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Where Ohio and Hollywood meet

On March 28, 2011

The Cleveland International Film Festival is Ohio's most significant contribution to the film industry, including work by local artists as well as those from the Hollywood prominent, documentary elites and internationally acclaimed.

The festival, which runs from March 26 to April 3, is being held at the Tower City Cinemas in downtown Cleveland's Tower City Center.

Since its inception in 1977, the festival has gained notoriety amongst the filming community and now debuts feature length films amid the 280 or so films that are shown each year.

Last year it attracted over 70,000 viewers.

The showings this year were the usual mixture of unreleased, indie and international films and documentaries. Viewers had the opportunity to not only see up-and-coming releases but also participate in panel discussions with some of the filmmakers and stars.

One of the panels surrounded the first showing of "More to Live For," the directorial debut of Noah Hutton, son of actors Timothy Hutton and Debra Winger.

The documentary focused on the lives of three men with leukemia. The film urged the audience to proactively support the fight against the disease by signing up to be potential donors.

"This is about saving lives," said Susan Brecker during the panel. She is the widow of jazz saxophonist Michael Brecker, who was also one of the subjects of the film.

After the panel, audience members had the option to participate in donor registration at a station set up in the mall attached to Tower City. Brecker and James Chippendale, another subject of the film, told the audience that registering as a donor is a painless process that only involves the swabbing of the inside of the cheek with cotton.

Later, if the donor is a match for somebody in need, the donation of adult stem cells is an easy procedure that can take anywhere from 45 minutes to six hours, depending on the method of extraction that they choose.

Matt Kalaycio, Director of the Chronic Leukemia and Myeloma Program at the Cleveland Clinic also spoke at the panel, assuring audience members that the process was easy, painless, and had a high potential to save lives of leukemia patients.

Though "More to Live For" was by far the most emotionally provocative film shown at CIFF, there were a number of standout features such as "The High Cost of Living," which paired actor Zach Braff of "Scrubs" and "Garden State" fame with Québécois actress Isabelle Blais.

In "The High Cost of Living," Braff plays a prescription-drug peddling illegal American expatriate living in Montreal. Those familiar with his role as happy-go-lucky doctor J.D. Dolan in Scrubs will inarguably find his most recent role a stark contrast.

Braff forms a complicated relationship with the pregnant victim of his negligence behind the wheel of a car en route to a drug deal. She soon discovers that she has miscarried, and unknowingly clings to her perpetrator.

In another story of illegal immigration, "Illegal" follows Anne Coesens as a Russian immigrant struggling to maintain her sanity in a Belgian deportation camp while separated from her teenage son.

Both films frame immigration outside of the American context, which tends to focus primarily on Mexican immigrants in the United States. "Illegal" reminded viewers that there are other contexts to the discussion and makes deportation from the US seem humane and dignified in contrast.

When it comes to documentaries, it's easy for the subject matter to overshadow the marksmanship of the filmmaker. Viewers can forget that documentary is an art form, with the overt goal of informing and educating.

Two documentaries at CIFF missed this mark: "The Pipe" and "Connected."

"The Pipe" is the classic tale of collected civil disobedience standing against large corporations; in this case, the small voice is the fishing village of Rossport, Ireland and their opposition is Shell Oil Company. Shell, in the process of installing a deep sea oil harvesting pipe in the waters around Rossport, threatens the fishing community of the town.

While director Risterad O'Domhnaill was able to capture the protesting process of the Rossport and their opposition to the pipe, the film was a bore. For the first half-hour, it exceeds expectations by chronicling the lives of a couple of the seamen.

However, it never moves beyond this. There is never any discussion with Shell, or locals that are ambivalent to the lingering plight of their cottage industry - instead Domhnaill mostly follows one fisherman around as he continues to sail his boat into the waters that Shell has contracted.

By the fourth time you watch the grizzled old fisherman sail his boat out, argue with Shell employees, argue with the police and subsequently be arrested, your ambivalence is bound to grow out of boredom. Precisely the opposite of what this type of film is set to accomplish.

"Connected" also falls short. Director Tiffany Shlain uses the opening moments to purport an explanation of technological interconnectedness through discussions of evolution and studies of the human brain, suggesting it impedes humans in a multitude of ways.

An hour and a half later, Shlain - best known for creating the Webby's, the internet and website award show - has basically only explained a synthesized version of her late father's works, and why his passing distressed her. While it was touching and thought provoking, it failed to meet the heavy handed burden she put forth in the beginning.

The theme of the 35th CIFF is "Hero, Lover, Rebel." This suggests that the subjects of the films are intended to relate to these archetypes. Each film began with a short music video, illustrating this point by adding in "villain" as another possible character. Finding the link between these notions and the films shown is simple, but arguably it would always be.

With six more days left in the festival and hundreds of films left on the roster, Toledoans should take advantage of the proximity to the international event, and judge for themselves.

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