Bethlehem goes indie: Southside Film Festival comes of age at year 18
“We have a short film about people who dress up cows for a pageant. There’s always something new,” Southside Film Festival Director Jenn Cotto says.
Indeed, you’re not likely to see “Dress a Cow” at the multiplex. But you can see the film at the 18th SouthSide Film Festival (SSFF), Bethlehem.
“Dress a Cow” screened in the Documentary Block 2 of films, 5:20 p.m. June 16, Touchstone Theatre, 321 E. Fourth St., Bethlehem, and 5:20 p.m. June 17, National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH), 602 E. Second St., Bethlehem.
SSFF 2022 screens some 88 feature and short films through June 18, Touchstone, NMIH and Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts (LV Charter Arts), 321 E. Third St., Bethlehem.
SSFF kicked off June 14 with a reception at NMIH and a screening at LV Charter Arts of the documentary “Calendar Girls,” about a female senior citizen dance ensemble.
SSFF, an annual five-day event in June, unreels international films, hosts guest filmmakers, screens locally-produced films, and provides networking for filmmakers and fans of independent films (aka indie movies).
“We’re really looking forward to having this festival again. We were blessed with a lot of great films. And we hope people come out and enjoy them,” Cotto says.
SSFF happened in 2021, but not in 2020 because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
“Last year, we decided so late to have this festival, that it was all a blur and I felt that I was flying by the seat of my pants,” says Cotto, now in her second year as SSFF director.
Cotto was to have taken over from previous SSFF director Glenn Koehler in 2020, but there was no SSFF to take over.
“Last year  was a normal festival,” says Jeff Vaclavik, President of the Board of the Southside Film Institute, the volunteer nonprofit that runs SSFF.
“The only reason attendance was down was that people were still leery of coming out,” Vaclavik says, referring to COVID concerns.
“There are plenty of films in which the pandemic is addressed, whether it be how the pandemic has affected people in the film, or the subject’s reaction to the pandemic and how they got through it,” says Cotto of the SSFF 2022 lineup.
“You can sit at home and watch Netflix, but there’s nothing like going out and seeing a movie in a theater. You can sit at home and listen to a band, but there’s nothing like seeing a band live,” says Vaclavik. “It’s a shared experience. Film is no different from music or dance.”
SSFF 2022 had 227 submissions, an increase from 2021, via the FilmFreeway website.
“I think we’re going to have 13 people representing films attending,” says Vaclavik.
The SSFF jury began screening submitted films in October 2021 for the 2022 festival. “And then they get voted on,” says Cotto. The jury of 10 or 12 is from all walks of life. “Some are film-makers. Some are not. We all have different things we are looking for,” Cotto says.
“We had quite a few invitationals. We asked these films to the festival,” says Cotto.
“Benny still wrangles films. He doesn’t go to festivals. But he gets films from his computer,” Vaclavik says of Ben Bertalan, SSFF film wrangler.
In addition to feature-length films, there are blocks of short films at the SSFF, including Comedy Block, Drama Block, two Documentary Blocks, two Animation Blocks, LGBTQ Block, and Miscellaneous Block, which Cotto dubs the “Heartwarming Block.”
“There are a lot of hopeful films and ones with the message of coming together and looking out for your fellow man,” says Cotto.
There’s no SSFF “Kids Film Fest” at Godfrey Daniels. “At some point, we hope to revive it,” says Vaclavik.
There also no pre-festival fundraiser at Molinari’s, which reopened in May. “We’re glad to see them back,” Vaclavik says.
SSFF 2022 feature-length film favorites of Cotto and Vaclavik include:
“Our Words Collide”
(2022) Directors: Jordan Barrow, Matt Edwards. Documentary. 94 minutes. The lives of Jason Alvarez, Cassady Lopez, Amari Turner, Virginia Villalta and Tyris Winter, five teenage spoken-word poets in Los Angeles, are chronicled. Screening: 9:20 p.m. June 15; 5:20 p.m. June 18, LV Charter Arts.
“Peace by Chocolate”
(2021) Director: Jonathan Keijser. Narrative Fiction. 1 hour, 36 minutes. “It’s our only narrative feature-length film,” says Cotto. ”It’s based on a true story about a family of Syrian refugees and their son’s struggle with his ambitions to become a doctor and his dedication to help his family. It’s another feel-good film.” Screening: 7:20 p.m. June 15, Touchstone; 7:20 p.m. June 17, LV Charter Arts.
(2021) Director: Lisa Hurwitz. Documentary, 1 hour, 19 minutes. The 20th century vending machine commissary. Screening: 7:20 p.m. June 15; 3:20 p.m. June 18, LV Charter Arts.
Director: Jordan Orsak. Documentary. 1 hour, 28 minutes. A man walks 300 miles across Alaska to the Arctic Circle. “He carries with him in his backpack the names of 1,000 kids who have had cancer and either survived or died,” Vaclavik says. Screening: 5:20 p.m. June 15; 1:20 p.m. June 18, NMIH.
(2022) Director: Rita Baghdadi. Documentary. 1 hour, 18 minutes. Winner, nominee, several film festivals. Lilas and Shery are co-founders and guitarists of the Middle East’s first all-female metal band in Lebanon. “The band almost attended, but they had trouble with their visas,” Vaclavik says. Screening: 9:20 p.m. June 16, LV Charter Arts; 9:20 p.m. June 17, Touchstone.
(2021) Director: Mye Hoang. Documentary, 1 hour, 29 minutes. Winner, nominee, several film festivals. Pennsylvania premiere. A homeless man, firefighters, stunt man, truck driver, tech worker and school teacher and their cats. Screening: 9:20 p.m. June 17, NMIH; 5:20 p.m. June 18, Touchstone.
Director: Shanti Thakur. Documentary. Thakur’s father departed India and married a woman. It’s Thakur’s sixth film at SSFF. Screening: 7:20 p.m. June 17; 3:30 p.m. June 18, NMIH.
“Only In Theaters”
Director: Raphael Sbarge, Documentary. 1 hour, 34 minutes. Laemmle Theaters, an art house cinema chain mostly in Los Angeles, is a third-generation family business. Stars Cameron Crowe, Ava DuVernay, Nicole Holofcener. Screening: 7:20 p.m. June 18, LV Charter Arts.
Here are film shorts at SSFF 2022 that Cotto and Vaclavik recommend:
5:20 p.m. June 16, LV Charter Arts, before “AIDS Diva: The Legend of Connie Norman.”
“The Irish Goodbye”
Miscellaneous Block, 5:20 p.m. June 15, LV Charter Arts; 7:20 p.m. June 17, Touchstone. “It’s typically Irish. There’s some real dark humor, but always with that undercurrent of heart,” says Vaclavik. “That’s No. 1 or No. 2 of my favorite films in the whole festival,” says Cotto.
Documentary Block 1, 9:20 p.m. June 15; 5:20 p.m. June 18, NMIH. Director James P. Gannon returns to SSFF for the fourth time.
Drama Block, 7:20 p.m. June 15, NMIH; 9:20 p.m. June 17, LV Charter Arts. “It’s our first film from Faroe Island, between Iceland and Norway. We’re up to 103 countries,” Vaclavik says of the number of nations from which films have been screened at the SSFF.
“I am a fan of craft beers. So I am partial to ‘One Beer at a Time,” says Cotto. The film screening is at 1:20 p.m. June 18, LV Charter Arts. “It’s a new take on beer documentaries. It focuses on black brewers, creators and influencers in the craft beer space,” Cotto says.
Single screening tickets and all-access passes available at Deja Brew, 101 W. Fourth St., Bethlehem. 610-865-2739