Film fest marks new beginning at Playhouse Square

Wednesday night brought back an event that had been idling on my calendar for three years: opening night of the Cleveland International Film Festival. The last time the event was held in person was in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic upended our lives.



Wednesday night brought back an event that had been idling on my calendar for three years: opening night of the Cleveland International Film Festival. The last time the event was held in person was in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic upended our lives. 

It’s always been an event worth waiting for. But after three years of not being able to gather in person with my neighbors from across the city, being there in person for the festival’s triumphant return and watching the opening film “Peace By Chocolate” was almost unbearably sweet. 

In fact, it seemed like a homecoming, a return to normal, and a new beginning all at the same time. 

A homecoming: We were finally enjoying CIFF at Playhouse Square after three years of being apart. The event was canceled in March 2020 during the shutdown. Masked or not, this week brought us together, sitting in those seats, celebrating our rich culture, creativity and community in Cleveland. 

A return to normal: We were enjoying both Playhouse Square, which was famously saved from the wrecking ball in the 1970s—marking downtown Cleveland’s early efforts at revitalization—and the international film festival we’d loved for lo these many years. 

A new beginning: We were entering a different, hopefully safer phase of the pandemic, one in which we can reasonably gather for in person events with precautions, shots and boosters in place. Also the film fest was finally celebrating its new home at Playhouse Square after having its home at Tower City Cinemas for more than 20 years and then the three-year pandemic hiatus.

CIFF of course remarkably pivoted during the pandemic and streamed films online. I confess I didn’t watch a single one. Oh, my family and I watched plenty of everything else, binging The Mandolorian on Friday nights during Covid, all five of us squeezed onto the couch in our living room because, well, what else was there to do? But CIFF was always a place I went to meet people, seeing old friends and meeting new ones. I somehow just couldn’t do it. 

On Wednesday, my wife Katherine and I hopped in our silver 2011 minivan and headed downtown after making sure our kids were safely ensconced in dance classes, homework, and playing with friends. Slipping into our seats just as the opening credits were playing, we caught head of Playhouse Square Gina Vernacci explaining in a short film how Cleveland’s renowned theater district had gone from having a budget of $90 million per year to losing $7 million during Covid. 

Stage workers and behind-the-scenes set makers talked about losing their jobs, scrambling to support their families in the midst of this awful, uncertain, death-blackened time. It was gut wrenching. But Playhouse Square came out of it all somehow, reopening with The Choir of Man, navigating international visas and travel restrictions to bring an entire crew and cast from Ireland and bringing theater back to Cleveland for a singing, dancing, foot-stomping good time. 



CIFF board president Chris Blake came out to talk about the film fest’s quest after Tower Cinemas closed to make sure they could stay in “Cleveland proper.” They could easily have gone to the Cedar Lee, Crocker Park, Chagrin Cinemas—wherever they wanted, really. But they chose Playhouse Square because they want to be part of the city’s ongoing cultural comeback. 

Now, I’m going to have to start using the term “Cleveland proper.” 

“Where do you live?” 

“Cleveland proper!” 

Not Strongsville, not Shaker … Cleveland. Although there’s nothing proper about Detroit Shoreway where we live, which is filled with funky theaters, art galleries, dollar stores, churches, art, coffee and some of the best restaurants anywhere in the city and beyond.

Next, Mayor Bibb came onstage to welcome us. Somehow, I don’t remember Mayor Jackson, our quiet leader, ever doing that. 

“Welcome back!” Bibb almost shouted, to cheers from the crowd. “Here’s to 46 more years for the film festival in its new home, and to 46 more after that!” 

After Bibb’s pep talk, we settled into “Peace By Chocolate,” a lovely film set in Canada and based on a true story about Syrian refugees who’d come to Antigonish, Nova Scotia and started a chocolate company. It’s a story about kindness, love and empathy. Upheaval and change. Life turning out different from the way you thought it would be, and making it work. And yes, it’s also a story about new beginnings. 

I’m sure we weren’t the only ones crying when it was over, not only because it was a beautiful film but also because of the hard emotional journey of the past few years and grappling with the place we are now. 

Afterwards, it was all party, party, party, with chocolate and drinks, unmasked and finally talking in close proximity. It was a reunion with old friends we hadn’t seen in years, except in passing quaffing beer around a fire pit, and meeting new people. We went home later than we should have, buzzed on a glass of wine and conversation, feeling like the city had just woken up from a long, awful nightmare. 

Of course, it’s not over. I know that. Our city will have plenty of hard times ahead as we forge on with Covid recovery, and it’s something that will affect us unequally, like so many things in our struggling region. 

But I want to believe there’s brighter days ahead. I want to see CIFF “shine on,” as is their mantra this year. I also want our entire city to shine on. I want to see people, have meetings, tell stories, write, and, yes, go to parties. 

And please, please, please, Cleveland: No more Zoom happy hours.

Lee Chilcote is executive director of The Land.



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