The Cincinnati Festival (CFF) kicked off its fourth year last weekend and continues through Sunday with screenings at various venues (though most will take place at Tower Place Mall). The festival boasts some 100 films (including 39 feature-length offerings) across numerous genres and styles, none more anticipated than the local premiere of Cincinnati native Tom Berninger’s Mistaken for Strangers, which screened Sept. 6 at Memorial Hall.
The documentary follows locally spawned Indie Rock juggernaut The National, which is fronted by Tom’s older brother Matt. The doc’s original conceit — that Tom will be a fly on the wall during The National’s 2010 world tour — eventually takes an unexpected turn, the result of the filmmaker’s inability to figure out a compelling story arc when the band fails to provide the traditional behind-the-scenes drama that drives more conventional Rockumentaries. The narrative instead focuses on the strained relationship between the brothers, who are opposites in more ways than one: Matt is the handsome, mysterious Rock star with the stable home life, while Tom is the chubby, emotionally unstable and professionally adrift slacker struggling to move past the shadow of his more successful brother.
Mistaken for Strangers is a crafty, first-person meta-doc that combines the humor of Spinal Tap with the emotional resonance of a nuanced family drama — exactly the kind of singular experience the CFF is looking to give audiences. Tom, who was on hand at the screening, thanked the festival for supporting his labor of love and film in general. (He also said the film had secured a distributor and that it should be in theaters early next year.)
CityBeat recently touched base with festival’s executive director, Kat Steele, to discuss the event’s continued focus on filmmakers like Tom and the challenges of presenting such an endeavor each year.
The festival has shown a keen interest in supporting filmmakers over the years. Why is that so important to you?
Filmmaking is a collaborative art and empowering tool for expression that needs to be supported in Cincinnati. Having filmmakers visit the city and talk about their art to the local audience expands minds
and enriches our understanding of other cultures and perspectives through storytelling.
The festival is again utilizing multiple venues, including several that are not conventional movie theaters. In one sense it’s easier to do this with the rise of digital projection, but are you concerned that you are not delivering the optimal experience for viewers and filmmakers?
Yes, and some of our filmmakers have made similar statements. However, there are many fests that take place in a non-traditional cinema environment. In previous years, we have had screenings in non-cinema environments like Clifton Performance Theatre, The Cincinnati Club, Hollywood Casino, Clifton Cultural Arts Center and more. A smaller, more intimate setting allows filmmakers the opportunity to develop relationships with their audience and other filmmakers.
Last year you told me the following: “We’ve been all-volunteer since our first event in October 2010, which isn’t sustainable long-term for the organization.” Has anything changed since last year? If not, what can you do to increase volunteer involvement?
A lot has changed this year — and every year. Having an all-volunteer staff is tough enough to retain good people, but now that we have our 501c3 status, I hope we will be able to generate enough income to start to pay some of our key players. The city lending us Tower Place Mall as a venue is a step in the right direction, to have their support for an international cultural event such as this. I continue to learn from the experiences, hardships, mistakes and wins and just hope what I’ve learned is enough to make the festival better every year.
It’s clear you feel passionately about this event. Where do you envision it going in the years ahead?
We will make it smaller next year — scaling back the time and the amount of films in our program to give the best possible experience for filmmakers and film lovers to enjoy the experience and want to support it year after year.
Finally, what’s your favorite part of putting this on each year?
Meeting filmmakers from around the world, showing them the city and introducing new perspectives from those artists that never would have been seen here otherwise.
The CINCINNATI FILM FESTIVAL continues through Sunday. For more information, go to cincinnatifilmfestival.com.