Bringing Detroit voices to the silver screen at Cinetopia

arts / Article

Above: Sultan Sharrief

When I first heard in 2014 that our Cinetopia Film Festival would be expanding to Detroit with support from the Knights Arts Challenge my first thought was, “what is that going to look like?” As a filmmaker and board member for The Michigan Theater, I’ve been to most of the major film festivals over the last few years. My film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2010, then went to 21 other festivals.  Since then my annual circuit of festivals includes Traverse City, Toronto, Sundance, South By Southwest and Tribeca. 

What I learned is that there is no “right way” to do a film festival, but the good ones always find a way to maintain and highlight their city’s charm while showcasing great films, panels, interactive events and parties. So I wondered what a festival taking place in Detroit and Ann Arbor amidst all the change our region is currently experiencing would look like.  How would we meet that challenge?

As I got more involved with the planning of the 2014 festival, I realized the importance of including a representation of the diverse stories of our region, from the point of view of those living those stories.

As someone who travels regularly (and more often than not wearing a Detroit Tigers cap) people are always asking me, “What the heck is going on in Detroit?” They then launch into stories of houses bought for a dollar, community gardens on every corner, wildlife taking over the city, bankruptcy, and so on. It seems what stays with people are the crazy headlines, not the reality.

They also don’t realize how regional “Detroit” actually is. When we think of Chicago we think of Chicagoland – the greater Chicago area. But outside of Michigan, people just see the D represented as only the inner city. I realized that we have an opportunity with this festival – which includes both Detroit and Ann Arbor – to  find a way to address this. To find a way to create some new Detroit stories.

Thus, Detroit Voices was born. It’s a shorts competition for southeast Michigan filmmakers. With so many outsiders telling their stories of what’s happening in the tri-county area, I thought it important to reserve space for local filmmakers to let their voices be heard. The competition is open to anyone from Michigan but most entries come from the Wayne, Oakland, Washtenaw and Macomb counties. Thanks to the generous support of the Pure Michigan Film Office, we are able to offer cash prizes in four categories (Grand Jury Prize, Audience Choice, Honorable Mention and Best High School Film).

Last year we received more than 70 submissions and were amazed at the quality of the films and excitement of the filmmakers. This year, we were equally thrilled at the quality and variety of the films submitted and have chosen 14 finalists that will be screened during Cinetopia. The winners will be announced during the festival.  In addition to the Detroit Voices competition, Cinetopia is also hosting a regional Filmmaker Roundtable event in conjunction with the Sundance Film Institute’s Film Forward program in order to talk with local filmmakers about how to build a sustainable career and work together to grow a vibrant local film community. 

We’ve seen a huge increase in the quality of films as well as the areas that are represented by the submissions, evidence of the growth being experienced in the southeast Michigan film community – growth that is reflected in this year’s Detroit Voices.  

So be sure to stop in and check out the Detroit Voices program on June 6 at the Detroit Film Theatre in the Detroit Institute of Arts and on June 13 at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor to see the stories of our region, told by those who have lived them.

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