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East Lansing Film Festival aims to break down borders

The East Lansing Film Festival returns for its 21st year with a slew of films that reflect the tumultuous times faced by many Americans.

Though founder Susan Woods doesn’t deliberately select pictures with a specific theme in mind, most of the marquee movies deal with a battle against prejudice, systemic injustice, or a journey to receive a second chance in life — not to mention the slogan “Film Has No Borders,” which adorns all festival media and advertising.

“I wanted to show that film crosses all generations and all cultures. And it crosses the border of your thinking and your mind, and so you can gain so much,” Woods said.

The star of the show is bound to be “The Sentence,” directed by Lansing native Rudy Valdez.

The documentary tells the story of Valdez’s sister, Cindy Shank, who was convicted on drug charges and sentenced to 15 years in federal prison, thanks to her connection with drug dealing ex-boyfriend Alex Humphrey.

After Humphrey’s 2002 murder, which led to law enforcement seizing more than 20 kilos of cocaine, Shank found herself caught up in the sprawling federal investigation and was given a devastating mandatory minimum sentence. Shank suffered in prison for eight years before her sentence was commuted by Barack Obama in 2016. Humphrey’s killer was never found.

“The Sentence” began as Valdez filmed his nieces in order to create a keepsake for his sister, but the project evolved into a full-fledged documentary that deals with the trickle-down effects of the war on drugs.

The film has recievied high praise, winning the Audience Award for a U.S. documentary at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Valdez and his family will be in attendance at the film festival for its Thursday evening screening at Studio C.

“We share with them their growing up — dealing with an absent mother, dealing with the husband that divorces her, but still raises the kids. It’s just an incredible film,” Woods said.

Other filmmaker and actor appearances, aside from Valdez include Linda Chorney and Robin Russin from “When I Sing,” Quinn Costello from “Rodents of Unusual Size,” and Mark Maxey and Snuffy Walden from “Up to Snuff.” Several of the short-film directors will be available for audiences to meet as well.

The films “Wrestle” and “Time for Ilhan” highlight the struggles of Huntsville, Alabama’s J.O. Johnson High School wrestling team and the Somali-born politician Ilhan Omar. The wrestling team is faced with expectations of failure — thanks to the personal problems of the team members and the underfunding of its school — but still qualify for the state championship. Omar made headlines in 2016 after being elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. She is running for U.S. Congress — her victory would make her the first Muslim woman ever elected.

The festival also has its usual mill of short films, documentaries and student films — the full schedule of which can be viewed at www. elff.com. Woods noted that "Fiddlin'" will be screened Monday, in lieu of a printing error on the schedule.

Despite the streaming revolution shifting how audiences view film and television — ultimately a positive, Woods says — she still believes there’s a special aura to film festivals that can’t be replicated at home.

“Festivals bring films audiences will not find on Hulu, or whatever. And when you go to a film festival, the audience becomes your community,” Woods said. “It is a visceral viewing and that sense of community is engaging.”

Opening Reception with Rudy Valdez Thursday, Nov. 1, 6:15 p.m.

Studio C! 1999 Central Park Dr., Okemos (517) 980-5802 www.elff.com

East Lansing Film Festival

Nov. 1 to Nov. 8 Studio C! 1999 Central Park Dr., Okemos Wells Hall 619 Red Cedar Road, East Lansing Hannah Community Center 819 Abbot Road, East Lansing For a full schedule and tickets visit: www.elff.com


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