It’s been a long way back for the Three Rivers Film Festival.
The festival began in 1982 and for years was a fixture of Pittsburgh’s fall arts season. At its peak, the festival, organized by Pittsburgh Filmmakers, screened two full weeks of independent and art-house films and classics from around the world at multiple venues, including its own three theaters.
But in 2015, the fest scaled back to 10 days. One cause was financial difficulties and organizational turmoil at Pittsburgh Filmmakers / Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (the two groups had merged in 2006). Things only got tougher for the group and the festival alike: In 2016, PF/PCA outsourced what was now a five-day festival to the nonprofit Film Pittsburgh. In 2017, the festival lost its long-time sponsor, Dollar Bank, and was canceled entirely. Last year, the fest returned, as part of the Three Rivers Arts Festival, but was limited to a single theater and promoted minimally.
Now, following another major retrenchment by its presenter – rebranded as Pittsburgh Center for Arts & Media (PCAM) -- the festival has returned to something like full strength. Starting Friday, it will screen about 40 films over 16 days, and even host some high-profile special guests.
“This is a great opportunity to see some cutting-edge cinema from around the world,” said Joe Morrison, the group’s cinema programming director and manager of its theaters. The festival is made possible partly by new backers including main sponsor UPMC.
The bulk of the programming remains independent and arthouse films, all new to Pittsburgh. Most will screen at PCAM’s Regent Square Theater, in Edgewood, and Harris Theater, Downtown.
Kantemir Balagov’s “Beanpole,” a World War II drama, is Russia’s Oscar entry. “Another Day of Life,” an official selection at Cannes, combines animation and documentary style to tell the story of conflict journalist Ryszard Kapuściński. “Mickey and the Bear” is Annabelle Attanasio’s debut feature, about a Montana teenager’s troubled relationship with her father.
Other notable films include “What You Gonna do When the World’s on Fire?,” Roberto Minervini’s documentary portrait of African Americans struggling against racism in New Orleans. And James Westby offers “At the Video Store,” a documentary that lovingly recalls the heyday of the neighborhood video shop with interviews featuring the likes of filmmakers John Waters, Nicole Holofcener, and Gus Van Sant, and actor Bill Hader.
The festival also includes slates of films from Poland, chosen by the Polish Cultural Council, and from Japan, China and South Korea, selected by the University of Pittsburgh’s Asian Studies Center.
Restored classics at the festival include “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” the fabled 1944 documentary for which legendary director William Wyler ("Ben Hur") flew a European mission with a B-17 bomber. The film, shot in color, will screen opening night at the Rangos Giant Cinema, at Carnegie Science Center, with special guest Catherine Wyler, the filmmaker’s daughter.
Another reissued gem is “Say Amen, Somebody,” George Nierenberg’s 1982 look at gospel music featuring interviews with such pioneers of the genre as vocalist Willie Mae Ford Smith and composer and arranger Thomas A. Dorsey.
Other special events include an opening-night visit from cult-favorite filmmaker Guy Maddin (“My Winnipeg”) for the Pittsburgh premiere of “The Green Fog,” his experimental take on Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” built entirely from footage appropriated from old movies and TV shows set in San Francisco.
On Nov. 14 comes a screening of “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of Movie Palaces” with director April Wright. The film celebrates the era – the 1910s through the ’30s – when the grandest theaters being built in the U.S. were for filmgoers. (Pittsburgh’s own Benedum Center began life in 1928 as the Stanley Theatre, and Heinz Hall was originally the Loews Penn Theatre.)
Two festival programs are locally themed. On Nov. 19, Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Kenneth Love premieres "Jewish Memories of Pittsburgh's Hill District," a documentary about life in that neighborhood from the late 19th to mid-20th centuries. And “Out of the Archives: Pittsburgh Revealed” is a Nov. 21 program of short, mostly noncommercial films shot in the Pittsburgh region from the ’20s through the ’80s, documenting such events as 1947’s May Day festivities at Chatham University and the 1983 Memorial Day Gay Picnic.
The festival closes Nov. 23 with two appearances by a frequent Three Rivers Film Festival guest: the Cambridge, Mass.-based Alloy Orchestra, a music troupe that specializes in live, contemporary-sounding soundtracks for silent films. A family-friendly matinee of Douglas Fairbanks’ action flick “The Black Pirate” is followed by a rare screening of “Gallery of Monsters,” a 1924 drama from France set in a traveling circus. “It presents itself as a great surrealistic visual medium for the filmmakers to work with and for the Alloy to present a score with,” said Morrison.
The festival was curated by PCAM staff and volunteer programmers.
PCAM is pitching the reinvigorated festival as a social occasion as well as a cinematic one. “The festival is a great opportunity to rub shoulders with those other film-lovers here in Pittsburgh,” said Morrison.
Tickets for individual screenings are $10, with discount “six-pack” passes available for $50.