The Greater Cleveland Urban Film Festival, now in its fifth year, is poised to be the biggest and brightest incarnation of the festival yet. The festival's opening night, Thursday, will be at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the festivities will close out at the Cleveland Cinematheque. The films will be screened at Shaker Square Cinemas.
"I'm the dreamer-upper of the GCUFF," says executive director Donna Dabbs. "I decided after going to the Cleveland International Film Festival that I wanted to have my own film festival because I wanted to see more people of color telling stories that interested me. That sparked the whole thing. We put a team together of people who believed in making it happen; that was five years ago."
Taking on a venture of this magnitude undoubtedly can be daunting, but for Dabbs the journey has been rewarding.
"I'm all about energetic magical things happening and things happen when people come around a common cause," Dabbs says. "The movies become that common cause when people can come, watch, enjoy, talk, meet, laugh, cry, be horrified or whatever they choose to be. When I see a packed theater, a packed lobby and a packed party, it's all worth it."
Dabbs also notes the importance of building connections at a gathering such as GCUFF. In the past, attendees have gotten movie deals done or landed acting gigs right on the spot. Dabbs also points to the economic impact of the festival. It employs a number of small businesses in the area.
"We get smarter every year," Dabbs says. "We learn more. We don't have any more people though. It's still six to 10 people doing the heavy lifting."
Having such a small team does come with its own set of difficulties. Dabbs points out that with a team of volunteers, as opposed to a paid year-round staff, it's a challenge to get things done on the side of everyone's day jobs.
"Financing is always an issue," Dabbs says. "Even though we set goals every year and we always raise the money, there's always a lag between when you raise the money and when people actually send checks. So that gap between is what we're always managing. Sometimes it can be up to six months before you see the money and in the meanwhile you have to pay for talent, pay for material, secure the theater, etc. You've got a lot of expenses, but we get it done thanks to Alton Tinker. He's our board chair and CFO."
Community engagement is another aspect of the festival that is important to GCUFF.
"All the stories told about us aren't necessarily in the most positive light," Dabbs says. "It's a way for the community to come out and have conversations about some of the current issues. Some of the movies will touch on things going on in their world and this is an opportunity to have dialogue about those issues."
Many of the films have a Northeastern Ohio connection. Matthew Cherry, the director of the opening night film, 9 Rides (which was filmed entirely on an iPhone 6s), is from Akron. Steven Caple Jr.'s The Land will also be screened.
"As Cleveland rises, we'll also continue to rise," Dabbs insists. "I'm glad we established ourselves five years ago before the hotness happened."