The theater hosting the 30th annual Cleveland International Film Festival is situated in between two of Cleveland’s landmarks: Tower City and the Gateway Sports Complex. Tower City overlooked the St. Patrick’s Day parade on the festival’s first full day and, later in the week, President Bush’s cavalcade, and Quicken Loans Arena hosted three Cavs games, a Coldplay concert and a leg of the Women’s NCAA Basketball Tournament. With all that going on, it’s easy to imagine the festival taking a backseat to all of the hubbub in the city—in fact, it proved to be stronger than ever. Adding in midnight screenings and expanding early morning options—theoretically making it possible for fanatics to view seven films in one day—helped to break the festival’s attendance record. Of course, screening a handful of more popular options (American Dreamz, Guys and Balls) alongside some local favorites and offering morning screenings to high school students is another measure of expansion: Cleveland Film Society’s desire to make the event something that everyone in Cleveland is actually aware of. If the crowds are any indicator, CFS is well on their way.
Faith, in one way or another, seemed to be on trial frequently at the 30th CIFF, perhaps nowhere more gorgeously or grotesquely than in James Marsh’s The King. Nihilism and fundamentalist religion make odd bedfellows, but such is the challenging juxtaposition set forth in the film. One of several films that managed to sell out both of its screenings, The King features remarkable opposing performances from Gael García Bernal (effectively the Devil…) and William Hurt (…against the preacher), though its aftertaste is appropriately bitter. When the two main forces come to a head, the film’s essential unanswered question is one of how far faith can go; that it forces the question onto the audience rather than answering it itself is disappointing, but it’s hard to question the conclusion’s timing. In its best moments, Eigil Bryld’s camera reminds one of the work of Harris Savides, and Pell James’s simple turn as the daughter of a preacher is worthy of its fierce opposing leads.
The most interesting take on such a deep-seated devotion to faith came from a rather unexpected source: a documentary based on Jehovah’s Witnesses. Admitting the faith itself to be the butt of the joke to the majority of the American population, Knocking moves swiftly from that and takes the faith’s most well known tenet, the door-to-door work that the title implies, and spins it as a positive. The Witnesses, as it turns out, are one of the few fundamentalist faiths that don’t seem to think all other faiths are evil, hell-bound and worthy of being annihilated from the face of the earth. Rather than focus on the faith as a purely religious endeavor, though, Knocking goes through several of the dozens of Supreme Court rulings revolving around Jehovah’s Witnesses since World War II; one might be surprised to learn that such a strict faith had such a quiet impact on civil rights litigation. In keeping with the idea of this faith as progressive rather than archaic, Joel Engardio and Tom Shepard profile a young Witness in need of an experimental “bloodless” liver transplant. Even though this leads to one of two “everything is solved” tearjerker conclusions. One of the bloodiest operations needs to keep transfusion out of the mix due to faith. Even though this leads to one of two “everything is solved” tearjerker conclusions, the film’s odd spin of this notoriously “backward” religion into a positive, progressive option ends up as one of the festival’s more interesting spins.
Progressive faith rears its head again in Camp Out, the profile of the first gay Christian Bible summer camp. Ten campers take up the offer to try to celebrate a faith that has many proponents condemning them to Hell. This bothers some (now-Wiccan Scancy) more than others (Thomas, now at Bible college), and the film focuses more on issues surrounding the gay teen than it does the gay Christian teen. Camp Out profiles a camp that’s more like a regular summer camp than one might think, but that’s only because the only real interventions of faith come through the aforementioned Thomas; we’re introduced to other, non-faith related issues in most of the other campers that eat up some of the more interesting challenges these teens must deal with day in and out.
Being confronted on a daily basis with questions of one’s sexuality certainly isn’t news to Hard Pill’s Tim, who volunteers for a study that will use a pill to remove his homosexuality. Though characters and fake interviewees in the film position the drug (or any such endeavor) as an absolute evil designed to eradicate homosexuality, both Tim and the film treat the drug more like an antidepressant. Tim is unhappy with his homosexuality—he can get a date with a woman, but gay men aren’t interested—and seeks a treatment much like his straight friend Don who wrestles with depression. It has an amateur feel to it, but Hard Pill does cover just about every possible aspect of this drug’s side effects, not just to Tim but also to the co-worker who hopes he comes back straight so they can date, or the ambiguously straight guy who comes out to him in a romantic fashion.
The newest competition in this year’s Festival was the Greg Gund Memorial “Standing Up” Competition, honoring films that, in the words of the festival organizers, “have a conscience.” The result was a marked rise in (largely one-sided) films on activism, for better or worse. One-sided to be sure but also provocative—particularly in the northeast Ohio area—is American Blackout, unsurprising winner of the audience vote. Blackout serves two real purposes: bringing light to the various ways that elections are effectively being “stolen” and profiling the up and down career of Rep. Cynthia McKinney. The film has the odd distinction of being a Michael Moore film without the cutesy, manipulative propaganda; director Ian Inaba’s “just the facts” approach, while giving it a one-sided feel, doesn’t ever manage to feel too deceptive. When profiling McKinney, a guest at the film’s second screening, the film picks up its “standing up” torch with verve, flaunting McKinney, outspoken to the last, as a potentially model representative, practicing her own level of social justice and activism at the national level.
However, the potentially more interesting film in the category (by just a smidgen, at least) is Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon. A fellow Sundance screener, Clear Cut investigates the questionable pulling of a small-town scholarship program when the foundation’s organizers decide that the school district is turning its students against the town’s native logging industry. Remarkably well edited between the two sides, director Peter Richardson’s feature-length debut garners a remarkable amount of trust from both sides in order to make one of the most even-handed documentaries in recent memory. The narrative is remarkably well strung throughout contrasting interviews without the aid of narration. Its inclusion in the category is most interesting, perhaps, because the person “standing up” in this instance is a right-wing old-fashioned nut who’s the exact opposite of the heftily liberal crowd at CIFF.