The Dead Lands
The Dead Lands

The 39th Cleveland International Film Festival

by / Apr. 29, 2015 10pm EST

Cleveland being one of those cities like Baltimore and Pittsburgh that Buffalo looks to for renovation ideas, I’ve been studying the Cleveland International Film Festival for a few years now trying to figure out the secret to its success so that we might perhaps replicate it.

And I think I’ve hit on the key: we need to have started 40 years ago.

Actually, this was the 39th annual CIFF, and by any measure it’s quite a success. A recent USA Today poll placed it as the country’s second most popular film festival (after Silicon Valley’s Cinequest). It’s a fixture of Cleveland’s growing downtown, a place where a visitor from out of town can spend an entertaining weekend without ever having to get in your car.

Running eleven days with nearly 200 feature films and more than 220 shorts, CIFF is as large as any film festival I know of, and better programmed than most. While it doesn’t have the star power of Toronto, it’s less frenzied and far more affordable, and you’re more likely to discover new work that won’t be at your local multiplex within the month.

It is a festival that has clearly been lovingly tended and developed over the decades, to the point where it seems the entire city is involved in one way or another. Two hundred guest filmmakers were on hand to present their work, while some hot-button documentaries were followed by panel discussions featuring specialists in the field.

Themes within the festival include films from Central and Eastern Europe, in recognition of the many Ohioans with roots in that part of the world; LGBT; African diaspora; Midnight movies; Focus on disabilities; Jewish/Israeli Visions; Pan-Asian; Women of the World; Spanish language cinema; and family films.

My time at CIFF this year was limited to one weekend, barely time to scratch its surface. Among the best of what I saw:

THE LITTLE DEATH—Never has the French term for an orgasm that provides the title of this Australian comedy seemed more appropriate. Five loosely connected couples wrestle with the same problem: in each, one partner is really turned on by something out of the way. The husband of the woman who likes role-playing is willing to help out. It’s tougher for the couples where the practice has to be a secret, like the woman who is aroused by seeing her husband cry. Writer-director Josh Lawson keeps a deft balance between the ridiculous and the tragic, and the whole film is worth seeing for the hilarious final segment about an operator at a call center for the hearing impaired who has to interpret for a customer who wants to call a phone sex line. It will be released in the US in June; hopefully a Buffalo theater will pick it up.

KEBAB AND HOROSCOPE—A Polish comedy that feels inspired by the deadpan films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki (Lenignrad Cowboys Go America.) A pair of losers, one a former worker at a kebab shop, the other a freelance horoscope writer, decide to set themselves up in business as marketing specialists on the theory that all the job takes is the self-confidence to tell other people what heir doing wrong. Their first client is a carpet showroom that gets no business because it’s in the middle of nowhere. It’s only open in the first place because the owner’s rich wife is willing to fund her husband’s dream, and if you don’t see the humor in that this isn’t the movie for you. Writer-director Grzegorz Jaroszuk is happy to pursue any oddball tangent that strikes his fancy, and my only complaint with the film is that at 72 minutes it left me wanting more.

CALL ME LUCKY—If you’re a fan of the late standup comic Bill Hicks, you may also know the name of Barry Crimmins, who at his peak in the 1980s was the definition of acerbic. His politically-themed material came from a deep rage against injustice, which in the Reagan era kept him from gaining a wide audience, even as many of the comedians he nurtured as the owner of a popular Boston comedy club became stars. One of those was Bobcat Goldthwait, who directed this shockingly personal documentary that reveals how Crimmins’ rage was fueled by having been sexually abused as a child: he left comedy in the 1990s to become a fierce advocate against the online exploitation of children. Among the many talking heads who pay tribute (Patton Oswalt, Steven Wright, Marc Maron, David Cross, Jonathan Katz, Billy Bragg) is Buffalo News reporter and native Bostonian Mark Sommer.

MONUMENT TO MICHAEL JACKSON—One of the reasons I love film festivals is the chance to discover films like this, which sadly are unlikely to get any kind of North American release even though they’re quite audience-friendly. In 2009, in a village in post-war Serbia, the residents are starting to lose hope for the rebuild of their airport, their one hope for economic prosperity. The government would do so if there was any tourist potential in the area, so the town barber has an idea: put up a statute of Michael Jackson in the town square. The movie has the gently comic tone of British and Irish films like The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain and Waking Ned Divine. Directed by Darko Lungulov, whose Here and There (featuring Cyndi Lauper) may have been seen by 2 or 3 of you as the debut feature at the short-lived HD Video Cafe in Williamsville in 2010.

THE 100-YEAR-OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED—A huge hit in its native Sweden at the end of 2013, this is an example of a comedy whose laughs largely get lost in translation. Unwilling to remain in the retirement home where his family has consigned him, the contrarian centenarian of the title hits the road and has a series of bizarre adventures while recounting his past as an explosives expert. That his skills brought him into contact with world figures like Stalin, General Franco and Ronald Reagan gives the story some Forrest Gump flavor, but it mostly just feels like a gimmick.

THE DEAD LANDS—Despite the praise of heavyweights like Peter Jackson and James Cameron, this ferocious anthropological action adventure from New Zealand seems to be premiering on cable, which is a shame given it’s big screen potential. In an ancient time, the peaceful balance between Maori tribes is disrupted by a savage prince who provokes a war in order to seize power. It falls to his counterpart, a slight but smart youth, to battle him with the aid of a forest warrior rumored to be a cannibal. If you liked Apocalypto, you’ll love this.