Pittsburgh’s newest film festival is actually a blend of several existing film festivals.
And of course, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the inaugural edition of the Film Pittsburgh Fall Festival is virtual.
The big 12-day online showcase includes 30 independent and foreign-language feature films and 20 shorts programs. All the films are new, and all but a couple are currently unavailable either in theaters or on streaming platforms.
The event serves as the umbrella for festivals including the venerable Three Rivers Film Festival, formerly run by Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. (The group, now known as Pittsburgh Center for Arts and Media, announced the day after its 2019 festival -- amidst layoffs and other big changes -- that it would no longer program film screenings.)
The new event also incorporates three fests produced by nonprofit group Film Pittsburgh, including; ReelAbilities, which highlights the stories of people with disabilities; Pittsburgh Shorts; and, at least for this year, JFilm, the Jewish-themed festival whose spring dates were canceled because of the pandemic.
There’s also an Asian Sidebar, with four feature films spotlighting the Asian experience and programmed in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh’s Screenshot: Asia.
While many festival entries, in particular the shorts, are U.S. productions, there are films from around the world, from Morocco to Israel and Norway, and from Hungary to Mexico and South Africa. Entries include dramas, comedies, documentaries and animated features and shorts. The 20 shorts programs each feature several short films, including comedy, horror and ReelAbilities blocks.
“It’s a wide range and that’s always what we’re looking for, to have a lot of different opportunities for people to connect,” said Film Pittsburgh executive director Kathryn Spitz-Cohan. Her group previously programmed the 2016 Three Rivers Film Festival.
This year's highlights include opening-night film “Freeland,” a thriller by Kate McLean and Mario Furioni about “an aging but legendary breeder of pot strains” (played by Krisha Fairchild) whose Northern California-based business is under threat.
Sam Pollard’s “MLK/FBI” is a documentary about the FBI’s targeting of Martin Luther King, Jr. Philippe Lacôte’s “Night of the Kings” is a fantastical drama set inside a notorious Ivory Coast prison.
Most screenings are ticketed, but the ReelAbilities track includes a free screening of “Code of the Freaks,” a documentary critiquing how disabilities have been depicted in Hollywood films from 1932 to the present.
There are also some local connections. “Freeland” producer Laura Heberton is Pittsburgh-based, and Greensburg, Pa., native Sujata Day wrote, directed and stars in “Definition Please,” a comedic drama about a former spelling-bee champ trying to reconcile with her estranged brother when he returns to help care for their ailing mother. The film was also shot in Greensburg.
Single-screening tickets are $15 each, with bulk discount passes available. Users must register once on the online platform Eventive, said Spitz Cohan.
While many in the virtual audience will miss the in-person festival experience, there’s another advantage to the online version: In-person fests typically screen films only once or twice each, most of these films and programs can be viewed any time during the Fall Festival.