65th annual Columbus International Film & Video Festival brings focus to films with Ohio connections

Does the oldest film festival in the United States need a niche?

“Because we're an international festival and not a genre festival, we have so many different categories, and show such a broad range of films,” Columbus International Film & Video Festival Executive Director Jeremy Henthorn said in a phone interview. “We try to give something for people who can't get enough of international film, for example, but we cater to a broader audience.

“I think most festivals would say this, but I guess we've had different niches through the years. I feel like, when I started with the festival, I wanted to create what I hoped would be a ‘discovery' festival, where you could find work that wasn't getting major distribution or filmmakers that were on the cusp of breaking out and you could see them here before they blew up.”

Henthorn also pointed to partnerships with the LGBT Film Festival, the Black International Film Festival and the Columbus Jewish Film Festival that offer showcases for those events within the CIF&VF.

Each year, Henthorn said, the festival serves as a microcosm of the field, offering on overview of filmmaking at a given point in time.

“It's kind of a look at what the trends are as far as where filmmakers are in terms of the subject matter they're tackling,” he said. A theme among many of this year's films to be screened is sensitive subject matter that's presented in an “energetic, sometimes lighthearted way,” Henthorn said.

Another thing Henthorn has noticed in recent years is a rise in submissions from Ohio-based and Ohio-connected filmmakers. It's something he said he's been seeing in recent years, and this year's festival is perhaps one of the strongest, both in terms of quantity and quality, of films with ties to Ohio.

“It's been organic and there are a lot of reasons for it,” he said, “but we're starting to get to this place where there's this avalanche of work.”

Examples include Ohio State University graduate Anne Hu and Central Ohio-based filmmaker Matt Starr. Hu's “Cake” will be shown as part of Thursday's “Not-Quite-Midnight Shorts” at the CCAD Canzani Center Screening Room (8:30-9:45 p.m.), featuring films with dark subject matter or dark humor. Starr will have two very different kinds of films screened on Saturday, with documentary “The JJ Project” to be shown at 12:45 p.m. and dramatic narrative “Looking for the Jackalope” at 9 p.m., both at the Drexel Theatre.

Hu, now based in New York, where she also edits trailers (clients have included HBO, AMC, Netflix and more), said “Cake” is a dark comedy that explores issues of sexuality and race, in which the main character attempts to explore her bisexuality within her marriage by purchasing a female sex robot she intends to share with her husband. The robot happens to be designed to be an Asian-American woman. She said she's excited to be showing in Columbus for the first time since finishing her studies at OSU.

“The original story idea came from my early 20s when I found myself in a similar situation as the main character and thought, ‘If only I had a sex robot,'” Hu said. “Obviously it goes deeper, exploring a lot of things, like understanding one's sexuality, but also the frustration of being an Asian-American woman. This portrayal satirizes the objectification and fetishism of Asian-American women.”

The film is not autobiographical, Hu said, but does explore topics that she is particularly suited to address, while simultaneously allowing her to, she said, “create work that gives people a voice” not being heard in the film industry.

Starr helped director Karl Shefelman make “Looking for the Jackalope,” a film shot primarily in Ohio. But he is the director for documentary “The JJ Project,” which chronicles the efforts of 11-year-old JJ House, who miraculously survived infancy with brittle bone disease and remained in medical care while also moving through the foster care system as a young child, to fulfill a dream of directing a stage musical.

“We knew this story was something very special,” Starr said of House's dream (Starr and House share a Mount Vernon hometown). “The production staff of the musical was all kids, with an adult mentor. The film shows the process of the kids learning how to put on a musical. What was neat was that no one looked at JJ as a kid in a wheelchair. It showed people forgetting about disability and focusing on a person.”