Next generation of Cleveland filmmakers emerges with boost from the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival

Cleveland’s cast of young filmmakers are making names for themselves through GCUFFlinks, an educational program from the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival that prepares aspiring filmmakers and actors for the world stage.

The students of GCUFFlinks are (left to right): Joshua Kahn, Ina Keys, Zamani Munashe, Cherish Hayes, Hayley Smith, Haley Johnson, Maya Peroune, Anthony Akins, Ximena Gomez and Nia Jones. Photo by Bridget Caswell

GCUFFlinks, an educational program launched in 2015 that prepares aspiring young filmmakers and actors from Greater Cleveland for the world stage, is already proving successful for its students with awards, gigs on feature-length films and more.

Under the tutelage of filmmakerauthor Konnie Peroune, GCUFFlinks assists youths aged 13-17 to develop a love for storytelling, filmmaking, and other key components of the craft, such as screenwriting, sound and light direction, camera work, and composing. Peroune holds an MFA in film from Columbia University of NYC, and taught Screenwriting at Cleveland State University.

The program is an offshoot of the Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival (GCUFF) which is now preparing for its 11th year. The mission of the festival is to enrich Black culture through cinema and connect communities by reflecting, sharing, and celebrating the African Diaspora, all while showcasing and educating young filmmakers. 

A documentary of the students’ journey, “The Making of GCUFFlinks,” was included in the 2021 Festival lineup. 

Peroune pitched the concept of a student film program to Alton Tinker (GCUFF’s Chairman) during a Filmmakers brunch that was part of the 2014 Festival. Tinker was excited about the idea and the program launched in 2015 with Peroune at the helm. 

“I have a knack for tapping into the creative ability of each student; helping them hone their talents as they relate to the world of film,” says Peroune.

In her search for sponsors, Peroune spoke with Sheba Marcus-Bey, the then-director of the East Cleveland Public Library, who was intrigued by the concept.  The library offered its backing, as did the United Black Fund (UBF).



That same year, the students shot the documentary “East Cleveland: A Tale of Two Cities,”  consisting of historical information and interviews with children living in an area of Cleveland once known as Millionaire’s Row. The documentary won a 2016 Youth Voice Award from MyCom Cleveland, an organization that honors Cuyahoga County residents, leaders and organizations who offer youth support to Greater Clevelanders. 

“Donna Dabbs, founder of GCUFF, then asked me to come up with a name, other than the ‘student film program.’ We decided on the GCUFFlinks,” says Peroune.

I have a knack for tapping into the creative ability of each student; helping them hone their talents as they relate to the world of film.
— Konnie Peroune, leader of GCUFFlinks

The inaugural “class” consists of Anthony Akins, Ximena Gomez, Cherish Hayes, Haley Johnson, Nia Jones, Joshua Kahn, Ina Keys, Zamani Munashe, Maya Peroune, and Hayley Smith.

  • Anthony Akins is currently a senior at Bedford High School. He wants to major in engineering, but also pursue a career in writing. He workshopped his short sci-fi script, “Shatter,” a story about a robot disguised as an everyday student, until bullying forces her to blow her cover. He has been in the program for 5 years. Other on-set responsibilities included script supervisor and location scout. 

  • Ximena Gomez, a former student at Shaker Heights High School, lives in Cleveland and now attends John Carroll University, where she studies psychology. Gomez is a makeup artist and tried her hand at screenwriting during her five years in the program. She wrote the script for the short film, “Out of Our Shells.” Gomez was also interviewed – and served as the photographer for – Maya Peroune’s short film, “Black Is?” 

  • Cherish Hayes is a senior at Laurel School and has completed one year in the program. She is the dancer featured in the GCUFFlinks documentary and is currently a member of ELEVATED Dance in Brecksville, Ohio.  Hayes also performed in Cleveland Ballet’s 2019 production of “The Nutcracker.”

  • Haley Johnson is a senior at Shaker Heights High School. She wrote, directed, and starred in her short film, “Dance to Me,” which tells the story of how dance helps her free her mind and rise above issues impacting America today. She has been in the program for four years and plans to continue pursuing dance after high school.  “This program gave me the confidence to write, produce, direct, and choreograph my own film.”  

  • Nia Jones is also a senior at Shaker Heights High School. She wrote and directed three short films: The “Scream” sendup, “Sharp;” the pandemic inspired “Monologuer,” where a young girl examines her life with her family and how she is coping during the 2020 pandemic; and “Mum’s Car.”

  • Joshua Kahn, a junior at Beachwood High School, has completed one year in the program. He composed the music for the GCUFFlinks documentary. Kahn aspires to be the next Hans Zimmer – the prominent composer of more than 100 film scores including “Dune,” “Inception,” “The Lion King” and “Gladiator.”

  • Ina Keys participated in the program for five years. She currently attends Cuyahoga Community College for photography. Keys wrote and directed, “I Could Never Inject Myself,” a film about living with Type 1 diabetes. After receiving constructive criticism during a 2019 GCUFFlinks Student Films screening, she decided to reshoot her film, using notes provided by a panel of judges. The film went on to be a finalist in the Short Documentary Category at the 2021 North Carolina Black Film Festival.

  • Maya Peroune, who has been a part of the GCUFFlinks program since its inception, also had a film accepted into the same festival. “Black Is?” revolves around a group of students having an open and honest discussion about being black in America.  The film was also accepted into the New Jersey Documentary Film Festival, the Indianapolis Black Documentary Film Festival, and the Hollywood Black Student Film Fest. In addition, Peroune wrote and directed “Behind Closed Doors,” a short included in the GCUFF 2020 lineup that deals with an overwhelmed teen contemplating suicide. 

  • Actress/violinist Zamani Munashe lives in Cleveland and is a senior at John Hay High School. She starred in “Behind Closed Doors,” and “Black Is?” and wants to pursue acting as a career.

  • Hayley Smith lives in Cleveland and is a senior at Laurel School. She has been a part of the program for four years. She loves to act and starred in “Behind Closed Doors” and “Sharp.” She plans on attending an HBCU and becoming a pediatric nurse.

Working on the Netflix film shot here in Cleveland, I got a glimpse of all the tiny details that go in to special effects.
— Maya Peroune, GCUFFlinks student

Maya Peroune is already getting a taste of the professional world of filmmaking; she served as a production assistant on a recent Netflix project shot locally.

“Working on the Netflix film shot here in Cleveland, I got a glimpse of all the tiny details that go in to special effects, costumes & set designs. It was cool to see how even the cereal boxes on the shelves in the grocery store had to be researched and designed to fit the era for the film.”  

Over the past six years, members of GCUFFlinks have shot nine short films and created 12 original screenplays. Newer members Nia Jones and Joshua Kahn will continue with the program for the 2022 Festival. Program director Konnie Peroune is looking to recruit more students, as this is a rebuilding year.

“Filmmaking is storytelling. Cultivating and inspiring young storytellers is what GCUFFlinks is all about,” says Peroune. “Filmmaking for teens should be just as accessible as sports.”



Born and raised in East Cleveland, Nate Paige has contributed more than 25 years to local journalism. He got his professional start at the Cleveland Call & Post and would later get his foot in the door at as a copy editor. While there, he held a number of positions including entertainment reporter, community editor, hyperlocal producer, and social media coordinator. He currently handles social media for the city of Shaker Heights.

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