I Am Stunned (and Ashamed?) To Report That I Have Lost All Interest in the Cleveland International Film Festival

click to enlarge Playhouse Square chandelier in all its glory. - JEFF NIESEL
Jeff Niesel
Playhouse Square chandelier in all its glory.

In my early 20s, during the application process for a piddly grant related to the promotion and ambassadorship of Cleveland, I was asked to identify three marquee events associated with the city, through which it could theoretically be marketed.

Without hesitation, I started rambling about the Cleveland International Film Festival. It was one of the coolest things in town, I said. Look no further than the hordes of locals and their wacky friends who caravan to Tower City to watch hundreds of movies that will never see the light of day in mainstream theaters! Look at the electricity coursing through downtown’s most iconic building! Look at the duration of that electricity: not just a single afternoon, a la Browns game, but two straight weeks! Amazing!

These ecstatic proclamations were delivered though my relationship with the Film Fest, at the time, was mostly aspirational. My bread-and-butter moviegoing had been the General Cinemas $4 Tuesday deal—weekly family pilgrimages to Ridge Park Square, Westgate and Westwood Town Center were among my most treasured summer outings—and then free rentals from Hollywood Video, where my sister worked through high school. The Film Fest seemed like a natural evolution in the expansion, not to say refinement, of my cinematic tastes. But the God’s honest truth is that when I started attending CIFF in college and thereafter, I rarely enjoyed what I saw. Maybe one in four movies I considered worth the price of admission in terms of entertainment value.

Nevertheless, I wanted very badly to appreciate these movies. Like a lot of people, I believed that foreign, visually idiosyncratic or narratively inscrutable films were more artistic, more important, than the blockbusters and paint-by-numbers rom-coms I’d always loved. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to interpret a movie on its own terms, I guess, and just assumed that inclusion in the film fest – "on the festival circuit" – exalted it in some essential way.

The reason I trumpeted CIFF as a marquee Cleveland thing, though, was 100% about the atmosphere. It’s not like Cleveland had the cachet of something like a Cannes or a Venice or a Sundance or a Toronto. It was small potatoes by those standards. But Clevelanders loved it, and I was a Clevelander, which in this case connoted that I was much less cultured than I pretended to be, terrified that I’d be found out as a fraud, and therefore keen to publicize my CIFF attendance. (In Cleveland, we tend to suffer from an identical complex on the city's behalf, and so naturally I was desperate that Cleveland should remain the kind of city that hosted an international film festival.)

By and by, attending CIFF became ball-pit fun, but it was always just as much a civic outing as a cultural one, literally rubbing elbows in cramped and overheated lines with movers and shakers, political celebs and family friends, the true diehards among whom were known to take a full week of vacation to don their lanyards and camp out in the Tower City food court with CIFF booklet and pen in hand, hopping from one film to the next all day, every day. One year, Scene "presented" a journalism-themed documentary, and I gave opening remarks. Most years, I'd saunter over to Tower City of a lunch hour or otherwise idle afternoon with only an inkling that I might catch a movie.  I'd be just as delighted to people-watch and leaf through the booklet for an hour, striking up conversations with acquaintances into whom I'd invariably run.

(I always envisioned doing intensive coverage of CIFF for Scene, watching as many movies as time and caffeine permitted, batch-posting reviews and interviews with filmmakers, and then pumping out some immersive dispatch from Tower City to reconstruct the most memorable sights and sounds. But other commitments surfaced. And even with Scene’s media pass, I never saw more than two movies in a row on a single day.)

This year, I’m somewhat ashamed to admit, I have pretty much zero interest in attending CIFF at all. Part of the explanation may be Covid. Part of it may be the proliferation of streaming video services that grant me access to a splendid array of emerging filmmakers and foreign fare at low cost already. But the biggest part of it is that CIFF at Playhouse Square just doesn’t feel like CIFF. Its identity as an indispensable Cleveland experience, at least for me, was inextricably linked to its being held at Tower City.

This view is by no means universal. It looks like the opening night screening and gala for this year's festival (the 46th) were smashing successes, and event organizers have taken pains to note that the Playhouse Square theaters were originally built in the 1920s as palaces for movies. The framing that CIFF has “returned home” doesn’t resonate with me personally, but it’s probably smart marketing, and folks will no doubt savor the grand and ornate auditoriums. 

I glanced through CIFF's website yesterday and confirmed that there were indeed dozens of movies I'd be interested in seeing.  And in all likelihood, the same movers and shakers and political celebs and family friends will be in attendance over the next 10 days. Mayor Justin Bibb gave opening night remarks and was greeted, I'm told, by rapturous hooting and hollering. 

But I just can't rouse myself to hop on the Red Line and then the Health Line to wander around the now amorphous festival grounds. Where will one simply hang? Parnell's? Starbucks? The various lobbies? Are there even printed booklets this year? (I've heard not!) 

My ambivalence is not exclusive to Playhouse Square. I felt similarly when CIFF announced it would expand to satellite locations across town in 2019, with community screenings at places like the Capitol Theatre in the Gordon Square Arts District. That's all well and good, but the whole point of CIFF, I thought, was that the happy hodge-podge of patrons were concentrated—in the very heart of the city, at its historic transit hub, no less—not diffuse. The true cinephiles may object, but the fun of CIFF was kind of like that of a professional conference, where wandering around the conference hotel and making small talk at the bar is just as valuable as the official programming. In fact it enhances the official programming.

Boy, this is sure turning into a grumpy, man-yells-at-clouds take, huh? I should probably go spend a day or two at Playhouse Square before getting too comfortable in this nostalgic pose. But even if there are redeeming qualities about Playhouse Square as home of CIFF — larger auditoriums, fancier bathrooms? — the no-frills Tower City Cinemas will always be synonymous with CIFF in my mind. Its closure was an emotional blow for those of us who still attended regularly. And though it was far and away the most neglected and depressing property in the Cleveland Cinemas portfolio, it shone brightly and proudly every spring. 

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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