The Cleveland International Film Festival will visit Akron Thursday for a full day of films to be shown in the Akron Art Museum’s Charles and Jane Lehner Auditorium and in the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s Main Auditorium.
The event will feature the akronlife-sponsored film, “The Cooler Bandits,” directed by John Lucas. This documentary is about four friends from Akron in four stages of incarceration, struggling to reenter society and confront their future in the old neighborhood
Lucas took a few moments to be interviewed by our movie expert Aaron Fowler.
What inspired you to make the film?
JL: The men in the film. I watched them grow up in prison. I watched them confront realities that most of us only consider theoretically. And I admired how they did all this with strength, dignity and perseverance.
Tell me about the first time you heard about the "cooler bandits."
JL: I knew three of the men before the robberies so I heard about their arrests immediately after they happened. I had heard about the robberies through the news broadcasts and newspaper articles.
What was the most inspirational thing you learned from making this film?
JL: That folks will respond honestly if you make an honest film.
What drives you as a filmmaker?
JL: The desire to try to make sense of the world and my place in it.
How has making “The Cooler Bandits” affected you?
JL: Filmmaking is a brutal process. I have worked on film shorts and other multimedia projects but this is my first feature-length film. There are no rules, and it's kind of like the Wild West when it comes to distribution and audience engagement. Film scoring and clearing music tracks have been the most difficult part of the process. That's my feeling from a director's viewpoint.
On a personal level, and since the story and the guys are very close to me, it's been incredibly intense to witness the first moments of freedom for a friend as he steps away from behind prison walls after 20 years of incarceration — and at the same time try to focus through the tears on
capturing this moment and others like it on camera.
Now in 2014, is there something you wish you could have done with the film that you may not have known or thought about back when it was shot?
JL: We just finished filming in late summer 2013 and then went right into postproduction so I haven't really had a chance to reflect on the process. I haven't had that kind of distance necessary to answer that question clearly. I would say that there are some technical things I have learned along the way (we started filming in 2007) that with experience I would have filmed, lit or recorded differently.
What do you love most about filmmaking?
JL: Having the control of telling the story you want to tell. On this level of filmmaking, where I had pretty much complete control over the entire process, I didn't have any pressure from funders to include or exclude anything from the final edit. I was fortunate to work with a incredibly talented editor, Jason Pollard, and an equally talented composer, Kathryn Bostic, who were right there with me in what I wanted to do creatively.
What kind of distribution can we expect from the film, just in case we miss it at CIFF?
JL: We hope to start an educational and incarceration tour beginning in the fall. There is great deal of interest among advocates working around issues of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention who want to use the film as a resource. Hopefully we can get funding to bring the guys from the film along on the tour.
We have an opportunity to screen the film for HBO and PBS. Securing a broadcast deal would be great because it's really the best venue for exposing it to a larger audience. We don't anticipate a theatrical release. Documentaries rarely get any significant theatrical releases so resources are
better spent elsewhere.
How has your hometown of Cuyahoga Falls influenced both the film and your professional career?
JL: Growing up in Cuyahoga Falls in the late ‘60s to late ‘80s was a difficult time. In one sense, it was an easy place. I had a stable, simple childhood but the town, at that time, was affectionately known (by some) as "Caucasian Falls."
It WAS an accurate label from my experience. There were many situations in which I felt uncomfortable My parents both taught in the Akron Public Schools. My father was a music teacher, and we spent a lot of time hanging out with his students at Buchtel High School.
We moved to Cuyahoga Falls from Canton when I was 8. When I was older, my mother told me how she struggled with the decision to sign the lease for the house they rented because, in the lease, there was a stipulation that the renters had to be "Caucasian only."
In sixth grade, I got into an argument with my teacher when we were learning about the Civil War in history class. She mentioned that the KKK was an organization formed to protect white farmers’ crops from black people who tried to steal them. I remember getting a history test back with a 100-percent A+ score and next to it written in red, "but if I could only convince you about the KKK!"
In my 10th grade high school art class (a place I took refuge to express myself artistically,) I created a ceramic sculpture of a clenched black fist (black power symbol) and a white fist grasping it, trying to pull it down. I was given an award by my art teacher, which meant it would be displayed in the glass case in the main hallway. He said although it deserved to be there, he couldn't display it because it was too controversial.
My senior year, 1980, was the first year that African-American students enrolled at Cuyahoga Falls High School. One student left after three days, and the other around three weeks later from being continually harassed.
As I grew older, it became a more frustrating place for me to live. I never felt comfortable around that kind of ignorance and visceral hatred.
Anything else you would like to add?
JL: I hope folks come out to see the film. Although a good deal of it takes place in and around a prison environment, it really isn't a prison film. It doesn't preach and isn't meant to polarize. In a nutshell, it's a story about friendship, possibility and redemption.
// For a schedule of films and ticket prices, go to www.clevelandfilm.org or call 216-623-3456. Use akronlife magazine's promo code AKRLFE to receive $2 off your ticket.