Barbara Christian

The Chagrin Documentary Film Festival begins next Wednesday. Are you ready? Wait, what film fest, you ask?

If you are new to these parts you may not know that for the past 12 years a sturdy band of staffers, volunteers, sponsors and festival board members put together something called the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival.

This year’s lucky No. 13 edition runs Oct. 5 through 9 in venues throughout Chagrin Falls and environs. Think of it, five days and 91 documentary films – real life stories, as we like to call them -- on subjects of personal significance and those that sound an alarm on issues of global importance.

If you are an old hand at “film festing” then you have likely met its founder, executive director Mary Ann Quinn Ponce who, during festival week seems to be everywhere at once.

But chances are you have not met Mr. Behind-the-Scenes-Guy Ed Ponce who is another integral part of the festival’s success. He is, as you have guessed, husband of the everywhere-at-once Mrs. Ponce.

Call him “Steady Eddie” for that is exactly what he has meant to the festival since before the festival was a thing. We’ll get to that a bit later.

Ed Ponce is not the kind of guy who seeks attention. He doesn’t know this is being written because he would not have consented to the fuss.

To illustrate, one of our earliest memories of Ed Ponce is seeing him on the red carpet, all turned out in a tuxedo, a striking figure and looking for all the world like a movie star.

Next morning there was Ed on the same red carpet, broom and dustpan in hand, sweeping up debris from the night before and looking like the “Steady Eddie” we would come to know.

Those who know Ed also know in the off-season he dedicates himself to fearlessly to long distance cycling. A few weeks ago, he successfully completed a roll straight up through the middle of Ohio, first dipping his wheels in the Ohio River and, at journey’s end, in Lake Erie.

But his life was not always this carefree. Born in Cuba 77 years ago and raised in the Quaker faith, Ed learned early on the value of getting things done. As a child, he rode his bike everywhere on the island. It was a turbulent time for his country and it was on those bike rides he saw things no child should witness.

Even as a young teen, he knew he had to leave. Ed – at the age of just 14 -- began making plans to immigrate to the U.S.A., just 90 miles across the Florida straits.

His father did not want him to leave but the boy was determined. In 1960, at just 15, Ed left Cuba. He would not flee on a makeshift watercraft, as some asylum-seeking Cubans had done, but on a commercial flight to Miami.

On his own, Ed found out what necessary steps to take to leave Cuba, waded through red tape and worked through proper channels to leave on his own terms and by the book. It may not have been a dramatic escape but it was legal, safer than a raft and it got him to where he wanted to be. America. Citizenship would follow.

Ed stayed with family in Florida but was essentially on his own, making his way in life in this new country of his.

Then he met two boys, about his age, also Cuban expatriates. They worked a paper route together and later formed a band they called “The Foreigners Three.” The trio performed professionally up and down the Florida coast while still in high school.

The three men remain close to this day. In 2016, they got their old band back together to perform their signature “Guantanamera” in Chagrin Falls at a Cuban-style film festival celebration. The reconstituted “Foreigners Three” reprised their performance at the festival awards night ceremony that same year.

But all of that and the film festival would come much later in life. Ed graduated from High School in Miami and put himself through college earning both undergraduate and graduate degrees in business administration from Georgia State University.

The stars would align during the 1980s when Ed ended up in Cleveland working for a company his future wife would soon join. They married, moved to Shaker Heights. Soon they were three. Son David was born in 1986. The family moved to Chagrin Falls.

David was 20 years old and a film school student in 2006 when Leukemia stole his life and future as a documentarian. He had been shooting film stories ever since in grade school.

On his mother’s initiative and with the help of his film school friend and a professor, David’s almost completed documentary “Lost Sparrow of Roodepoort” – the story orphaned babies and children, all victims of the African AIDS epidemic.

In his own words, David’s film captured “what the human spirit is capable of” and it has become the film festival’s credo.

Mary Ann had never been to a film festival until she entered David’s “Lost Sparrows . . .” into competition and became inspired by young filmmakers she met and whose commitment and joyful spirit were not unlike what she and Ed had seen in their son.

It was in a small town in Ireland when it struck her that Chagrin Falls would be a perfect place to stage a festival dedicated to documentary films and filmmakers. Mary Ann announced her plans upon getting off the plane in Cleveland and Ed embraced the idea before they left the airport for home.

During the festival – when not attending to dozens of details -- Ed holds forth in the projection booth at the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre which serves as one of several screening venues.

He is there to make sure each film is shown glitch-free and to its best advantage because, from the inception, this festival has been as much about the filmmakers and encouraging them as it is about their films.

David showed his parents what that meant and it is what drives them and this film festival today. It is a labor of love for Ed and Mary Ann and a perfect example of “what the human spirit is capable of.”

Ms. Christian has written for Chagrin Valley-area newspapers since the 1960s. Email her with your thoughts, questions, or general observations about this, that, or the other at: chagbarb@aol.com.

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