Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow 

When the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival debuted in 2010, its 93 films were seen by 1,800 attendees in venues throughout the Cuyahoga County century village of Chagrin Falls. Last year, the event – which went virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic – reached an audience of more than 37,000 from 28 states.

Now in its 12th year, and routinely recognized by MovieMaker Magazine as a “Top 50 Film Festival Worth the Entry Fee,” the CDFF will screen films at walkable Chagrin Falls venues as well as provide an on demand streaming option. Venues include the Chagrin Valley Little Theatre, the newly renovated Chagrin Falls Intermediate School theater and Riverside Park, an outdoor space that buttresses up against the famous falls. The historic Chagrin Falls Township Hall will serve as a hub of activities, including filmmaker question-and-answer sessions and happy hour events.

This year’s fest will feature 98 documentaries, including 32 short films, from 19 countries. The festivities will begin Oct. 5, with a tribute to the 1920 Cleveland Indians baseball team. Elyria native Andy Billman’s “War on the Diamond” – a film based on the award-winning book by Mike Sowell, “The Pitch that Killed” – chronicles the fateful pitch by New York Yankees’ pitcher Carl Mays, which hit and killed Cleveland Indians’ shortstop Ray Chapman. Billman directed the 2016 ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, “Believeland,” which chronicled the decades of misfortune and heartbreak in Cleveland professional sports.

Fourteen of this year’s films come from emerging directors, which “meets our mission to empower talented first-time filmmakers (and) share their stories,” said Mary Ann Ponce, who founded the festival in honor of her late son, David, an aspiring filmmaker, who lost his battle with cancer in 2006 at age 20.

One of those emerging directors is Neta Ariel, an Israeli, whose film “A Mirror for the Sun” is one of two CDFF selections that might be of special interest to the Jewish community.

“A Mirror for the Sun” (Israel, 2018; Hebrew with English Subtitles; 60 minutes) explores the life of Tamar Ariel, who grew up in a religious home in a moshav in southern Israel. Encouraged to follow her dreams, she did two years of voluntary national service and then joined the Israel Defense Forces air force, where she served as the first Orthodox combat navigator. In 2014, wishing for new experiences after her military service, she traveled to Nepal. Tamar reached the peak of the Annapurna mountain range with a group of Israeli and international hikers, only to encounter an unexpected snowstorm. Tamar and her companions found themselves in a life and death struggle against the elements.

“A few weeks after her death,” said the film’s director in an email exchange, “the family began thinking about how to commemorate her life. And I, as the director of the Maaleh Film School in Jerusalem, suggested that they make this film.”

“The Adventures of Saul Bellow” (Israel/United States, 2020; 85 minutes) was directed by Asaf Galay. It focuses on the life and times of Saul Bellow – the most acclaimed post-World War II chronicler of American Jewish life and, according to The Guardian critic James Wood, the “greatest of American prose stylists in the 20th century.” This documentary sheds light on his mixture of street wise argot and up-scale philosophizing, his influence on American literature, his reluctance to be a public figure, and the way he turned life into art.

The title, according to the film’s director in an email exchange, is a shout-out to Bellow’s award-winning 1954 novel, “The Adventures of Augie March,” which follows the title character’s growth from childhood to a fairly stable maturity.

“Through interviews with Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Philip Roth, and others, the film makes the case for the cosmic impact of reading Bellow,” Galay said.

And with accounts of his private life offered by his sons and two of his five wives, he said, “I hope that viewers will be willing to go into that uncomfortable place of recognizing the flaws of a genius.”

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