Queens Screens the World

Image courtesy William Cusick
By Olivia Saperstein

Forget formality: The Queens World Film Festival makes its own rules, and originality is what will put it on the map in upcoming years. Running from March 5-10, the festival will screen 104 films from local and international filmmakers alike. Cambodia, Brazil, Chile, Iran, Italy and France are just a few of the countries to bring projects to the table. Programming will take place at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Jackson Heights Cinema in Elmhurst, The Secret Theatre in Long Island City and the Renaissance Charter School in Jackson Heights.

It was only a few years ago that festival directors Don and Katha Cato were volunteering for the Queens International Film Festival. Don has had prior experience making and producing films, and Katha runs a variety of after-school programs for the Henry Street Settlement.

Once the QIFF came to its “bloody death,” as Katha put it, the couple decided to take charge, preserving Queens’ status as a cultural epicenter, thus birthing the now 3-year-old Queens World Film Festival. “Brooklyn has a film festival, why can’t we?” Katha asked. While both direct the festival, Don programs along with Jordan Mattos.

What makes the QWFF sui generis is its unique approach to programming. Rather than scheduling films one after the other, without a significant organizational process, the directors decided to create themed blocks. That is, each film belongs to its own thematic category. When purchasing festival tickets, one would select a particular block. This way festival-goers can hone in on subjects of their interest. Included themes this year are “O.M.G,” “It’s All About Women,” “Tales of Peace,” and “Off the Beaten Path,” to name a few.

“These blocks target your outreach, bring like-minded filmmakers together, and it’s easier for us to market,” said Katha.

This makes sense when trying to target specific demographics. Following the end of each block, will be a Q&A with film casts and crews.

In keeping with the current climate, many of this year’s films focus on the weak economy as well as human disconnectedness. “There was a very strong drive of a group of films of people who are trying to figure out who they are in relation to others,” Katha said. “It seems to be a trend we’re seeing in filmmakers in their early 30s.”

Consider “BQE,” directed by Flushing-born Adrian Manzano. The film introduces a 29-year-old man, unsure of when to settle down, who attempts to date three women at once. It will appear in the brassy titled “Men are Dogs” block.

Another special aspect of this festival is its ability to get the community involved. Whether it be through “Old Spice,” a block of films for seniors at the Renaissance Charter School; through the Young Filmmakers Program, which teaches students at PS 69 how to make short films of their own conception; or the LGBT slate, the Catos want to make sure that everyone feels welcomed and engaged.

“There are certain things we will always be true to,” said Katha.”There will always be these components, and it won’t be for any other reason but to be sure they’re involved.”

This approach also invites films of diverse subject matters, like “Heavy Girls,” an Austrian film about a middle-aged father who is struggling with his sexuality.

“The unlikeliness of the love story and the human-ness of it, the transcendence of sexual preference, and the pureness of it,” are all, according to Katha, what makes it an extraordinary piece.

While statistics show that the festival mostly attracts men between the ages of 25 and 45, as well as women and men over 65, there is no doubt that all of the community outreach will pay off. Last year, at least 22 people were able to secure paid production work through festival connections. The ability for those in the industry to bond and network as well as an effort to cater to a wide variety of audiences are the components that ensure a festival’s endurance.

This year’s opening night falls on Tuesday, March 5, and will honor Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside), and longtime actor Karen Black. While Don Cato worked with Black in 1986, her most recent film in which she stars, “Vacationland,” will be screened during this year’s festival.

“This woman has brought everything that she has to every single role that she’s ever done. She’s done over 100 films, and worked with some luminaries,” Katha said. “It’s our honor to do this, and we’re hoping to re-introduce people to an incredible artist.”

The Catos are unapologetic and determined, and they have high hopes for the future of the festival. While some events and screenings are held throughout the year, they are anticipating that the festival will become more of a year-round event and that it will spread to other neighborhoods within Queens.

“In five years I’d like this to be standing on its own and totally sustainable,” she said. “I’m going to prove, along with my husband, that this borough can support a world class film festival.”

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