Film festival builds a community of indie film lovers

arts / Article

Detroit isn’t exactly a hotbed of independent cinema. While there is a handful of “art house” theatres that serve more adventurous viewers, many films never make it to the local market.

A film festival in its fourth year hopes to establish a cultural touchstone that satisfies cinephiles and whets the appetite of moviegoers who can get much closer to the people behind the films, whether actors or directors.

Cinetopia International Film Festival, which kicks off June 5 in Detroit, is also an experiment in sharing between Ann Arbor and Detroit – cities not so far apart geographically but eons apart demographically.

“Detroit is the mother of us,” says Russ Collins, Cinetopia’s director and one of the forces behind the festival’s expansion into Detroit two years ago. “This deserves to be in Detroit along with the Jazz Festival and the Grand Prix, events that cross genres and passions.”

Cinetopia began in Ann Arbor, at the Michigan Theater, where Collins serves as CEO and executive director. With a two-year, $50,000 Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant in 2013, organizers were able to partner with the Detroit Film Theatre to bring films to a few venues in Detroit.

And the festival has drawn more people and added more screens and sponsors as it has spread to local movie houses in Detroit and suburbs. This year, 72 films will get 150 screenings – or 50 percent more screenings than last year. The films – animated and live-action features, shorts, documentaries from the U.S., United Kingdom, Poland, Indonesia, India and other countries – are fresh from festivals like Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Cannes and Toronto. Most of them will not be widely released.

Along with the original screening venues in Detroit – the Film Theatre, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and the College for Creative Studies, showings will be held in a few commercial theaters in Detroit and at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, which will screen shorts that celebrate Arab women in film, and four outdoor venues.

On opening night, the Detroit portion kicks off with an outdoor screening of “The Prophet,” an animated film based on Kahlil Ghibran’s poem of 1923. It is produced by Salma Hayek and features the voices of Liam Neeson, John Krasinski and others. A few other films, including “Back on Board,” a documentary about Olympic medalist Greg Louganis, will be shown at other venues tonight and next week in Ann Arbor. Louganis, one of the first openly gay athletes with HIV, will also participate in an audience Q&A via Skype. Directors and actors from other films will also be in town to talk about their work.

 “The reason we do film festivals is because so many really great films don’t get to play in front of the public except in a film festival,” Collins says. “A festival is a combination of stuff people know and a sense of discovery of films and genres.” Where else will you see a Lithuanian film about a lesbian couple or a documentary about the judicial system in India?

This year’s budget is $320,000, or $20,000 more than last year’s, says Ruth Lednicer of the Michigan Theater, where Cinetopia starts on June 11.

Last year, attendance in Detroit came in at about 4,500, said Sultan Sharrief, Cinetopia’s Detroit coordinator, but it takes time for buzz to build. Most film festivals need about 10 years before they become staples in their communities, he says.

Expanding to Detroit and then being able to add venues is a pretty good reflection of Cinetopia’s success.

“As we expanded to Detroit, we wanted to focus on maintaining a quality festival. Once we do that, we can focus on getting people to attend,” Sharrief says.

A bonus this year is a staged reading, in both cities, of “Too Much Johnson,” Orson Welles’ first professional film, a silent comedy from 1938. The local actors who will read the script have been dubbed the “Cinetopia Players” for the duration of the festival.

For more information about Cinetopia, go to

Julie Edgar is a Detroit-based freelancer. Email her at [email protected]

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