The 31st Annual Cleveland International Film Festival urged its patrons to “Confess Your Love for Film.” In its commercials—which ran before every last one of the more than 120 films—actors made their confessions. “I like to say ‘shhhhh!’ It makes me feel powerful.” Or “I saw a gay film…and I liked it.” Or “Popcorn makes me gassy.” So now it’s my turn to confess.
But here’s the real confession: I went to a film festival…and I loved it. It was an exhausting experience—one that left me feeling worn-out for days—but it was worth every aching muscle. The Cleveland International Film Festival may not be as well-known as Sundance, but it’s also not as hectic—nor as expensive. In ten days’ time, they show more than 120 movies—and the whole thing runs, day and night, like a well-oiled machine. Throughout the weekend, I was often amazed by the staff and the army of volunteers. How they pull it off every year, I’ll never know—but I definitely appreciate it. If you love movies and want to check out some wonderful films by up-and-coming filmmakers, I highly recommend the trip to Cleveland. Just don’t forget your butt-donut.
- I chose my films carefully.
If you’re seeing a whole bunch of films in a day, which do you think you’d prefer: a bunch of long, drawn-out, emotionally draining films, or a number of shorter, lighter films? I chose the latter. In fact, I’ll be honest here. My selection process initially meant reading the films’ descriptions, looking for anything that used the words “important” or “significant” or “dramatic” or “political” and scratching them off my list. I kept the lighter stuff—and the more action-packed stuff. And then I did a more careful reading and picked a few that seemed interesting. And if I had more than one to choose from, I usually went with the shorter one. As it turns out, I made some great picks. Of the 14 I saw, there were maybe 4 that I didn’t like. And I think that’s better than I’ve been doing with big box-office movies lately.
- The first film I saw was my favorite.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that I was still somewhat fresh and energetic (despite the fact that I was already in the negative on sleep, having stayed up late to pack, and having to get up early to hit the road), but I doubt it. While I saw a lot of wonderful movies over my four days at the festival—movies that made me laugh or made me think—I really loved Brook Silva-Braga’s A Map for Saturday. It was an incredible way to start my film festival experience.
- I got a little star-struck.
I know that the people who take the time to show up at the lesser-known festivals (meaning those other than, say, Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, and Tribeca) are usually smaller filmmakers who are often just starting out. Most of the people here are like my brother, who did the festival circuit a few years ago. But that didn’t stop me from getting a little bit giggly when I kept running into Brook Silva-Braga in the hallways. I’m not naming names here, but one of my colleagues blatantly took pictures of him (using a flash, no less) in the hallway, while he was talking to a bunch of fellow festival-goers. And I must say that it was pretty cool to find myself seated a booth away from the filmmakers of The Curiosity of Chance one morning at Panera. I’ll also confess that I was eavesdropping on their conversation about drag queens. (Wouldn’t you?) Believe it or not, just because I’m a film critic, it doesn’t mean that I actually hang out with celebrities—though Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees did call me “Little Darlin’” once, when I was eleven—so it’s kind of fun to hobnob a bit. Who knows—someday these people could be famous, and I’ll be able to say I knew them before they were cool.
- I never sat through the credits.
Throughout the festival, people made announcements at the beginning of each film, and they always made a point of telling the audience not to talk during the movie—and that included the credits. They made quite a big deal about the credits, actually. I realize that the credits are important—and I usually sit through at least part of them when I go to regular screenings—but during the film festival, the credits take up five valuable minutes that I could be spending (a) in the bathroom, (b) taking notes on the movie, so I won’t forget everything by the time I get around to writing the review, (c) getting something to eat, (d) enjoying a few glorious minutes of daylight, or (e) making sure I have a seat for the next movie. So if your name appears in the credits of one of the fourteen movies I saw that week, I didn’t see it—but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate your work. It just means that I had to pee.
- I skipped a screening to drink martinis.
I realize that it makes me somewhat less of a film geek, but I didn’t go to a movie at every chance I got. That would have meant going to seven movies a day—from 9:30 a.m. until about 2 a.m. And I may love movies, but I’m not insane. So I kept it down to four movies a day. I didn’t go to the early movies or the midnight movies, and I always took one time slot off in the middle of the day, to rest my weary eyes for a while. So while the more hard-core geeks were rushing off to 4 o’clock movies on Friday afternoon, I was making my way over to Hyde Park, to drink four-dollar happy hour martinis with my COFCA colleagues. And I don’t feel the least bit guilty about it. It made it a lot easier to go back and sit through the rest of the movies that I’d scheduled for the day.
- I gave nicknames to the people around me.
Let’s face it—film festivals attract some pretty strange people. There are the alternative film kids who are most likely in film school or art school or something. They typically wear dark-rimmed glasses and hang out at art house theaters. But then there are the hardcore film geeks, somewhat reminiscent of the people at a Star Trek convention, only without the costumes. They’re the ones who show up for screenings early and compare war stories. They compete with their fellow geeks to see who’s seen the most long, depressing movies and who can drop the most names. During the movies themselves, they tend to chuckle through the whole thing, at random, non-funny moments (as in the case of the woman we called The Joker). Or they laugh so loudly that everyone can hear them—or, if you happen to be sitting across the aisle from them, it scares the living crap out of you (as in the case of the man we called The Howler Monkey). These people are so amusing that they just beg for nicknames. We didn’t actually get close to any of these people to read their actual names off their all-access passes, but we knew them all by their nicknames.
- I got a serious case of tunnel vision. Also bloodshot eyes, aching legs, and a sore butt.
Human beings were not meant to sit in a dark movie theater watching movies all day. Really—it’s not good for you. The darkness—with the bright light in the middle of the room—will seriously mess with your vision once you rejoin the outside world. And even if you sit on the aisle (as I usually did) and stretch out your legs, they will still hurt after sitting there all day.
- I secretly envied the crazy people who brought padded donut things to sit on.
Did I mention that sitting in a theater all day makes your butt hurt? Fortunately, the seats in the theater were actually quite comfy—but even the comfiest of chairs can’t prevent butt pain. And though I laughed at the people who carried around back rests and butt-donuts (usually little old ladies), I secretly envied them. Perhaps I’ll find a good one in time for next year’s festival—preferably something inflatable, that I can fit in my bag, so I won’t look so silly.
- I learned a lot.
Okay, so there were the basic lessons that I learned. I learned when to get to the theater, so I’d get a seat. I learned where the good bathrooms were. I learned that I needed to pace myself—and that I needed to sit down after every movie to take notes, so I wouldn’t forget everything later, and that I needed to take some breaks from time to time, to rest my brain. I also learned that it’s good to have someone to share the experience with you. Sure, you’re just going to be sitting in a dark theater all day, obeying the repeated reminders not to talk during the movies. But it’s good to have someone else around—someone to talk to between movies. Someone to save your seat when you need to go to the bathroom. Someone who will know who you’re talking about when you rant about The Howler Monkey.