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Review: '47th Cleveland International Film Festival'

Besides the sighting of the first robin, the two events that mark the official arrival of spring for me are the start of the MLB pre-season games and the announcement of the annual Cleveland International Film Festival.

I have been attending the festival regularly since the early 90s and have never been disappointed by the offering of great movies.

The 47th Cleveland International Film Festival was no exception.

What I love about the festival is its proximity to Pittsburgh where I live. It’s a two hour drive that requires less than a tank of gas, making it a great day trip.

If you choose to stay longer, it’s an enjoyable weekend getaway to see three or four movies a day and still have time to grab some food in between.

Last year, the festival relocated to Cleveland’s Playhouse Square amid fun restaurants and hotels that are within walking distance. It’s a moviegoer’s dream.

Once again, the festival offered over 300 feature-length and short films—movies that you would not find at your local Cineplex or on any streaming services. They are the movies you would probably have to travel to Sundance or Toronto to see. The Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF) takes the travel, expense and hassle out of the equation if you’re within a drivable radius or don’t mind booking a flight to the Cleveland International Airport.

The organizers and sponsors of the festival know the drill. Each year, they serve up exceptional movie entertainment, offering something for everyone.

The selections range from domestic and foreign feature films to an extensive offering of independent productions and short format films. Audiences vote on the movies which are eligible for awards and cash prizes at the end of the event.

The festival is always well-organized and well-staffed with volunteers and assistants. Everything runs smoothly and efficiently, thanks to all the years of experience in making this event happen.

In addition to a great lineup of movies, the festival also offers opportunities to meet some of the filmmakers in attendance and to interact in Q&A sessions following the screenings that are both informal and informative.

Among my favorite movies this year were a handful of documentaries beginning with Little Richard: I Am Everything directed by Lisa Curtis. Being a gigging musician most of my life, I have a special interest in documentaries about musicians and pop music.

Little Richard: I Am Everything probes deep into the story of the flamboyant, 1950s pop icon who was as outrageous as any of the rock pioneers. He was flashy and openly gay during a chapter of American history when black performers were generally not accepted.

But Richard was able to rise above the racism and homophobia to become an enduring figure in the world of rock and roll, influencing everyone from The Beatles to David Bowie. He was a true rock pioneer whose talent and originality were often overlooked until the very end of his career.

Little Richard: I Am Everything rocks, rolls and pulses with the raw energy that caused early rock music to strike fear deep into the hearts of parents and politicians who saw Richard’s piano pounding songs as a threat to teenage morality in post war America.

Like all good musical documentary films, it goes beyond the music to the larger cultural context.

Another similar example was the movie Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes about the legendary jazz drummer and his remarkable career, on and off the stage. It is the story of a man with immense talent rising to the top of the music scene starting in the 1940s and his collaborations with other jazz greats who forged a new, freeform, experimental musical direction in a genre that was uniquely American.

Like his later counterpart Little Richard, Max Roach struggled with racism and a multitude of obstacles that threatened to block his creative path. The movie is a testament to his musical genius, his unwavering resolve and his undying humanity and kindness. And yes, it features many of his astounding performances in which he plays like no one else and makes it look effortless.

Subject was a documentary film taking a look at documentary films in general, exploring the impact that documentary films have on their subjects—the people who appear in the film. It’s a movie about filmmakers and the ethical responsibilities to the people they film. In particular, it focuses on documentaries like Hoop Dreams, The Staircase, Capturing the Friedmans and Wolf Pack, asking what impact these films had on the people who appeared in them.

In the end, stories are told, profits are made by the makers of the movies, but the lives of the people documented are changed forever in ways that are often never imagined. Subject is one of those movies that changes the way you watch movies, asking questions that are often never raised.

As mentioned, there is something for everyone at CIFF, from serious to whimsical and fun. For movie lovers it’s a Disneyland experience that sparkles and shines each year.

The in-person theater screenings ran from March 22 through April 1. The virtual offerings run through April 9.

It’s an experience you don’t want to miss. If you haven’t attended, go to and stay tuned for the 48th CIFF in 2024. I highly recommend it.

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