friends and family.

Although the subject matter was all-too-familiar, that was inevitably the most challenging factor of bringing the film to life.

“Because so many of the film’s characters share my own history and experience with drug use, I found it difficult to ask for help from friends, family, and colleagues during production for fear of ‘outing’ myself as a recovering crystal meth addict,” Crawford admits. “My fear of being judged by strangers consistently limited the documentary’s scope, budget, and impact until I finally opened up about my personal history of recovery from addiction.”

Film and television’s typical portrayal of crystal meth addiction fuels a harmful stigma that often keeps honest discussion off limits. These projects tend to zoom in on the damaging effects of using and less about solutions and recovery. These perceptions make it even harder for recovering addicts to open up about their history and experience—even with those closest to them.

“I wanted to make a documentary that reduces this stigma by representing a group of crystal meth addicts as talented, resourceful, and intelligent people in recovery capable of long-term sobriety and life improvement,” Crawford says. “My intention is for the general public to relate to these recovering crystal meth addicts, not to pity them as hopeless cases.”

“Crystal City” features voices from all walks of life to give a real-life depiction of the reaches of crystal meth addiction.

“I want CIFF audiences to leave the theater with a fresh perspective on people in recovery,” says Crawford. “Hopefully our audience will relate to these documentary subjects and recognize that the addicts in their own lives are capable of success and redemption.”

—Amy Brown



PHOTO: With so many stories to tell, Filmmaker Terrence Crawford had to leave some out. One particularly powerful story that didn’t make the final cut, he notes, was of a man shooting up in Greenwich Village on September 11, 2001. He recounts tthat seeing the plumes of smoke rising from New York City’s Ground Zero motivated the an toward a decade of sobriety. This account, like so many others, is a unique story of recovery that can inspire addicts and provide hope to those in their support circles.

PDF  Download Related PDF [1.4 MB]

Related Screenings:
03/29/19 @ 6:40 PM – Crystal City
03/30/19 @ 3:15 PM – Crystal City
03/31/19 @ 9:15 AM – Crystal City

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Director's Films Observe without Judging

March 29, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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When she was in college, Jennifer Baichwal was on the academic track as she studied philosophy and theology. However, she found that academia engaged the intellect only. “I turned to documentary as a more accessible way of exploring the subjects that preoccupied me then (and still do today), and found that film—like all art—has the capacity to move people, not just intellectually, but viscerally and emotionally as well,” says Baichwal.

Ten feature documentaries later, Baichwal confirms, “I knew from the moment I started shooting that I had found my vocation. And I feel incredibly lucky to be able to continue to do this work that I love.”

Baichwal is this year’s winner of the Director’s Spotlight at CIFF. Out of her extensive work, she is best known for her trilogy of documentaries on the environment: “Manufactured Landscapes” (2006), “Watermark” (2013), and the recent “Anthropocene: The Human Epoch” (2018).

Each film is being shown at this year’s Festival, as each film adds to the trilogy. “Manufactured Landscapes,” according to Baichwal, “took you to places you were responsible for but would never normally see, and tried to translate that experiential understanding into the time-based medium of film.”

Then, “‘Watermark’ deepened that somewhat by exploring a dialectic of scale and detail: trying to understand the enormity of human influence on water, but also following the detailed narratives implicit in this enormity, because these are what give it meaning,” she says.

Lastly, Baichwal comments, “‘Anthropocene: The Human Epoch’ adds the dimension of trying to think in geological time and on a planetary scale.”

The films cover different ways of looking at humans’ impacts on the environment, and they share a common mode of operating. Baichwal says, “There is a shared philosophy in the three films that tries to shift consciousness by revealing rather than accusing, by creating a space for reflection on our responsibility for global environmental change, rather than … telling people what to think about what they are looking at.” This way of observing without forcing judgement has been very well received.

“I think trying to make these contexts, places, and concepts aesthetically compelling or intriguing is a way of drawing viewers in and inviting them to linger longer, to think in a sustained way about implication,” she says. The non-judgmental and aesthetically pleasing themes are second only to the idea of hope.

Baichwal observes people and other species in some of the most difficult environments, “living and grappling and managing in them every day.” But even though she and her crew are there for days, maybe weeks, the experiences of the people she meets never leave her.

—W. Connor Drake



PHOTO: Jennifer Baichwal is the winner of this year’s Director’s Spotlight award. She is able to find positivity out of struggles. “But even in the most degraded environments, there are so many incursions of dignity, striving, and hope,” she says. “These incursions are what make me hopeful, and make the films an act of hope.”

PDF  Download Related PDF [1.4 MB]

Related Screenings:
03/28/19 @ 4:15 PM – Watermark
03/28/19 @ 6:30 PM – Anthropocene: The Human Epoch
03/29/19 @ 12:10 PM – Watermark
03/29/19 @ 2:30 PM – Anthropocene: The Human Epoch
03/29/19 @ 5:00 PM – Manufactured Landscapes

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A Redemptive Return to the Stage

March 28, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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Every career takes a winding road, and for Director Amy Goldstein, hers began with an interest in photography. A job running the photography studio of Jean Pagliuso, famous for her fashion--and poultry--photographs, allowed for the perfect opportunity.

“I wanted to learn to photograph the fluidity of gender, nonconformity in the most unlikely places,” Goldstein recalls. “I shot a butch lesbian in a tutu disrobing on top of a bulldozer in the ruins of the Westside highway.”

The photos were published all over New York City. While working weekends at the photography studio, an interesting habit of Goldstein’s caught the attention of Pagliuso.

“She [Pagliuso] noticed that I was writing on my photographs and printing them sequentially, as if I was trying to tell a story,” Goldstein says. “She encouraged me to go to NYU Grad Film School. I would never have believed in myself to that extent if it was not for Jean.”

Fast forward, and Goldstein is bringing “Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl” to audiences everywhere. The film follows Nash’s story as a brief UK pop sensation through her arduous journey of making it as a woman in the music industry.

“When I first met Kate, she had just performed at Coachella with pink hair, a pink vagina as a backdrop, and her all-girl band dressed in pink,” Goldstein says. “She had gone from being a teenage platinum pop star to being dropped by her label to playing small venues to making it without a label all the way to Coachella.”

With the current documentary landscape flooded with tragic stories of female musicians like Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, and Nina Simone, Goldstein purposefully sought out a female story of “redemption rather than despair.”

“It is worth it to make art, to connect with a community, and to stay true to what you value,” says Goldstein. “Also, if you are a girl and dream of becoming an artist--whether a musician, a filmmaker, a painter--watching this film will hopefully inspire you to commit. It is possible to do it on your own terms and it can be a positive and rich life.”

Next for Goldstein are several projects, including a stop at her alma mater while on the festival circuit.

“We are going to film at Hampshire College, which is on the verge of closing,” says Goldstein. “The students have pulled off the longest sit-in at a college known for its protest culture – they’ve been sitting in the president’s office since January 31st.”

No question, Goldstein seems to be the perfect fit to tell more stories of the power of owning your convictions and standing your ground.

Amy Brown

PHOTO: Amy Goldstein is a director, producer, and screenwriter. In addition to directing feature films, she has also directed music videos for Rod Stewart and television series, such as Lifetime’s “Veronica Clare.”

PDF  Download Related PDF [1.6 MB]

Related Screenings:
03/28/19 @ 3:45 PM – Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl
03/29/19 @ 7:35 PM – Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl

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Through the Eyes of Compassionate Caretakers

March 28, 2019   |   posted by Lara Klaber in Filmmakers

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When David Hambridge first visited Kenya, he visited the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where he met Sudan, the last male northern white rhino.

Equally memorable was his encounter with one of the rhino's caretakers, James Mwenda. The latter's compassionate personality and compelling backstory stuck with Hambridge—so much so that Mwenda ended up playing a pivotal role in the touching documentary "Kifaru."

The full-length film highlights not just the Herculean efforts to keep Sudan healthy and safe—as well as preserve the northern white rhino as a species—but also the realities of animal extinction.

"James had dreams to spread awareness and wanted Sudan's story to reach the entire world, as many did not know these rhinos were the most endangered mammals in the world, with only three left," shares Hambridge, who directed and co-produced the documentary. "I told him that I wanted this story to be told authentically, by Kenyans."

Aware that he didn't want to let Mwenda down, Hambridge frequently visited Kenya two or three times a year, for about a month at a time, over the next three years. To ensure "Kifaru" was told "in the eyes and voices of Kenyans," he also chose a different approach to the sensitive subject matter. "It’s verité and not driven by interviews," Hambridge says. "There’s a lot that happens, and a lot of emotions that are felt."

Luckily, he found a perfect creative foil in producer and editor Andrew Harrison Brown, who shared his storytelling perspective and commitment to centering Kenyan voices in the narrative. "We were constantly trying to find a balance between telling an honest and interesting story without sensationalizing anything," Harrison Brown says in a separate interview.

"Overall, neither of us are satisfied or interested in taking the normal approach to what we’ve come to expect in most wildlife and environment documentaries, especially ones that take place in Africa."

That nuance and respect shines through "Kifaru," and cements that even though the documentary can be sad—Sudan passed away in March 2018—the film conveys greater truths and takeaways.

"We wanted to highlight the human lives that live on the frontlines of wildlife conservation and are often overlooked and under-appreciated," Harrison Brown says.

Adds Hambridge: "This story to me is more than a documentary about wildlife, it’s about brotherhood. Families that depend on wildlife tourism, the future generations, and the honest, real Kenyan guys that sacrifice so much in the bush to make sure these rhinos are safe.

"Sudan was an icon," he continues. "He was the Ambassador of Extinction until he passed, and so this story isn’t about where he was found, his entire life. It’s a greater theme that is heavy at times but gives a glimpse into what the extinction of a species can mean for the men who love and protect these animals day and night."

–Annie Zaleski


PHOTO: Caretaker James Mwenda, left, and Kifaru director David Hambridge, right.

PDF  Download Related PDF [1.6 MB]

Related Screenings:
03/28/19 @ 6:50 PM – Kifaru
03/29/19 @ 4:30 PM – Kifaru
03/30/19 @ 11:45 AM – Kifaru

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