The one thing Chagrin Documentary Film Festival planners learned from this 11th annual COVID-19 driven year is the spirit of the event has a built-in immunity to anything that threatens to shut it down.

Even as most long-standing annual events and traditions were put on hold earlier this year, CDFF folks plowed forward in true “show must go on” fashion, according to CDFF founder and Director Mary Ann Ponce.

The show did go on beginning Oct. 6 and ending this past Sunday, and it was deemed a success. Taking home the David Ponce Best of the Fest Award was “Kusasa,” directed by Shane Vermooten, a Swedish filmmaker’s story of a South African boys’ soccer team as it makes its way to the world’s largest youth tournament.

Like building an airplane in mid-air, this year’s festival was a challenge. “I felt going in to this that we had a festival that I was hugely proud to present in the most difficult of times and we had done the very best we could to give people an in-person experience at the drive in along with a streaming option,” Mrs. Ponce said.

Instead of gathering in crowded theaters and staging areas, the festival was streamed through home TVs and laptops, cell phones and tablets.

The new three-screen drive-in movie utilizing the 90-slot parking lot behind the Chagrin Cinemas in Bainbridge was a change up and a safe one. It turned out to be a popular place to be for festival pass patrons and ticket holders.

There was no out-of-the-car mingling, no handshakes or cheek kisses, but friends and neighbors who showed up at the drive-in could see each other and wave.

In fact, festival-goers seemed to welcome and enjoy the changes made necessary to pull off this safety first “everything-is-different” festival and in doing so freshened the event and gave documentary lovers an entirely new experience, Mrs. Ponce noted.

She recalled getting a kick out of drive-in audiences honking to show appreciation of the films and attractions like the “Who is Behind the Mask”on-screen guessing game.

Local folks were pictured wearing their coronavirus pandemic masks then the in-car audience was asked to guess their identity. With each reveal, those who won leaned on their horns in victory even though there were no prizes for winning the identity game.

“It was so different, but the thing that remained constant was the warmth and community spirit of it,” she said. “I think people loved this way of coming together and feeling connected to each other.”

For those of you who judge success by numbers, Mrs. Ponce said there was no track record to go by for this year’s festival, so there is no way to know how many individual film watchers there were because many festival fans held viewing parties.

“We do know we had 1,200 pass or ticket holders and the views of films, interviews and panels stands at 13,000 with 5 days to go,” she said of the extra time – beyond the official end of the festival last Sunday – to stream the films.

Mrs. Ponce said streaming on one’s own time is far more doable with no racing against the clock to get to films scheduled at particular times and days at traditional venues.

“It was very popular and we will absolutely include streaming in future festivals and, hopefully, throughout the winter and spring” during the festival’s winter/spring film series.

In some ways, she said, this year’s festival was the most successful one of all 11, maybe not in numbers, but the positive “vibes” she felt throughout the six-day event. People were excited to be part of something special.

Mrs. Ponce credited Engelina Koberna and John Stealey with “an amazing job of making our streaming site so professional.”

She said the staff worked for months to do interviews and stage virtual panels to add an interactive feeling to the festival and“R43 Ltd. stepped in to create the most professional and seamless award show CDFF has ever had.”

A long list of sponsors gave testament to the faith donors put in the festival. Many have returned each year since the beginning.

The fest got a great boost from an endorsement and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, she said, that allowed CDFF to have its annual event during a pandemic.

The missing connectors were the hoard of volunteers who cheerily managed festivals of the past.

“We did miss seeing all of our volunteers, but [we’re] very proud of the entire team and the many volunteers we did have,” Mrs. Ponce said of their participation behind the scenes and at the drive-in, checking people in, directing traffic, distributing refreshments and generally being the face of the festival in a world of social distancing and virtual togetherness.

“We tried to maintain some of the fest feeling in the Village with the falls lighting, international flags flying from lamp posts in downtown Chagrin and a movie screen in Riverside Park.

A veteran reporter and columnist, Barbara Christian has been covering Chagrin Falls since 1967 and is currently responsible for Chagrin Falls village events, government and school board news along with her weekly column "Window on Main Street."

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