Bethlehem’s annual beloved SouthSide Film Festival (SSFF) is back after a year off due to the Corovirus pandemic. The filmmakers showcased their new films across many venues in the five-day event (June 15-19, 2021), including Charter Arts High School, NMIH, and Touchstone Theater.
The First Night Begins
The festival kicked off this past Tuesday at 6:30 pm with a lively party at Color Me Mine. The night was cool and pleasant, a perfect time to relax and enjoy one of the first live events of the Lehigh Valley since the pandemic began. People quickly began to fill up the venue, where there were light hors d’oeuvres and drinks. The tables were crowded with excited guests waiting for the first films to begin. Several filmmakers and orchestraters of the events mingled among the guests and talked to news reporters.
The new SouthSide Film Festival director Jennifer Cotto was one of those present. She initially took over the director job at the end of 2019; however, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, what would have been her first festival as director, 2020 SSFF, was canceled. She discussed how much uncertainty was present even in the creation of this year’s festival. As the pandemic provided barriers to large groups gathering, the boards of SSFF were wary of planning 2021’s festival prematurely. However, when pandemic guidelines finally began to relax in April, the board of directors decided to go ahead with the film festival. Submissions had been piling up since November of 2020, with independent filmmakers hoping to make it into the next festival. With the decision to open the festival delayed, the film jury, who reviews and picks films for the festival, had a lot of work cut out for them. Jennifer Cotto, also part of the film jury, said that it took weeks of intensive film watching to pick this year’s featured films. When picking films, she said that the jury looks for good storytelling, dialogue, and characters. Another important point when choosing films is price, as the jury would try and pick films people would be happy to pay to see. Overall, they ended up choosing 57 films to be in this year’s festival. Ms. Cotto expressed her joy that the festival had begun and her pride at all they had accomplished in a few short months.
Among the filmmakers present were Jennifer Suwak and Steve Abruzzese. They directed Frank Parese, A Jersey Shore Veteran Story, a short documentary, which follows a 94-year-old WWII veteran. Both Jennifer and Steve were inspired at a young age to start making films. They would watch all different genres of movies and from that stemmed their love of cinema and the passion for creating their own. Jennifer Suwak, while discussing their work, said they often work on several projects simultaneously to maximize their productivity. Many times their inspiration for making films comes from seeing the different struggles of humanity. This is especially true with their festival film about Frank Parese, who suffered from Covid during filming. In addition, being hands-on with people is a big part of their production process, as building relationships is an integral part of telling immersive and genuine stories.
After the party, those present began to head over to Charter Arts High School to watch the festival’s first selection of films. The film screening began at about 8:00 pm.
Salt was the first film shown for the night. Directed by David Chai, this short three-minute animation has a warm, minimalistic color palette and a creative presentation. The plot focuses on a troubled brother and sister who struggle to get along without their mother. Through the film’s duration, they come to realize that there are many different ways of saying “I love you.”
The next film, Junior, directed by A.J. Williams, focuses on former “Racine Mapou de Azor” band member Jérôme “Junior” Simeon.Shot with beautiful and captivating compositions, this documentary shows how Junior turned the end of his band career into a journey of creativity. When visited in a dream by a spirit who taught him the art of drum-making, Junior felt compelled to devote his life to the art of drums. Junior showcases the spiritual nature of music and art, delving into the importance of maintaining traditional drum-making techniques.
Snowy, also a short documentary, is a light-hearted look at the life of a family pet turtle named Snowy. Directors Alex Wolf Lewis and Kaitlyn Schwalje take a close look at Snowy’s quiet life. Snowy primarily lives in the basement of their Uncle Larry’s house. The directors question whether Snowy is happy in his lonely environment and if/how they can help him live a more fulfilling life. While this is a humorous look at an old turtle’s life and habits, it also delves into the complicated relationships between humans, animals, and the environment.
The last short of the night was How Long Until, directed by Jon Rehr. A take on the movie Cast Away starring Tom Hanks, this narrative film shows a problem two men face when stranded on a deserted island as their food supply dwindles. This was one of the shortest films of the night, being just under three minutes; despite its length, How Long Until left a lasting impression. As soon as the short began, the time and effort put into its production were obvious. The cinematography is gorgeous, with the characters and scenery both captured with exquisite skill.
Women of Steel, a documentary directed by Robynne Murphy, was the last film shown on the opening night. As a feature presentation, its run time is about 56 minutes, much longer than the earlier shorts. The film represents the struggles women went through to get employed at Wollongong steelworks. First, they protested and fought to gain the opportunity to work and later to get the money they deserved. Women of Steel has significant parallels to Bethlehem Steel, making it relevant to the Lehigh Valley. Much as the women struggle with losing their jobs at the steelworks, so did many locals suffer at the detrimental closure of Bethlehem Steel. This heightens the emotional aspect of the film, leading to a more personal connection with the Bethlehem viewers. Overall, the film is genuine in its portrayal of the diverse group of women and their struggles to be part of male-dominated workplaces.
As the final film ended and the lights went back on, there was a short Q&A session with the directors of How Long Until. Jon Rehr explained that the film was originally a much longer sketch and cut down to its 3-minute form after much consideration. He had wanted to focus on a single joke, tell it, and then end the production as a way to leave a lasting impression on the audience. A longer film may have been too drawn out for their idea and leave audiences bored; so, they wanted to keep it concise. The directors also explained how their filming location, Cape May in New Jersey, had been very Covid-19 friendly. As all filming took place outside and actors were six feet apart, the script lent itself to pandemic regulations.
This year’s film festival was a great experience. As someone who has never attended before, the festival was a great way to start summer and meet new people. Everyone involved was delightful; guests, VIPs, and festival directors were all kind and approachable. The films themselves were unique and entertaining to watch. There were many different genres of films on the first day and subsequent days so that there was something for everyone to enjoy.
Despite the difficulties of Covid-19, the film festival managed to pull off an amazing week of films. Next year’s film festival is sure to be even better!