School buses drop off aspiring student filmmakers for CIFF’s annual Film Slam. Photograph courtesy of Cleveland International Film Festival

By SARAH JAQUAY
The Cleveland International Film Festival’s (CIFF’s) 48th annual downtown movie binge felt more like the good old days when moviegoers knew nothing about a spiky virus that could weaponize your row-mates. Indeed, CIFF 48 (April 3-13 in-person and CIFF Streams April14-21, 2024) experienced its best attendance since opening in its new forever home at Playhouse Square (PSQ) in 2022. With 137 feature films and 225 short films representing 60 countries, plus more than 300 guest filmmakers at CIFF48’s in-person run, the vibe was reminiscent of Tower City Cinemas’ crowded hallways where cinephiles compared notes, made suggestions for must-sees and passed along information about added screenings of audience favorites.
The first two years at PSQ, its sheer size seemed an impediment to community and camaraderie; but with increased attendance and movie buffs becoming familiar with these gorgeous theaters, that has all changed. This reporter was delighted to see the line for the closing film, “Devo,” snaking from the Connor Palace Theater almost to the the lobby of the Mimi Ohio Theater. Granted, this band has local roots; but it was really fun to “walk the line” and see folks we hadn’t seen since the pre-pandemic era.
Far and away the most inspiring film we saw was “False Positive.” It’s a documentary about Olympian (and Akron native) Butch Reynolds. Reynolds was wrongly accused of taking performance-enhancing drugs and banned from the Barcelona Olympics (1992) while he was still in his prime. In 1988 Reynolds won a gold medal in the 4×400 relay and a silver in the 400-meter dash at the Seoul Olympics. He’d also set the world record in the 400-meter earlier that year. The film highlights Reynolds’ litigation grind against the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF) and others (some of which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court) to overturn the ban and clear his name. Reynolds attended the CIFF premiere and happened to sit in front of us. This remarkable Ohioan was slated to be the next Jesse Owens but had the opportunity snatched away because the IAAF refused to admit its blatant error. Reynolds was shunned by other Olympians and unable to get a coaching job even at his own high school. Reynolds found a way past his righteous anger and moved beyond bitterness to start an at-risk youth program in Akron. At the end, there was hardly a dry eye in the house and Reynolds got a lengthy standing ovation as he took the stage for an audience Q&A. It was one of those CIFF moments that reminds viewers there are heroes everywhere. To this day the IAAF has never apologized or compensated Butch Reynolds for the ordeal they put him through. “False Positive” is part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary series and is available on Hulu.
Other highlights included “Maestra,” about the annual Parisian competition for female symphony conductors and “Secret Mall Apartment” about renegade RISD students (and graduates) who lived in unoccupied space at a gargantuan Providence mall for four years. The ending is beyond ironic as viewers learn the fate of this Rhode Island “dead mall.” The best fictional drama we saw was “Ghostlight,” a modern take on Romeo & Juliet that was poignant, funny and hopeful about finding creative ways to move through unspeakable grief.
As always, a few films begged for better plot development or needed more concise editing. Yet all the films we saw provoked thought, lively discussions or suggestions for improvement. In short, watching and analyzing globally-sourced movies at Playhouse Square’s iconic theaters is a great place to be in springtime on the North Coast.
CIFF 49 will be March 26-April 5, 2025 at Playhouse Square.
See www.clevelandfilm.org for more information and for a complete list of CIFF 48 award winners.