Southside Film Festival: A Local Festival with an International Feel

Walking into the auditorium of the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts (Charter Arts) last Wednesday, I was immediately stunned. With the projector set up by the Southside Film Institute, there was little to differentiate the assembly hall in the center of South Bethlehem from an AMC theater. My arrival cut dangerously close to the start of the show, so the theatre was already packed with about fifty attendees when I arrived. Shortly after getting comfortable, Afghan Cycles, an inspiring documentary that would soon tug at my heartstrings, began. 

 Afghan Cycles is one of many films offered at the 16th annual Southside Film Festival. This year’s Film Fest took place from June 11th through June 15th. Southside Film Institute, a non-profit organization, runs this event each year. The Institute strives to foster an international film culture in South Bethlehem, and Film Fest is one part of that endeavor.

The event brochure tells attendees that, over the course of those five days, 78 films were screened, a small fraction of the whopping 1400+ films from 47 states and 101 countries that have been shown over the last 16 years. The films had a wide variety of structures and topics, ranging from animated science fiction movies to documentaries on human rights. Featured films were selected by a small jury out of a pool of about 250. Films varied in length from a couple minutes to a couple hours. 

After attending Afghan Cycles and another phenomenal film entitled Light in the Water, I had the pleasure of speaking with Glenn Koehler, who is serving as Director of the Southside Film Festival for the fifth year now. While discussing the selection process, Koehler stressed the importance of telling a story, because, without one, a film is an “empty vessel.” He said that this year’s Film Fest was documentary-heavy, but that there is no quota for number of films per category. Rather, the festival accepts all kinds of stories as long as they’re “interesting enough to ask a friend to go and see.” The movies shown at Film Fest are unique in that most screen only at festivals, and many may never be publicized beyond these events. So, in a large portion of cases, the Southside Film Festival provides guests an exclusive, once-in-a-lifetime chance to see certain films. 

Film Fest was started in 2002 by a mix of business owners, film buffs, and people interested in bringing a celebration of independently-produced films to South Bethlehem. Sixteen years later, organizers try to keep the same feel, screening at different venues throughout South Bethlehem to encourage attendees to support local businesses.  Movies were screened at venues such as the National Museum of Industrial History, Touchstone Theatre, and Charter Arts. The goal is for movie-goers to not only watch the films, but also to interact with the South Bethlehem community. The mix of venues helps Festival to showcase different parts of town, and many local businesses offer discounts to Film Fest pass holders. According to Koehler, the festival helps foster a sense of community and Southside pride. 

Film Fest aims to highlight both local films and those from all over the world. “We’re a small town festival with an international kind of feel. We’re very community oriented, but we show movies from all over the world, about anything from how to make kaleidoscopes, to global human rights issues. This all reflects back on the community, how diverse it is, and how interesting the makeup of South Bethlehem is,” Koehler says. Perhaps the most fascinating example of international and local filmmakers coming together was Bethlehem resident Christopher Bowen’s 2015 film Arctic Alchemy. Bowen aimed to recreate a 19th century beer called Allsopp’s Arctic Ale, which was first commissioned by Queen Victoria to supply an 1852 Arctic expedition. Fascinated by the beer’s journey, Bowen got the wild idea to brew his own version of the ale at the edge of the Arctic Circle, where he would travel by motorcycle. Bowen met Russian filmmakers Irina Shatalova and Nastia Tarasova through Film Fest founder Graham Stanford. The filmmaking pair ended up capturing the journey and turning it into a documentary. Shortly after returning to Bethlehem, Bowen collaborated with local Fegley’s Brew Works to develop a commercial beer with the same name as his film. After hearing what is certainly the most fascinating story I’ve been told about a beer, I may have no choice but to stop by Brew Works for a celebratory Arctic Alchemy.  

This year, filmmakers came from as far away as Tulum, Mexico. Despite the festival’s international appeal, the significant number of local filmmakers was noteworthy. One of the most well-attended films of the festival, Epiphany, was co-directed and written by Koula Sossiadis Kazista, who attended Lehigh and still lives close to the area. Another popular film, Gigi, was filmed in Allentown. Inside Out was directed by Lafayette professor Nandini Sikand, while both Wine in Moderation and My Florida Home, were directed by DeSales alumni. 

The Southside Film Festival has previously featured many films that would later go on to be nominated for Oscars and other prestigious awards. Last year, the festival’s CGI animated short film Game Changer received an Oscar nomination. Koehler said he would be surprised if this year’s Gay Chorus Deep South didn’t win any awards. 

The Southside Film Festival brings prestigious films from all over the world right to the heart of South Bethlehem. In this way, the annual event helps to bring the world to Bethlehem, and to show the world the remarkable culture that South Bethlehem has to offer.

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