Queens World Film Festival (QWFF) invited filmmakers, actors, volunteers and sponsors for a get-together and photo-op in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, home of the Queens Theatre and the iconic Unisphere, on May 22.
This year, the festival, which runs from June 23 through July 3, is especially meaningful for Katha Cato, QWFF’s executive director and board president, who said that she was “feeling emotional and feeling full as Queens will welcome the world back,” referring to the COVID-19 pandemic which ravaged the borough, which became the “epicenter” in the early days of the crisis.
“We will be part of what heals. These stories will be part of what heals you,” Cato said, adding that she hopes that everyone who contributed to the festival knows they are part of the healing process.
“When the lights are down, and you’re all in there together and you all gasp at the same thing and the light comes up, and you look to the right, and the left, and you realize you would have never spoken to that person, but you felt the same thing,” Cato said. “So perhaps you have more in common with each other than you think. And that’s what it’s about.”
QWFF, named one of the 50 film festivals “worth the entry fee in 2021” by MovieMaker Magazine, showcases 196 films from 33 nations ranging from documentaries and fiction to animation and musicals.
One of the 42 features selected for the festival is “Mouse,” which tells the story of a lonely groundskeeper in a beautiful neighborhood who deals with the crushing guilt of a local murder he witnessed. Eventually, he loses himself as he desperately tries to keep an innocence he never truly lost.
Filmmaker Adam Engel and his crew and production assistant Kelly Noll, costume designer Cristina Andrade and cinematographer Derek Mindler were excited that their film was not only admitted to Queens World but that it’s also going to open the festival on June 23.
Engel called it “a big deal,” especially since the film was entirely shot in Forest Hills in Queens by an all-Queens crew, and the entire team agreed that it was validating to finally see their film on the big screen after the unpredictability of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Engel said last year came with a lot of uncertainty, as the pandemic stalled his film and its release.
“It’s now a complete film, sitting on my shelf on my computer,” Engel said. “So for this to happen, especially to get the reception it has so far, it’s very validating.”
Jena Ellenwood, a filmmaker, who worked as a bartender at Sparrow Tavern in Astoria for the past 10 years, is featured in the documentary “Last Call — The Shutdown of New York Bars” by director Johnny Sweet.
The documentary showcases the psychological impact of the coronavirus on a group of young, single adults working in the hospitality industry during the unprecedented crisis.
Ellenwood said what makes “Last Call” so special is that it follows her and her coworkers through a hard time for everybody.
“But it also shows how resilient we were,” Ellenwood said.
She used the pandemic shutdown to start her own business, filming cocktail videos featured on YouTube and Instagram.
“Johnny got the moment where I actually said, ‘F— it, I’m gonna do it,’ and he got it on camera,” Ellenwood said.
The documentary “Reclaim Idaho” by wife and husband directing team Laura Wing-Kamoosi and Jim Kamoosi from Brooklyn, tells the grassroots story of Emily and Garrett Strizich, who, with a baby in tow and no political experience, drove around Idaho in a green 1997 RV with “Medicaid for Idaho” painted on the side, campaigning for Idaho’s Medicaid expansion bill.
Emmy-nominated director Laura Wing-Kamoosi explained that they talked to every single person that they could about the issue, and it ended up passing two to one.
“So now, over 110,000 people in Idaho have healthcare where they didn’t before this campaign,” Wing-Kamoosi said.
Filmmaker Henry Arroyo was excited that he has two films featured at the festival: “Tea” and “My Friend John,” a narrative film about a young boy named Gio, who imagines that an astronaut named John will save him from his emotionally abusive environment and take Gio to an imaginary planet. The Cradle of Aviation Museum on Long Island even donated an original astronaut costume for the movie.
“I’m always very excited for people to watch the work, you know? As many people as I can get to watch a film, I always get super excited about that, because that’s why we do it, at least to me: It’s so that people can come and watch,” Arroyo said.
“Couple of Guys,” a half-hour comedy/drama starring Sal Rendino, Lukas Hassel and Abigail Hawk, tells the story of newly divorced lawyer Richard Durant (played by Sal Rendino), who unexpectedly falls in love with a man, former rocker Jon Graham (Lukas Hassel).
Producer Debra Markowitz, who is currently pitching the show, merged the first two episodes for the film festival and shared that the third episode is a wrap and the fourth is in the works.
“I’m very excited. It’s been a long time, and we didn’t want to play it during the pandemic because we want people to come,” Markowitz said.
Two of the “Blame It on the Pandemic” category films are “Henrietta” by Jesse Holtermann and “Ordinary” by Kim Cummings.
While quarantining alone in her studio apartment, Jesse Holtermann befriended a spider she named Henrietta and decided to make a movie, entirely filmed on an iPhone, about a woman in quarantine who makes friends with an arthropod.
“It’s a true quarantine film. I did everything: I wrote it, I shot it, I acted in it, I edited it, found music for it,” Holtermann said.
Celine Bassman, a ballet dancer who collaborated with Kim Cummings on “Ordinary,” explained that their short is an experimental dance film in which she dances “ugly,” straying away from the rigidness of the ballet world.
“Also, just like being a woman to live up to the beauty standard which is so rigid,” Bassman said. “These are two standards that are just impossible to live up to, and I wanted to stray as far as I could from those standards.”
For more information about the QWFF, visit queensworldfilmfestival.org.