Every year, the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival is met with challenges whether they be technical, logistical or material.

But this year, it is a doozy. This year it is the festival itself that is the challenge. The 11th annual, Oct. 6-11, festival will be an all-virtual event.

“Essentially what we did was learn how to run a different kind of festival, one that has never been done before and we’re going into it with no dress rehearsals,” said festival founder and Director Mary Ann Ponce.

How to hold a safe event over the course of six days during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has consumed the attention, planning skills and creative juices of festival board members, staffers and volunteers since June.

That is when the decision was made to stream all of the films and offer two public venues daily – a drive-in theater in the rear parking lot of Chagrin Cinemas in Bainbridge and a free short film festival in Riverside Park where masks and social distancing will be required.

The No. 1 focus has been health and safety while maintaining a festival that is meaningful to both filmmakers and audiences.

Because of the pandemic, getting fest films seen has been difficult and disappointing to those who made them and the true stories they were bound to tell the rest of the world.

“As always our goal is to get these films seen,” Mrs. Ponce said. “This is what our festival has been about since year one. We owe it to the filmmakers and to our audiences.”

The filmmaker-centric festival is why, for eight years straight, it has been voted among the top 50 film festivals “worth the entry fee” in the world by filmmakers and “MovieMaker Magazine.”

Mrs. Ponce noted that the only thing that has not changed for this year’s festival was the number of films received for the juried entry. Of the 600 submitted this year, just 101 were selected. There will be no visiting filmmakers this year due to the pandemic and travel restrictions, safety and health concerns.

“It will be sad not to have the usual near-full contingent of film people in town this year,” Mrs. Ponce noted. “But our small staff is right now contacting all of them around the world inviting them to be a virtual part of the festival by sending videos of themselves introducing their films.”

Winners of this year’s CDFF awards are being selected now by juries made up of volunteers, residents and friends of the festival.

A pre-recorded awards ceremony is also being prepared for streaming but will not be available until Oct. 10 at 7 p.m. A selected film will follow.

Streaming screenings

Opening night, festival goers will celebrate the “streaming screening” of “Playing with Fire – Jeanette Dorrell and the Mysteries of Conducting” featuring the Cleveland-based, internationally-known baroque music organization. Mrs. Ponce said the festival is working on having the orchestra appear virtually after the screening.

Ticket holders are not, however, limited to viewing the film on Oct. 6. Any film may be streamed anytime during the festival. Member level perks include extended viewing days beyond Oct. 11.

“One of the perks about this year’s fest, is that films can be streamed any time during the six days and we think we are going to continue a streaming option when things return to normal, hopefully next year,” Mrs. Ponce said.

Recognizing that not all festival attendees may be “stream savvy,” Mrs. Ponce said CDFF is offering a hot line that will answer questions and help guests through the set-up and the office has extra HDMI cables for those who do not have them.

Daily emails will be sent to ticket holders on various subjects such as how to stream the festival films, the help line, details about the drive-in and availability of refreshments and meals.

Different, but fun

In years past, it has been the social event of the year with champaign receptions, film-paired parties and special events, panel discussions and filmmakers lounge.

This year there are just two public but carefully cloistered events – the daily “CDFF Drive-In,” featuring selected films in an outdoor setting in the rear parking lot of the Chagrin Cinemas and continuously running short films shown on two smaller screens in Riverside Park.

The drive-in theater experience will be available daily from 10 a.m.to 9 p.m. and feature a state-of-the-art theatrical experience on a 17-foot LED screen with its own technical control room. Sound will be streamed through individual car radios. Tickets are $25 per carload.

Three or four selected films will be featured each night.

“We are going to have some in-car fun too with a karaoki night and there will be a local pop-up restaurant food,” Mrs. Ponce noted.

Other restaurants will prepare drive-in ready take-out boxed dinner specials to be enjoyed there or taken home to enjoy while streaming.

The CDFF drive-in will have about 70 car slots available, and volunteers from the Chagrin Valley Jaycees will manage traffic and parking.

The other public event is the return of the free short film programs shown on two smaller LED screens in Riverside Park, a popular attraction in years past.

Film-goers are invited to bring their own chairs or blankets and a “fest-to-go” meal from participating restaurants. Two different films will be shown each day and, as with all things these days, masks and social distancing are required.

Also back by popular demand is the festival’s Salad Luncheon complete with a collection of six short films and boxed lunches, two per car. It will be available on Oct. 8 at 11:30 a.m. at the drive-in.

Hopes high, fingers crossed

The festival, its board, staff and volunteers are going into the festival with their fingers crossed and no dress rehearsals but believe they have found the best, state-of-the-art film streaming service and ticketing company to handle the technical aspects.

One month out from opening of the festival, Mrs. Ponce is optimistic about its 11th annual outing. The festival is plowing unknown ground this year, but some things have become clear, she said.

The same dedicated volunteers showed up to do what had to be done and there has been less detail work and no logistic and scheduling puzzles to solve because of the streamed, virtual nature of the festival this year.

Because films arrive from around the globe and may not share a common denominator as far as technology used to produce them, the labor intensive and time consumer testing of each is not a factor this year.

“Our streaming company is doing that for us this year so that is another job we have not been faced with, and it has been a huge load off our shoulders,” she remarked.

Memberships and streaming passes are on sale and they, along with information about all of this year’s 101 films, are available by visiting www.chagrinfilmfest.org.

As it has been for 11 years, the festival continues to be inspired by Mary Ann and Edgar Ponce’s son David Ponce and is made possible through his Fevered Dreams Production Company.

David graduated from Chagrin Falls High School and was well into his studies at Chapman University Film School when, at age 21, he died of leukemia just six weeks after diagnosis.

His own award-winning film “The Lost Sparrows of Roodepoort,” a South African orphanage for HIV/AIDS children, is his tribute to “ what the human spirit is capable of.” It continues as the watchword of the festival.

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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