By Andrea Simakis
The Plain Dealer
When software entrepreneur John Zitzner approached Cleveland filmmaker Laura Paglin about shooting a documentary about a fledgling charter school he'd helped start on the city's East Side, she was intrigued. But first, she laid down some ground rules: She would have "complete creative control" and act as an independent entity. And it "wouldn't be creating a glorified PR piece," she says.
Paglin, who burst onto the international scene with her 2006 Election Day saga "No Umbrella" featuring the late, famously cranky Hough councilwoman Fannie Lewis, entered E Prep, a world of strict dress codes, 10-hour school days and middle-schoolers struggling to learn how to read.
She stayed for three years and shot some 350 hours of film. Though school officials initially worried Paglin and her crew would be a distraction, they soon became part of the fabric of the place. "I think after a while, people just sort of regarded us as the janitor or something," she says.
The result is an engrossing trip down the halls of an institution trying to salvage the academic lives of a handful of poor, mostly black students, casualties of an urban public school system plagued by low achievement scores and grim drop-out rates.
Paglin's "Facing Forward" is one of more than a dozen movies that will be screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival as part of this year's "local heroes" lineup, which means they boast a state or local connection.
A year into filming, she found her focus, a seventh grader named Tyree, a compelling protagonist with charm and troubles to spare. Paglin needed a base, a place to stow her gear and was directed to Ms. Joyner's room. "She was the one that would deal with the troublemakers," Paglin says. One of those troublemakers was Tyree, waiting for his turn to be reprimanded. "He was having some conversation with another student about how unfair the rules were, but discussing it the way a lawyer would. His charisma just came out."
"This is my kid," she remembers thinking. "I knew it right away."
Paglin's footage captures Tyree's fight to not only navigate the rigorous curriculum of his new school but a chaotic family life and a blighted neighborhood filled with vacant houses and barred windows.
Paglin says she's gotten some flack for showing "so many boarded-up buildings" in the ravaged inner city, "but really, if you drive around, my god, you're kind of struck by the fact that this is most of Cleveland," she says.
"This isn't just some horrible pocket - University Circle is the exception. This is what kids walk by every day."
Other homegrown work to watch out for:
"Aardvark" - Shot in Cleveland with an all-local cast and crew, the film, billed as a blend of documentary and fiction, charts the real-life friendship of a blind, recovering alcoholic and his hard-partying martial-arts teacher. If that's not enticingly weird enough, its director, Kitao Sakurai, was born in Japan but moved to Cleveland at age 3 with his mother, a Baroque lute player.
"Cleveland vs. Wall Street" - Remember when Mayor Frank Jackson sued 21 investment banks for causing the city's foreclosure crisis? Though a federal judge dismissed the case, Swiss director Jean-Stephane Bron staged an elaborate mock trial to capture the David-and-Goliath battle, featuring our very own Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Thomas J. Pokorny and defense lawyer Keith Fisher.
"Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman" - You can't get more local than Celtic gangster Danny Greene, the colorful hood blown to smithereens by a car bomb in a Lyndhurst parking lot in 1977. Director Tommy Reid, who also produced the feature-length Greene saga "Kill the Irishman," interviews Danny's friends and enemies, including an ex-wife and the cops who tried to end his gleeful crime spree.
"Dying to Do Letterman" - Parma native Biagio Messina and wife Joke Fincioen follow comedian Steve Mazan as he fights to realize his lifelong dream to appear on David Letterman's "Late Show." The twist? Mazan has been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer, and the clock is ticking. Despite Mazan's terminal prognosis, the documentary is far from glum. Reviewers are calling it "sidesplittingly funny" with "shades of 'Rocky.'"
"Long Way To Oblivion" - If you love disaffected, lovelorn Bukowski-spouting musicians and our gritty cityscape, this is the flick for you. Directed by Shawn C. Mishak, a Cleveland State University grad and rocker in the Cleveland-based band Kid Tested, the film boasts a killer soundtrack and a native cast and crew.
"Polka! The Movie" - Made for Slovenia TV, this love letter to "the happiest sound around" pays homage to Cleveland-style polka with footage of local hot spots including the Slovenian Workmen's Home Tavern and the Polka Hall of Fame.