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Like most first-time filmmakers, Jonathan Sajetowski wrote about and directed what he knew: his life. And while he admits that part of Donnybrook, his debut feature — which makes its premiere today as part of the Cleveland International Film Festival — parallels his own life, he's quick to add that it's not entirely autobiographical. "I've been every single one of those characters at one point in my life, though," he says.

Donnybrook is about high-school senior Davie Szynaski, who dreams of being a rock star. But first he must deal with the grief caused by his mother's recent death, along with his classmates' lack of understanding. It's a teen drama, says Sajetowski, who portrays a bass-playing priest. There's even a scene set at the prom. "You get to see what makes everybody tick," he says.

This year's film fest — it's celebrating its 30th year — features 10 days of movies that range from moderately budgeted flicks with big stars (Akeelah and the Bee's Laurence Fishburne) to indie hopefuls (Sweet Land) to programs of shorts. The Local Heroes series, which runs throughout the fest, lines up movies that have some sort of Cleveland connection — whether it's a screenwriter who used to live in town, on-location shooting, or a production that employed local cast and crew.

Sajetowski, 31, was born here and went to school at Tri-C. He graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute and now lives in New York City. Donnybrook includes local actors and behind-the-scenes workers. And it was completely shot in the area, with many of the movie's interiors taking place at the home of Sajetowski's parents in Cuyahoga Heights.

The film took about two years to make its way from page to screen. The experience was enlightening, says Sajetowski, who's directed experimental and narrative shorts in the past. "People want to be moved for two hours," he says. "This lays out a foundation for all these possibilities." Donnybrook screens at 12:15 p.m. today and at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 23.
March 15-25

Speaking of Highlights

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