In conjunction with the Cleveland International Film Festival, Cleveland State University’s School of Communication was host to its 8th Annual “Filmmaker Panels” on Saturday, March 28.
The free, six-hour event was open to both university members and the general public, and featured more than 20 panelists whose work had been selected as part of the international film festival.
Five Cleveland State faculty moderated the panels, while students from the communication department helped with behind-the-scenes work typical of such a sizable production.
Four separate panels ranged in topic from global film distribution to independent film production. In all, over 200 individuals attended the engaging and informative event.
Kim Neuendorf, event organizer, moderator and a professor in Cleveland State’s School of Communication Media Arts and Technology Division, noted that this year’s panels were some of the best yet.
“The caliber of filmmakers we brought in for the panels was substantially higher this year,” Neuendorf said.
She noted that this was in part because many more appeared than in previous years at the two-week-long Cleveland event held at Tower City Cinemas.
“There were a lot more film makers who came to the film festival,” Neuendorf said. “Usually we’ve done these panels and almost always we fall back to the short filmmakers list or we go to local people we know who may not have been featured in the festival, but they relate well to the topic. This year I could have put five more festival people on a panel.”
Each of the panels explored their respective topics from various lenses, including the perspectives of up to six working artists and professionals.
The choice to limit the number of panel guests to a smaller group was, for Neuendorf, an understandable one.
“With any panel discussion you attend to hear people speak, an intimacy develops in that experience. Generating that atmosphere becomes more difficult the more guests you add to the conversation,” Neuendorf said.
While it was definitely beneficial to have a broader pool of professionals to pull from for the day’s programming, the increased number of potential panelists made the selection process more arduous.
“It made it harder because there was a long list to choose from and we have such a short time to choose them in,” Neuendorf said.
Ultimately, those who landed on the panels were great fits, according to Neuendorf. Their varying levels of experience and familiarity with different stages of the filmmaking process made the day’s discussions more engaging and informative.
“The Documentary Filmmaking Process”panel is one such example. Moderated by Neuendorf, it featured working and teaching directors, writers, producers and even a film festival programmer.
As the first conversation of the day, the panel explored nearly every stage of the documentary production process. From determining what makes a story worth telling to scripting, financing, editing, distribution and finally exhibition, panelists shared the fulfilling and hair-pulling realities of making a nonfiction narrative film.
Panelists like Mike Attie, associate director of the Master of Fine Arts program in documentary media at Northwestern University, rather comically elaborated on what it was like to deal with viewers who felt scenes in his film were staged.
It was an interesting issue considering the subject of his documentary, “In Country,” which follows the world of people who — literally stage war re-enactments. In Attie’s case, his subjects followed moments from one of the United States’ best known wars, Vietnam.
Another panelist, Abhay Kumar, shared his unique experience of closely following the lives — and even deaths — of student doctors at a highly competitive Indian university. Meanwhile, Maggie Mackay, a member of the Cleveland International Film Festival documentary jury, elaborated on what programmers are looking for during a festival’s selection process.
While the panel guest selection this year was a bit different, determining panel topics was more or less the same, with communication faculty playing the biggest role.
“I’ve been involved from the first year and various people have helped in different years,” Neuendorf said. “This year, Professor [John] Vourlis and Professor [Anup] Kumar were really involved. Kumar helped in choosing what the topics would be.”
This year’s event offered its audience a revealing look into the pre- and post-production world of visual storytelling, both from a western and global perspective.
Students like Nadine Ali, a journalism and promotional communication major, saw the event as an edifying experience.
“I think holding these types of events are a great outlet and learning experience for students,” Ali said. “I walked away knowing that if you’re passionate enough or have a deep interest in something, you can go a lot further than if you just do something to do it.”
For Ali, the experience also offered career insight.
“[They] give great opportunities for students to look at other possibilities in their futures that they may not have thought about before. Or even give them some insight and realize that’s not what they want to do at all,” Ali said.
It wasn’t just eye-opening for its attendees, however. Those involved with the technical and administrative aspects of organizing the event had the opportunity to learn new skills and meet some of the artists.
The early stages of panel planning went as far back as January, and involved the faculty deciding what the topics would be. The next step was to put finishing touches on the copy for the event’s page, which would be published in the CIFF program book.
It was an aspect of the panel series that had to be completed before the film festival had even finished selecting features, and as a result, before Neuendorf knew who would be available to be on the panels.
“The earliest we can know any of this is two weeks before,” Neuendorf said. “It was finalized in this case, except for two people, the Friday before the first Saturday of the festival. The whole thing was only set a whole five days ahead of time.”
During the weeks leading up to the program, Neuendorf turned to students in her documentary filmmaking course for help with making the event a success.
It was some of those students who ultimately helped Neuendorf narrow down relevant and prospective panelists through a contact list provided by the film festival.
“I kind of took it upon myself — about five years ago — to make it a part of a class I teach in the spring, Documentary Filmmaking. One year it was Contemporary Film,” Neuendorf said. “I tell them in their syllabus that this is going to be happening and they can either be a camera operator or work on sound, work green room or work transportation.”
While students in her course are required to help at the event, students who are not in Neuendorf’s spring class, but have proven experience, can also get involved.
“This year I was able to pay six students who were not in my class that had experience to help,” Neuendorf said. “They got a sort of honorarium for being involved.”
The panel production process, while receiving some assistance from the university and from the film festival, is largely a volunteer effort. Despite the amount of work and sometimes stressful situations, it is, in the end, all worth it for the program’s head organizer.
“What can I say? It’s a labor of love,” Neuendorf said.
This article first appeared in the April 13, 2015 issue of The Cleveland Stater.