A Nice Feature Article on the CIF+VF

Recently Chad Dull wrote a piece about the CIF+VF in The Other Paper. I want to paste here his unedited text because it makes a smart connection that was cut from the published version:  he draws a nice parallel between the CIF+FV’s new direction and other grassroots trends in politics and media.  (We still like The Other Paper, though, especially last week’s story on the political battleground that is the King Ave. UDF.)

CIF+VF: An Old Festival for a New Era
New board members and new marketing bring North America’s longest running film festival to the people

Since 1952, the Columbus International Film and Video Festival (CIF+VF), which culminates with the doling out of its Chris Awards, has enjoyed world-wide recognition from independent filmmakers as a vehicle by which their films could gain wide distribution. So why is it such a secret in its home town?

According to its Executive Director Susan Halpern, the festival has traditionally been more of a black-tie affair. For the better part of its 56-year history, it was an Academy Award “feed festival” which had the power to nominate films for the Documentary Long Form Oscar. Therefore, its focus was more on screening movies for its members for the purpose of awarding its nomination than on sharing the films with a wide audience.

When the Academy changed its rules for films’ Oscar-eligibility, however, the CIF+VF lost its nominating power, along with the private funding from distributors hoping to get their films recognized.  But the festival did not lose much steam as a result. It still screens high quality films, such as last years The Danish Poet, which went on to win the Animation Short Form Oscar. Plus, Halpern claims the stamp of “Chris Award Winner” is still a designation coveted by filmmakers as an accolade that can help them get their work recognized.

But even though the festival is still prestigious, there is a sense that it should re-focus its efforts on sharing its entries with the community.  With recent funding from the Ohio Arts Council and the Greater Columbus Arts Council, the CIF+VC  is primed to regroup and set out on its mission of community involvement.

“These films are too good for them not to be seen,” says Halpern.  So, she and festival co-chair Karl Mechem are infusing the organization with new board members to help them rethink how they get broader exposure.

For example, they’ve brought graphic artist and animated film maker Daniel King on board – who, at 30, is the board’s youngest member – to not only overhaul their logo, but to reach out to younger, like-minded community organizations to help garner grass roots support for the festival.

This is the first year they’ve used MySpace and Facebook as marketing tools, as well. This effort, along with having a blogspot for festival goers and entrants alike, according to Mechem, feeds into the “democratization” of the festival. The leap into cyberspace allows them to reach people individually through some of today’s most accepted forms of communication as well as provide forums for immediate feedback in which opinions can be shared freely and instantly.

“We want that immediate feedback,” says King. “It allows us to see what people are thinking so we can react accordingly.”

In addition to new-media marketing, the festival is also trying to gain a wider audience this year by making it easier and more fun for the public to attend its screenings. The festival has always taken a more traditional approach to screening films by showing them all in one week in one venue. So, the marketing approach that is most radically different this year is the idea of screening the festival’s niche films in venues that would target the films’ most likely audiences and spreading out those screenings over several weeks.

The last few festivals have dabbled in satellite screenings, hosting films at Germania, The Shamrock Club and Stonewall. This year, however, a lot of the films will be held outside the main facility at CCAD, which has played host to the CIF+VF for last three years. They are showing the films all over town in places as varied as Axis, Liquid, Studio 35 and the Drexel.

Halpern concedes that this deviation from the festival’s staid and proven format perplexed some of the more tenured jurors and board members. For example, when she communicated that a film called Pageant, about Miss Gay USA, would be screening at Axis, her decision was challenged by a board member. To get everyone to buy in, she first had to explain that Axis is a gay night club and that screening the film there would probably garner a larger viewing audience than showing it anywhere else. Her point was taken and the board agreed.

It isn’t so much as resistance to change, Halpern says, it is simply a matter of helping the older board members make the conceptual leap from previous festival activities to what the new board members  are trying to accomplish.

In a serendipitous turn of events, the film festival’s reinvention coincides with the optimism for reform permeating our current political climate. Whether you are an Obama or McCain supporter, chances are you have an overwhelming sense that the country will take a turn for the better after the upcoming presidential election. And the three films that kick off the rejuvinated festival are documentaries that focus heavily on Ohio’s roll in this monumental political event.

The first CIF+VF festival screening was Free for All! tonight at Columbus State, which was introduced by director John Wellington Ennis and followed by a talk from Mark Crispin Miller. Ennis takes an approach akin to that of Michael Moore (using more wit and tongue-in-cheek humor than brute force) to explore how the last few elections have been “stolen”, focusing primarily on Bush’s victory in Ohio in 2004.

To try to energize the voting population, Ennis assumes the role of “just some dude” who was pissed off enough to at least try to do something. He enlists the help of people he admits are much smarter than he, including investigative journalist Greg Palast (for legitimacy) and a dumbfounded Jerry Springer (for a bit of comic relief), who can’t believe his longtime acquaintance Ken Blackwell has turned to the dark side. Admission to the screening is free.

How Ohio Pulled it Off, a bit more somber take on the same issue of voter fraud in the Buckeye State, screens Thursday, October 2 at 7pm at Studio 35. Admission is $5 and you can stay for a live broadcast of the Biden/Palin vice presidential debate – and of course, more pizza and beer.

Perhaps the most incendiary flick in the festival is Murder, Spies and Voting Lies: The Clint Curtis Story, in which the subject claims to have been approached by Tom Feeney (R-FL) for consultation on how to rig voting machines in 2000. The distributors guarantee it will “have you running for paper ballots.” The flick screens Tuesday, October 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Drexel East. Admission is free.

So at a time when the CIF+VF is trying to gain grass roots support and translate its international prestige into a local presence, it showcases three locally-based (2006 Ohio Green Party gubernatorial candidate and all-around local political fixture Bob Fitrakis appears in all three), independently produced films that hold us accountable, as citizens of this state, for the direction of the entire country. This can’t be a coincidence, right?

“I wish I could say I was that smart!”, Halpern says. Though she claims to have simply picked three of the best films that were entered in the festival that local establishments were interested in showing, she can’t hide her excitement with the stars aligning around the festival to create an atmosphere that may bring in large audiences.

She found out from her friend and colleague Suzanne Patzer that the Free Press was already screening Free for All!, so Halpern saw it as a perfect opportunity to partner the two organizations. The other two films were logical choices for well publicized screenings, too, and they are co-sponsored by The Free Press, with Rock the Vote pitching in on How Ohio Pulled it Off.

But why so many liberal-themed films if the CIF+VF is interested in reaching out to all members of the community? “We only screen what we get,” says Halpern, “I don’t know why conservative filmmakers don’t submit to our festival. Maybe they feel they reach their audience by distributing in the Dispatch,” referring to the accused anti-Muslim Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West which was recently shipped with the Dispatch, along with many other national newspapers, including the New York Times, in electoral swing states.

Regardless of talk about using modern mixed-media marketing and taking a more democratic approach to screenings, Halpern insists that she and the other board members are merely trying to bring the festival full-circle back to its roots, when in 1952 a group of “progressive educators” felt that the landmark documentary Nanook of the North had to be shared with the public.

“The bottom line,” Halpern says, “is that we want to share with the community these terrific films that it probably wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to see.”

Other confirmed upcoming CIF+VF satellite screenings include: The Challenge of Change: In the Melting Heart of the Alps, November 11, 8:00 p.m., Germania; Pageant, Thursday November 13, 8:00 p.m., Axis, followed by a drag show; and Saturday Morning Cartoons From Around The World, November 15, 10:00 a.m., CCAD.

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