Film Pittsburgh Fall Festival set for Nov. 11-22

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“Independent filmmakers have their finger on the pulse of the world

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ONE OF THE nation’s pre-eminent independent film festivals has expanded its offerings and moved online for a 12-day viewing window.

From Nov. 11-22, 2020, the Film Pittsburgh Fall Festival website will stream a total of 167 films spanning documentary, animation, comedy and drama genres, with nearly a third created by filmmakers from outside the U.S. Ticket sales began Oct. 21 and continue through the festival.

This year’s lineup combines programming from the Three Rivers Film Festival, Pittsburgh Shorts, ReelAbilities, JFilm and Asian Sidebar series.

Several films have Western Pennsylvania area connections including Beethoven in Beijing, co-directed by Duquesne University alumna and former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Jennifer Lin, and Definition Please, written and directed by Greensburg, PA native Sujata Day.

Documentary subjects span a wide range —1960s’ political surveillance (MLK/FBI), an all-girl high school robotics team (The Missfits), a family fleeing violence in Central America (Mateo’s Story), a dedicated paralympic swimmer (Alive Day), exiled Cuban baseball players (The Last Out), the legacy of Jim Crow-era lynching (Ashes to Ashes), workers’ rights (9to5: The Story of a Movement), a Native American youth boxing gym (Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible), Romanian journalists uncovering massive health-care fraud (Collective), the historic Nuremberg Trials (Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz), an English choir of singers with throat cancer (Can You Hear My Voice?), the U.S. foster care system (Unadopted), Operation Santa (Dear Santa) and more.

Clockwise from left: “Sin Cielo”, “Beethoven in Beijing”, “The Snail and the Whale”, “Waffles”

This year’s winners in the Pittsburgh Shorts Script Competition will have their scripts read, along with a screening of Common Decency by 2019 third-place awardee Caroline Bloom.

Viewers can also check in to the free online gallery featuring for-sale artwork by local artists from Creative Citizen Studios, a workshop held at Andy Warhol Museum this past Summer.

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LOCALPittsburgh had a chance to speak with Film Pittsburgh Executive Director Kathryn Spitz Cohan, on the changes in this year’s festival and future trends in independent filmmaking.

Kathryn Spitz Cohan

LEM: What is the value of independent filmmaking for audiences today? 

KSC: Independent filmmakers have their finger on the pulse of the world. They tell stories that are relavant and important to today’s society, stories that look at where we are as human beings. Independent films have the ability to encourage difficult conversations, to transform people, to bring people of diverse backgrounds together. One of the things I love about seeing a film in a movie theatre is, when the lights go down and it’s completely dark, you’re sitting among strangers watching the same visual piece of art. Everyone might respond differently, but there’s just something incomparable about that shared experience. 

LEM: Over your 20 years as festival director, have you seen new trends emerge in independent filmmaking?

KSC: There is definitely a darker side to the films submitted this year.

LEM: And those would have been submitted last year, 2019, pre-pandemic.

KSC: Yes, and we’re showing several short films made after the pandemic took hold this Spring — made in quarantine, so to speak. There’s no doubt the last few months have been a challenge to independent filmmakers — not just the logistics of filming and producing but grappling with the entire creative process from the very start. I suspect next year we will see films specifically about the pandemic experience.

LEM: Aside from documentaries that choose a real subject and provide factual insight, what do you think the other films in the festival show us about our world? 

KSC: One of the things you’re taught in film school when you’re starting out is to make a film about what you know. Or, as a writer, start out by writing about what you know. Documentarians are always looking for good stories, but a lot of narrative live-action films are based on a personal connection the filmmaker has with the subject.

One of our films focuses on a mother-daughter story where the daughter has an illness that worsens over the course of the film. This isn’t a documentary, but it was influenced by real events in the filmmaker’s life. When she began writing the film, she lost a very close friend and not long after, she herself became pregnant. Those things informed the eventual script and film.

LEM: Just about a third of all this year’s films, the festival shorts as well as full-length, come from outside the U.S. Is that by design?

KSC: That’s an element of a film festival that’s extremely important. When you see movies from other countries, or cultures within your own country, you get to go places you’ve never been and see other parts of the world. You realize how similar we all are in many ways. And you see how different filmmaking styles are across the globe.

LEM: How so?

KSC: Pacing is very different with films made outside the U.S. More importance is placed on plot and character development and cinematography, as opposed to relying on action sequences and explosions, the technical razzle-dazzle of Hollywood.

LEM: At the outset of the pandemic lockdown a few months back, were you ever concerned about not being able to present a film festival this year?

KSC: The philanthropic community in Pittsburgh has been incredibly supportive during this time, not only of Film Pittsburgh but of so many artists in the area. We have not had to furlough one person from our team, and that is a blessing. We’ve always had great support from individual donors and local businesses who care passionately about our mission, and that stayed very strong this year. We’re very grateful.

LEM: Within the dark pandemic storm-sky still hovering over cultural life in America, can you see any silver lining?

KSC: Absolutely. An online festival offers increased accessibility to people who might not have attended in person, and our filmmakers will reach a much wider audience because of that. Film Pittsburgh’s objective is to make Pittsburgh a destination for independent film lovers using whatever media is available. That hasn’t changed and won’t. # # #

Clockwise from left: “Night of the Kings”, “Icarus. The Legend of Mietek Kosz”, “Susana”, “Gratitiude Jar Time Capsule”