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The Full Cleveland

Were the World Mine

Cleveland International Fim Festival is close, cheap, and stocked with high-quality movies

There was a time when film festivals served to expose new films not only to audiences but to potential theatrical distributors. That’s still the case at a big festival like Toronto, where companies like Focus, Fox Searchlight, and Weinstein go in search of new product.

But there are fewer of those companies than ever, and many of them are more interested in their own production than in independent acquisitions. At the same time, the number of film festivals has exploded: If you have a film and can’t get it into festival somewhere, it’s probably because you put a limit on how many entry fees you’re willing to pay. (There are some festivals that seem to exist only to collect fees from fledgling filmmakers desperate to be able to have the words “Official Selection” on their press releases.)

So film festivals have taken a new place on the distribution hierarchy. When director Tom Gustafson showed Mariachi Gringo recently at the Cleveland International Film Festival, he said that it was the end of a process that had begun more than a year earlier at the 2012 Miami International Film Festival. The audience-pleasing comedy-drama about a Kansas slacker (Shawn Ashmore) who finds meaning in his life when he moves to Mexico to become a mariachi musician will be available in Redboxes this month and on HBO in September. “Film festivals,” Gustafson said, “have become the theatrical distribution for indies” on their way to the digital and cable venues that are how most people now find movies that aren’t 3D comic book special effects epics.

The Coin Bearer
Up There

When I received an invitation this year to attend the Cleveland festival for the first time, it meant that I had to forego Tribeca. It was a good choice. Although Tribeca likes to put on airs for the fact that it’s held in Manhattan, the quality of films was about the same. It’s much easier to get around in Cleveland, which is only a three-hour trip from Buffalo by car, the films are all shown in central location, and the food is just as good at a fraction of Manhattan prices.

Of course, it’s not like the Toronto festival, with movie stars by the score promoting the films that will be at every theater in the country in the next few months, but very few festivals are. Cleveland is one of the oldest general interest fests in North America (it began in 1977, the year after Toronto) and has a large following. Eight screens ran from 9am through midnight (with late shows on weekends) from April 4 through 14, and most films drew sizeable crowds. The 178 feature films were grouped into categories—American Independents, 10% Cinema (gay themed), Cinema En Espanol, Jewish and Israeli Visions, Pan African Images, etc.—but never seemed to be made only for audiences interested in a single area.

I saw about 30 films while I was there, but of course you can never see all the films you want to get to: I couldn’t make it to the Taviani brothers Cesar Must Die or Renoir, probably CIFF’s two highest-profile films (the latter opens in Buffalo on May 15); Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary about the recluse creator of the much-loved comic strip Calvin and Hobbes; I Am Divine, about the 300-pound transvestite who became an international star in the films of John Waters; or the film voted the audience favorite, Good Ol’ Freda, about the woman who served for years as secretary to the Beatles.

But I saw plenty that I did like, including:

The Coin Bearer—A fictional film that works as a documentary, this Filipino movie looks at life in urban slums through the lens of a practice I never knew existed. Although gambling is banned in the Philippines, there is an exemption for card games that traditionally take place at funerals to help pay for burial costs. Gangsters bend that to their advantage, carting unclaimed corpses around from house to house to stage fake wakes where they run the gambling. (“That’s why I prefer to be cremated,” notes one worker while moving a corpse that is near the end of its usefulness.) Like Los Olvidados and Pixote, it looks at urban poverty with a large dose of very dark humor.

Interior. Leather Bar.—The latest volley in the performance art project that is known as James Franco, in which he and co-director Travis Mathews hire a group of actors for what they say will be an attempt to re-imagine 40 minutes that were cut from William Friedkin’s notorious 1979 film Cruising, allegedly depicting sadomasochistic activity in New York gay bars. The result is both less and more interesting than it initially sounds, with minimal graphic material (but enough to ensure minimal distribution for this 60 minute feature) but a sustained attempt at keeping viewers uncertain as to whether they are watching a scripted story or an improvisation.

The Last White Knight—In 1965, Paul Saltzman was a young man in Toronto inspired to join the Civil Rights protests in Mississippi. There he was punched in the face by Delay de la Beckwith, son of Byron, who murdered Medgar Evers. Forty years later Saltzman, now a filmmaker, was put back in touch with Beckwith, who agreed to be interviewed for a documentary. (One of their filmed meetings took place in 2011 in Cheektowaga, in a hotel by the airport.) He proves to be a gracious and open man who still holds shockingly racist attitudes. Saltzman uses this footage as part of a larger examination about the persistent nature of racism best summed up in a statement made in the film by Harry Belafonte: “I still don’t trust Mississippi.”

Flower Square—An actor who works primarily in children’s theater is asked blackmailed by a cop into pretending to be a priest in order the record the confession of a gangster who think’s he’s dying in this deadpan comedy by veteran Croat director Krsto Papić. CIFF had a sizeable number of Eastern European films on display, and the best of them have a very bleak approach to comedy. (I would say the same about Mushrooming, about a corrupt politician, his wife, and a heavy metal rock star who spend several days lost in the woods.)

Were the World Mine—One of four films in the festival by Mariachi Gringo’s Tom Gustafson and his partner Cory Krueckeberg, this utterly charming musical draws on A Midsummer Night’s Dream for a story about a bullied gay team cast as Puck in his prep school’s adaptation and discovers that the fairy’s love potion really works. He uses it to turn the whole town gay, which has results both rewarding and unexpected.

Up There—I don’t know why there are so few Scottish comedies, but this one is one of the best (albeit only) ones since the heyday of Bill Forsyth. Filmed around Glasgow, it follows dead souls who are considered not quite ready to proceed to their final destination (“up there”). Instead, they have to stick around their home regions until the bureaucracy that deals with them feels they’re ready to move on. Director Zam Salim has a perfectly cast odd couple in deadpan Burn Gorman (Stryver in The Dark Knight Rises) and Aymen Hamdouchi as the motor-mouthed new arrival he’s forced to work with.

Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp—An example of a documentary that was made just in time. Producer Ice-T and director Jorge Hinojosa had long wanted to do a film on the life of the author of Pimp: The Story of My Life and other books about his hardscrabble life in Depression era Chicago. His real name was Robert Beck, and he died in 1992, leaving only a few short filmed interviews behind. Two of the family members Hinojosa found to speak to have since died. The story he captures is fascinating both for its look into the urban underbelly as well as a peek at the African-American publishing industry of the 1960s and 1970s.

I recently had the best chicken wings I have ever eaten. Ever. In my entire life. In Cleveland.

Before you get ready with the tar and feathers, let me add that they were not Buffalo style wings, with hot sauce and bleu cheese. Crispy but not greasy, they were marinated in roasted jalapeño, lemon juice, scallion and garlic, and I forced myself to eat them slowly (not my usual habit) to make them last longer. Accompanied by a few drafts of Pride & Joy Mild Ale from the Indiana brewer Three Floyds, it was so satisfying that it was all I could do not to come back every night I was in Cleveland.

The eatery was the Greenhouse Tavern, one of a number of bars and casual restaurants on East 4th Street, a few blocks from the center of the film festival. I chose it because they were playing Echo and the Bunnymen, and because their front window was filled with racks of VHS tapes (which I learned are played on the bar TVs).

I was in town at the invitation of Positively Cleveland as part of a junket to show off a city whose indie culture ranks with Brooklyn, Portland and Austin. To the extent that “indie” implies the interests of consumers between the ages of 18 and 34, I am unable to comment. But I did see a lot of a city with a vibrant downtown center (helped by the presence of four sports arenas, one casino, and the mildly fatuous but undeniably tourism generating Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), surrounded by individual neighborhoods with a strong sense of identity and character.

But mostly, or most memorably, I ate. Once known gastronomically as the home of Chef Boyardee, Cleveland now has a reputation as a foodie paradise, from my experience richly deserved. Having a professional guide certainly helped over the weekend, but I did as well casually wandering by myself when I came back for a second weekend of film viewing and unescorted grazing. I’m sure that during peak periods plenty of restaurants require reservations, but on the late evenings and weekdays I was there, most venues were open and welcoming. When you stop into a place just because you’re walking by and it looks like a nice joint to get a quick bite, it’s a surprise to Google it later on and discover that it was been rated one of Bon Appetit magazine’s top ten new restaurants in America.

The city is home to a thriving culture of local sourced and whole foods whose spiritual center is at the West Side Market, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. Hosting more than a dozen ethnicities and plenty of fresh produce and meats, it’s easy to see how the center can attract more than a million visitors a year. The irony is that a site that makes you so eager to cook would exist in a city that makes you equally eager to eat out every night.

Like a lot of favorite Buffalo dives, the Prosperity Social Club in the blue collar Tremont district only sounds toney: it’s a neighborhood bar that has kept the name of the building’s original purpose. Chatting with the owner about the relative strengths of Buffalo and Cleveland’s Dyngus Day celebrations, I discovered that they’ve been getting advice from our own Eddy Dobosiewicz. The food had a strong Polish bent with some Eastern European surprises, like Hungarian cabbage rolls that came in a creamy sauce instead of the traditional Polish tomato base. And how can you not love a place that has a polka night on Wednesdays?

To be human is to eat hot dogs: we know we shouldn’t, but we do, so shut up about it. That guilty pleasure feels a bit less guilty at The Happy Dog, a bar that serves nothing but hot dogs, tater tots and French fries. Of course, the dogs are created by owner-chef Eric Williams, a two-time James Beard nominee. But the real glory is in the toppings list, which starts with house made ketchup and a good selection of mustards but goes on to bacon-balsamic marmalade, Brazilian chimichurri, Yuengling sauerkraut, garlicky escarole, ginger-sesame coleslaw, and dozens of others. One dog and all the toppings you want for $5. I suspect they make money from the fact that you’re likely to down two or three beers in the time it takes you to compose an order. (The list of two dozen draughts at my visit included Genny Cream. I guess it was inevitable that the swill of my youth would someday be considered exotic somewhere.)

If I could only revisit one eatery, though, it would probably be Noodlecat, a downtown restaurant with a second stall location at the West Side Market. The creation of Jonathon Sawyer, one of Cleveland’s star chefs, Noodlecat was inspired by Tokyo and New York City noodle houses, but does not aspire to imitate them faithfully. In other words, they know their traditional noodles, but are unafraid to concoct and serve something like clam chowder noodles. Yes, it sounds disgusting. It is not.

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