[Interview] CMU International Film Festival Celebrates Ten Years

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For ten years, the Carnegie Mellon University International Film Festival has brought new, thought-provoking, award-winning films to Pittsburgh. From March 17th through April 3rd, the festival will celebrate its landmark anniversary with 16 films from 15 countries, including Denmark, Mexico and Poland. This year’s theme, Faces of Conflict, will focus on topics ranging from terrorism and propaganda, to war and civil rights, and will spotlight many films making their US premieres.

In addition to the film screenings, CMUIFF will present numerous special events, including an opening night art show featuring posters from the festival’s archives, panel discussions, presentations and culinary displays relevant to the film’s themes, and a guest appearance by filmmaker Spike Lee. The festival will also introduce two new educational components, a Youth Outreach Program at the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA) and Pittsburgh’s Kentucky Avenue School, and an intensive weekend course for college students.

Steel Cinema discussed the festival’s origins, mission, and anniversary celebration with Jolanta Lion, director of the film festival and assistant director of the Humanities Center in the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Quelcy Kogel, a CMU alumna who took the film festival’s course in its first year and now serves as its creative director, and Alex Heald, a Heinz College student and the festival’s logistics coordinator.

I read that the festival started out as a course.

Quelcy: I was interested in film and looking into any film class CMU had, and a friend recommended that course. She’s like, oh, it’s easy, you watch some films and write a paper, it’s fun. So then I signed up, and that was the first year that Jolanta was teaching that course. She arrived and was like, okay, we’re gonna make this massive film festival and it’s gonna be throughout the city, and it was a totally different direction. Really raised the bar infinitely. And there was no bar, so she introduced the bar and then raised it a bunch.

That first year, we watched films for class and we did write papers and review them and talk about them, but then simultaneously we’re planning this festival. We divided up into committees based on majors and interests, and that didn’t work out too well as a structure. Once you introduce event planning there’s so many logistics, and it’s so much more involved than most people think. Then it became part of the Humanities Center so then that gives it more flexibility. I then left the country – I graduated – and Jolanta still sent me films to screen. And then other jobs took me away. And then last year, she contacted me to do some food presentation stuff and pulled me back in and, fittingly, here I am for the 10th anniversary.

Jolanta: It’s a very strange structure that we have for the festival. Currently, we have students from all different departments and schools. Most of the students this year are graduating students from the Heinz School, the Tepper School, other schools, where they are working in work-study positions, meaning they are paid by their school, and the school’s contribution to the festival is giving me workers for the festival. I also offer an independent study festival course. People who sign up for that course are interviewed, so I select the five or six people who, in my opinion, will be a good fit. But everything is about planning and creating the film festival, so of course they are receiving a final grade and a final paper, but this is the only addition to other assignments that all members of the committee have.

So students are still very integrated into the festival?

J: Right.

Q: When I took the class, I was interested in film, but I didn’t want to be a filmmaker, and so that opened up this whole other world of I can still be involved in this industry and this method of storytelling without being the one making it. And combining all these different majors, you get different angles and skill sets, which is good.

What’s the process of programming the festival? How do you decide what films to bring in?

J: Over so many years, I developed relationships with major distributors in the world, and from the Polish film school. So I had always easier access to filmmakers and film distributors and film producers. So that helped a lot for working on the programming for Carnegie Mellon.

One of the aspects that’s very important is the theme. Every year we have a different theme for the festival, so we went from Democracy, Mechanization, Realism, Globalization, Work, and this year we have Faces of Conflict. That narrows the search for films. The other very important criteria is to find films that are absolutely new, that are premieres, that are screening right now at IDFFA – the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam – or Cannes or Venice. So through the most prestigious festivals I’m searching for what film won an award or what is interesting this year. Of course we are talking about mostly independent films. And then discussing with the distributors to get permission to have it in Pittsburgh as a premiere, which is a very difficult process, because if you have a distributor in Europe and the film just won an award, they assume that they will have an American distributor who’d like to distribute in the US and in Pittsburgh. So if you want to distribute the film, the theater – when you are selling the film – wants to have a premiere. So it’s very difficult to convince distributors to let small film festivals screen films.

Another trick that I’m using is talking to the filmmakers and the producers to bring the person who is behind the film as a guest speaker. So then the path is a little bit different than through regular distribution.

This year, we have the amazing opening night film A War. It’s the Danish Oscar submission. I knew it was a great film. I had a sense. So I booked the film and we signed a contract that I need to have a premiere. But when the film got on the [Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film] list, the distributor was asking, begging me to let me sell the film earlier to the theaters. Of course I said no. It will probably be the only screening in Pittsburgh.

Q: Jolanta does a lot of research on the films and has recommendations, but then we have a student committee, so we’ll screen everything and talk about it and talk about how marketing will work if we think it will get the right audience.

J: I pick about 100 films for the committee and the committee narrows it down.

Alex: It’s also cool because we’ve got students from all over. We have a Chinese film Coffin in the Mountain that one of our Chinese students brought over. And I brought a film that I had seen at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival called Magical Girl that I really loved. A lot of the work is Jolanta, but it’s cool that she lets us also bring stuff to the table and think about things we’ve seen or trends that we’re seeing. It feels collaborative and not just her dumping films in our laps.

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Magical Girl

Q: We have a film, Dreamcatcher, and it’s talking about human trafficking in America. Had you asked me about that before watching it, I would’ve said, yeah, I mean, there’s issues. But here’s this woman who was a prostitute and now she works with young girls turning their lives around. She does an afterschool program in Chicago, and one session into this, every girl says, when I was molested, when my uncle abused me. Every one of them. And you see it, and it’s incredibly eye opening. And you won’t see that in the media. And the media you see says, oh, prostitutes should go to jail or they’re committing a crime. And that’s where Faces comes in, because its humanizing these issues. And that’s what motivates me to work on this, is getting people to talk about these films and empathize and see that other point of view.

We did a screening of (T)error in the fall, which everyone should watch.

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Dreamcatcher

A: It was right after Paris and Beirut, and the same day as Mali.

Q: But right here in Hazelwood, a taxi driver was shot because the person thought he was a terrorist. And the film takes place here. But then during the Q&A, this Muslim woman spoke up and said, thank you so much for making this film and for allowing me to speak, because I’m scared and my voice isn’t being heard. People in the news are saying they want to kill me and I’m sending my kids into the world in veils, and I’m terrified, and no one tells my point of view. So that’s what the festival is to me – here are these voices that no one else is listening to or broadcasting.

What are you doing special for the 10th anniversary?

Q: One thing that we’re really working on this year is solidifying the brand, because a lot of people, when I talk about the festival, they say, oh, I think I heard of that or I think I went to one. Because we market each film individually, and because of the changing themes, it’s been difficult for people to recognize that as a continued effort. So we have an established logo now just in the past year. We’ve turned last year’s poster design into our logo. We’re working on a new website that will be more consistent. So those are some of the more detailed elements of what we’re doing and pushing the theme color throughout events. But also raising the bar on events a little bit, which is where my creative side comes in. So just really packaging the events better.

A: Make it a little more marketable.

Q: We market individually, so we market to a lot of ethnic and cultural groups. So for the older audience, it’s a good way for them to connect to their language and culture, which is a big reason why we have the over-40 crowd, because it’s a lot of the immigrant population. That being said, we want some fresh blood in the audience, so this year there was the youth component, partnering with CAPA and the Kentucky Avenue School.

J: We’ll be working also on creating short films by creating workshops in the school and bringing the artists who are coming to the festival and using them for the youth program. Hanna Polak will be here as a speaker for the film Something Better To Come, but because she’s coming from Poland, she can’t stay one day and go home. So we want to create other programs that will be beneficial both for her and for, in this case, high school and middle schools in Pittsburgh.

We have the Short Film Competition program. It’s like a festival under the festival and we offer awards. It’s open to all accredited institutions for students all over the world.

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Something Better To Come

Q: We’re tying all the separate years together so people understand this is the tenth year, they’ve had all these different themes. So on Instagram, we revisited all out past themes and highlighted three films from that year. And then for opening night we’ll display all our past posters. Artists at CMU, and some of the CAPA kids as well, are going to manipulate posters. So we’ll have the original and then the artist-rendered poster, and we’ll do a silent auction of those, and maybe some community artists as well. It’s a way of bringing in more of the arts and show that it is a broader community at play, and to celebrate that we’ve been around and that we’ve explored all these different themes.

A: I just think it’s the perfect storm of the youth component, the short film competition and, of course, having Spike Lee come. I’m only here for a year with my Masters program, so this is my one year to be with this festival and it feels like it’s congealing and it’s coming together into something that will have a legacy. Not that it doesn’t already, but it does feel like it’s all the elements from previous festivals, like the greatest hits or something. I mean, if the film doesn’t have conflict, what is it? Every film should have conflict, but it’s a good theme, and it just seems like a lot of puzzle pieces are falling into place really nicely.

Are you showing a Spike Lee film?

A: We’re screening Chiraq. [Lee] will be joining us for the day. We’re going to have an on-campus Q&A/discussion/lecture with Spike in addition to the festival’s. So we’ll have an afternoon lecture from Spike that people from the public and people from the campus will be at, then we’ll also have the screening, and then a more film-focused Q&A followed by some sort of reception. We’re just really blown away that we have filmmaker of his status. It’s a really strong opening weekend. We’ve got A War, we’ve got Spike Lee, we’ve got Karbala on Sunday, Friday night is Dreamcatcher with Brenda Myers-Powell. She’ll be here in Pittsburgh.

J: Karbala is a Polish film about the coalition forces from Europe, in this case Poland and Bulgaria. It will be the American premiere of a very interesting film. It’s very similar to our opening night film A War.

For Karbala, we’ll have a special guest, the Polish consulate in New York, to celebrate the festival. And they support us financially. The Polish consulate is not the only government organization that we worked with. Before it was Bulgarian, Czech, German consuls. And even the Dutch consulate sent me to IDFFA one year to select the films for the festival.

Do you have a favorite moment from past festivals? Is there a particular film, speaker or event that stands out to you?

Q: I think that Muslim woman speaking out. I was tearing up. I wish I had a camera right on her face because it was so timely and so sincere. That’s why I like this festival, and why I was so inspired as a student. I want to change the world. I want people to understand these issues, and film is such a unique way to tell that story. But you don’t want that message to just die in the theater. And after the screening, so many people came up and were physically touching her and saying, thank you so much, that was so inspiring. That to me is the face of all the themes.

There are so many directors who stick out in my mind, and that’s what so unique about this experience. I like to go into any kind of art without knowing the backstory, but then I like to know it after. So you figure out, what is my personal reaction to this? Do I get the concepts? Are the concepts successful?

J: What comes to mind from last year is a film that didn’t attract that many people. It was a weekday and there was a storm outside. It was Dangerous Act, a documentary Belorussian film about the underground, independent theater. We brought the actor who’s playing in the film, which is a theater performance. He doesn’t speak English at all, and before the film, it was like silent live performance explaining something that is already symbolic and also needs an explanation. So I loved the live performance that accompanied the screening.

Q: Bronx Obama was my happy memory. We all went to Pamela’s [Diner] with him, and he’s like Clark Kent-Superman. He definitely has his wardrobe pieces that he becomes President Obama and becomes just a dude from the Bronx. During breakfast he’s in this bright orange shirt, but then after we finished he put on this leather coat that has the Presidential seal on the back and he starts walking through the restaurant, and that’s when everyone starts to look. And we took a bunch of photos with the painting of Obama there. He was just such a performer. And the director was with him, and he was so down to earth and humble. That’s what’s nice to see too is that a lot of these directors, they’re very excited for their film to be screening and to interact with students. And I feel like all of them say, if you’re in New York, if you’re in LA, or wherever I am, let me know.

What are you hoping will take away from this festival?

Q: This goes back to the empathy thing for me. There’s this idea, especially in politics with the campaign right now, there’s Democrat, there’s Republican, there’s black, there’s white, there’s for guns, there’s against guns, and the whole festival, in my mind, explores this whole grey area of conflict. With Cartel Land, it’s we need a fence, we don’t need a fence. You have two vigilantes on either side of the fence that are fighting the same fight, but if you asked either of them, they probably wouldn’t think they had an ally on the other side. But really exploring that conflict in a way goes so much deeper than we can imagine, but that also means there are better ways to solve it.

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Cartel Land

J: To me, it may change the path of someone’s life. I’m hoping that people are influenced by talking to a director, having a conversation, or maybe something in the film.

Just a few days ago, I was thinking, I’m working so hard, and it’s just an event, it’s here and it’s gone. That doesn’t make sense. I’m killing myself, working day and night, and then what? And then I thought, I’m working with 25 people, without counting supporters, sponsors, and others, and believe me, these lives won’t be the same after being on the team for almost one year. I see they are changing, working on different committees, seeing their colleagues or peers, seeing the films. I got so many letters from previous years. My assistant from two years ago – she’s a graduate student, an amazing intellectual right now – but she said that was the best thing that happened to her in life, to be able to be a part of the festival. And the same with another student from Pitt, because we also accept interns.

Q: It’s a good learning experience for students, because there’s not a lot of time to establish hierarchy in the festival planning, so we throw out assignments, and you see they’re trying to take initiative and feel more ownership that they have a responsibility to this particular film. It’s interesting for me to come back for this 10th anniversary because I think about how I worked on it as a student, and my concept of Pittsburgh was so different, and CMU was such a bubble. Now I think, we need to bring in this florist and we need to bring in this restaurant, and I have such a stronger tie to the community. We can’t just reach out to Craig Street and Forbes. And pushing the students and helping them make those connections and broaden the festival’s reach a little more.

The Carnegie Mellon University International Film Festival will opening on March 17th with A War at 7 p.m. in CMU’s McConomy Auditorium. The festival will close at 3 p.m. on April 3rd with Requiem for the American Dream in McConomy Auditorium. General admission tickets to the film and reception on opening night are $15 ($10 for seniors and students). General admission tickets for all other screenings are $10 ($5 for seniors and students). A full-access festival pass can be purchased for $50 ($25 for seniors and students). All tickets are available for purchase at the festival website.

The CMU International Film Festival is organized by The Humanities Center at Carnegie Mellon, and is dedicated to and inspired by the life and work of the late Paul Goodman, a world-renowned filmmaker, psychologist, and Carnegie Mellon professor.

Faces of Conflict is supported in part by a generous sponsorship from TeleTracking Technologies, Inc. 

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