Jackson Heights is ready for its close-up

By Kevin Zimmerman

Growing up in Sunnyside, Mike Ordonez thought it odd that residents from other parts of the city always identified themselves by their borough and not, as in Queens, by their neighborhoods.

“People from Brooklyn always say they’re from Brooklyn. People from the Bronx always say they’re from the Bronx,” Ordonez said. “But in Queens, we’ve always been more separate. People say, ‘I’m from LIC’ or ‘I’m from Astoria,’ but not, ‘I’m from Queens.’”

While Ordonez embraces the diversity of his native borough — New Jersey is now home — he is always looking for ways to connect with the old neighborhood while fostering his passion for films.

He found it as a volunteer with the Queens World Film Festival, which brings dozens of movies from around the globe to various locales throughout the year.

The brainchild of Jackson Heights residents Don and Katha Cato, the festival takes place annually in March at the Museum of the Moving Image. But movie lovers can get a preview at this weekend’s FLIC NIC in the Street held under the stars at Travers Park, the 78th Street Plaza near 34th Avenue.

Sort of like an urban drive-in, FLIC NIC allows moviegoers to sample short films, ranging in length from 30 seconds to 18 minutes, from such far-flung places as Italy, Iran and even Queens.

“It’s a real community event,” Katha Cato said. “Basically, we throw a screen up on the fence and put the projector up. We both grew up in small towns and it’s important for us to feel like part of the community.”

The Catos have called Queens home for nearly three decades. Their children all attended school in the borough and the couple continues to be involved with the system through a filmmaking program for fifth-graders at PS 69.

“I’m surprised at how few films children see,” Katha Cato said. “They don’t have the experience of eating a big, big bag of popcorn and watching a great film.”

It’s especially surprising to Katha Cato because the histories of motion pictures and Queens are so entwined. The borough was basically the birthplace of modern Hollywood after one of the earliest moving images produced in the country occurred at Kaufman Studios in Astoria, Katha Cato said.

Unfortunately, the history of movies in the borough is not unblemished.

Don, a filmmaker, and Katha Cato started their cinematic community involvement with the ill-fated Queens International Film Festival. They volunteered to run the youth component of the festival, which consisted of working with students from three schools to create a closing-night program of films. The international festival, started in 2003 by Marie Castaldo, ran for six years until financial chicanery caught up with the organizer.

“The whole thing just fell apart,” Katha Cato said. “Creditors came out of the woodwork. Most of the bills were only like $250 to $2,000, but there were a lot of them. It was really rough. Rough, rough, rough. It felt like we were embarrassed by her.”

Although the Catos were not named in any of the ensuing lawsuits, they bristled at each published newspaper or trade journal account of the festival’s fiasco.

“It was important that everyone involved in that festival be proud,” Katha Cato said. “We had 72 kids involved that last year and we had 72 mothers looking at us, thinking what is this all about?”

One way to keep that pride intact arrived a few months later when the Catos re-emerged with the Queens World Film Festival in 2010. The couple believed it was important to continue the Queens’ film legacy with a series of challenging films that “give voice to the voiceless and celebrate the other,” Katha Cato said.

Saturday’s FLIC NIC, which repeats on Aug. 3, includes a slate of shorts that Don Cato characterizes as “trusted pairings” and “interesting partnerships.”

“They are exploring a wide variety of trust issues,” Don Cato said.

In the Italian film “Pollicino,” the main character is dealing with dementia and whether to trust his own memory. “My Green Pencil,” from Iran, is a 1-minute short involving a young girl, who creates a different world by trusting her willful imagination.

And then there’s “Lonely Eros” from Belgium about a depressed and lost stuffed dog. It’s funny, bizarre and touching at the same time. And it is able to accomplish all of that in its 35-second running time.

“With a short, you have to immediately capture the viewer,” Don Cato said. “And with these films, they capture you within 10 seconds. It’s almost instantly.”

Two years ago, Jackson Heights native Ann Margaret O’Conner instantly realized she had found an outlet for her media background as the Queens World Film Festival’s marketing, public relations and events guru.

“This is the real thing. There is nothing mainstream or Hollywood about it,” O’Conner said. “It gets you thinking about things in a different way. And I’m here to support the neighborhood, the borough and the flavor of the world.”

If you Go

FLIC NIC in the Street

When: Saturday, July 20 and Saturday Aug. 3, at dusk

Where: Travers Park, 78th Street and 34th Avenue, Jackson Heights

Cost: Free

Website: www.queensworldfilmfestival.com

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