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East Lansing Film Festival opening night sets tone for week-long indie film exploration

November 7, 2022
East Lansing Film Festival's program, Nov. 5, 2022.
East Lansing Film Festival's program, Nov. 5, 2022. —
Photo by Devin Anderson-Torrez | The State News

On opening night of the silver anniversary of the East Lansing Film Festival, or ELFF, community members filled Studio C! Celebration Theater for the local tradition.

Festival director Susan Woods hosted an opening night party, where she was surrounded by festival goers from the last 25 years. She sees these community members as very dear friends.

“I’ve seen so many familiar faces and it’s been so great," Woods said. "I love this place.”

One of the annual festival enthusiasts, Martha Couretas, sees ELFF as a cultural haven in her small community. She views films every year that she wouldn't be able to see anywhere else and finds Michigan filmmakers enlightening.

“We have different perspectives from people who are not thought of as part of the culture of filmmaking, and not Hollywood filmmaking," Couretas said.

Couretas especially looks forward to the talks with the directors or actors, which take place after the film to add perspective to the viewing experience.

“It lets us know about parts of the world we don’t experience ourselves, such as how other people live and situations that they have to cope with that are different from our lives," Couretas said.

Festival sponsor Leonard Zuckerman attended ELFF for the first time this year, eager to experience what the local tradition has to say about international communities.

“It’s culture," Zuckerman said. "You don’t just want to have local thinking and everything centered around things happening here. You have to branch out and be more worldly.”

The opening film was "Bad Axe," It's namesake is the rural, conservative Michigan town it was filmed in. The film follows an immigrant family during the depths of the pandemic, combating economic hardship with their family business, racism in their small town and an attempt to keep their family ties close. David Siev, the director, made the movie as a love letter to his family and his hometown.

The autobiographical documentary has already had a successful film festival run, with awards from the Detroit Free Press and the South by Southwest Film Festival. It has won 17 awards and has been projected as an Oscars contender.

“The trajectory of this entire film is something I just obviously could never have imagined when I first picked up that camera," Siev said during his director's talk.

Siev held a screening in Bad Axe when the movie was first released, receiving overwhelming praise from everyone, including the skeptics that believed he would portray his hometown poorly.

“I feel like I've lived my own American dream right now," Siev said. Having a film that is about the American dream, it's what I take a moment to really reflect on. I'm so grateful that I'm able to be a filmmaker and travel the country with my family.”

Julia Field, an audience member, thought the film was heartwarming, yet also representative of the hardship of the pandemic.

“It makes it more real," Field said. "No place is perfect so it did a good job of showing both parts of Bad Axe and rural Michigan.”

Field thought the one-on-one interviews with the family members after the film added more depth, allowing audience members feel as though they knew the cast personally.

The second film of opening night was "Jacir," a feature film depicting the main character, Jacir, and his journey from Syria to America. It showcased the struggle of assimilating U.S. culture, as Jacir interwined his life with his neurotic neighbors and coworkers.

As an MSU law student, audience member Andy Haftkowycz saw the realities between the film and the immigration law system. He said that the film's depiction of Islamic hospitality and government treatment of immigrants was spot on.

Haftkowycz said that "Jacir" and ELFF as a whole has a hand in sharing the perspective of immigrants to a community that may not be otherwise familiar.

“It's important to understand that there's culture past the border of Canada and the U.S. and we need to understand that those people are here … they are present as anybody here and they deserve to be here just as much as we deserve to be here,” Haftkowycz said.

ELFF will run until Nov. 10. View a schedule of the films here. 

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