Fellow Rust Wire blogger Angie and I had the opportunity to attend a screening of Youngstown: Still Standing last Thursday at the Cleveland International Film Festival. One of my favorite aspects of the CIFF is that it shines the spotlight on local filmmakers who present work on some very interesting topics. Despite initially feeling a little disappointed with the film, Youngstown: Still Standing turned out to be one of my favorite works at this year’s festival. If you’re a regular Rust Wire reader, I recommend it.
I’m going to admit upfront that I was woefully ignorant about Youngstown walking into the theater last Thursday, despite having lived most of my life merely 75 miles away. Angie, on the other hand, lived and worked as a reporter in Youngstown for some time, and thus seemed more well-versed in the character of the city. Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini, in a speech before the film, described the producers’ intent to portray the good, the bad, and the ugly of Youngstown, in order to accurately and fairly tell its story.
In keeping with Boom-Boom’s spirit, I’d like to offer some thoughts on the good, the bad and the ugly of the film itself.
I learned a lot about Youngstown from this film. A lot. While I knew that Youngstown (along with Cleveland and Pittsburgh) had been devastated by the closing of steel mills over the past few decades, I never entirely understood the dynamics of the Youngstown economy. Nor was I at all aware of how rampant organized crime ran in Youngstown, or how deep the political corruption went. While most people educated in politics know a thing or two about Jim Trafficant, I doubt that many realize that he was merely one of many similar players in the dirty game of Youngstown politics.
The producers brought together a solid line-up of interviewees. Ed O’Neill (who you may know as Al Bundy from Married With Children) was frankly hilarious. The diversity of interviewees, from news reporters to academics to everyday citizens who lived through the ups and downs of Youngstown, provided a nice perspective on experiences in the city.
I felt that the film portrayed Youngstown in a fair light. With films about specific cities, I worry about the agenda of the filmmakers. Are they a booster out to convince people that the city is awesome? Are they from a rival city intent on destroying a reputation? Or (and this is occasionally a problem around here) are they a local with a self-depreciating attitude creating their work because misery loves company? I never felt like the film attempted to persuade the audience in any of those directions.
As mentioned, I’m not a local of Youngstown, nor have I spent any time there. The filmmakers made repeated references to the north side, south side, etc. They also referred to events that happened at the intersection of such and such streets. To me, these references were mostly meaningless, as I have no comprehension of the geography of Youngstown. To Angie, however, these references to different neighborhoods and locations were significant, as she seemed more aware of the dynamics of those specific places. This makes me wonder who the producers intended as the target audience for the film? Were they making it for Youngstown locals? Or were they genuinely trying to inform a broader audience about the city?
What I do know about Youngstown is that it is one of a few cities that is embracing its population loss and attempting to shrink the city itself. Unfortunately, this was covered only minimally toward the end of the film. While I understand that this is a recent development, to me it’s an incredibly important piece of the story.
I don’t go to the CIFF expecting million-dollar Hollywood caliber production quality, but Youngstown: Still Standing felt a little too amateurishly produced, even for a festival film. Or perhaps the production was rushed in order to have it finished in time for the CIFF? Whatever the case, there certainly could have been room for improvement.
For instance, the film makers used a very cartoonish font to display most of the on-screen text. I guess it was supposed to look like something that came from a label-maker and was slapped onto the screen. I have a hard time understanding the value of using it over a simpler and more legible font. I also struggled to keep many of the interviewees straight. With so many different people being interviewed on screen, it would have been rather helpful to have their names and significance appear more frequently. Perhaps it sounds nitpicky, but I question if the film was shown to an audience of non-Youngstown folks before the final version was made.