In the early days of the Cleveland International Film Festival, the volunteers kept the reels turning. A 39-year CIFF vet, Jana Friess remembers the heady beginning — when marketing was done by word-of-mouth and young cinephiles came from across town to sell tickets and T-shirts and gab with the modest crowds. Friess joined the ranks in 1979, two years after the festival’s first run. The montage of her volunteer years includes Debra Winger, spontaneous audience applause and one festival where she watched more than 20 films. “It’s morphed into something quite grand,” says Friess. So, on the eve of her 40th festival, we asked the expert-level helper to share highlights from her personal sizzle reel.
Early on, the volunteers did just about everything. There was a small staff. They gave us the moneybox and we sold the tickets in the Cedar Lee lobby. We popped the Champagne corks for the big party.
I was interested in the foreign films — the films that you wouldn’t see at the regular theater, something more obscure or special. When I lived on the West Side, I’d drive over to Cedar Lee just for the movies anyway, so when the film festival came along, it was a big deal at the time.
One that stands out [from the early years] was the Italian film The Tree of Wooden Clogs. It was a haunting story of a simple, impoverished life. But it was mostly the images and cinematography that stayed with me.
Just seeing the throngs of people in downtown Cleveland is pretty exciting. Seeing what a draw this event has makes me feel happy about Cleveland, and it’s more fun watching a movie with a crowd than in an empty theater.
I remember [director] John Sayles coming for the opening of one of his films, Lianna. Certainly at Tower City, moving there, we had bigger parties. [Actress] Debra Winger was here for a film.
If you look at some of the [guidebooks] of our regular filmgoers, you’d see what they’ve circled. The pages are dog-eared.
The regular festivalgoers study that book and make a game plan. Some people take a week off of work and just check-in. Some even stay in a hotel downtown.
“Where’s the bathrooms?” That is, of course, the No. 1 question.
It’s being in the mix of something exciting, being there to try to keep people happy and enjoying the festival. Our goal is to make it a pleasant experience for them. It’s not really about the T-shirt.