the calender says that spring begins in March. Most New Yorkers know this not to be true. Recalling early-April blizzards and mid-May heat waves, most are aware that spring is usually a brief weekend which takes place sometime around Cinco de Mayo. The era of Climate Change has only further confused our already erratic seasons. Coming off the second warmest February ever documented, there is a feel throughout New York that spring is already here. So on this Leap Day it's fitting to tell a quintessential March-like story of rebirth.
The resurrection belongs to the Queens World Film Festival, better known simply as Q. (Q2 this year as it celebrates its second year of screenings.) But before talking about the area's newest festival, a mention or two, or eight, must be made of its predecessor, the Queens International Film Festival. Covered here in 2009 and again in 2010, QiFF was the definition of scam film fests. Led by convicted felon, Marie Castaldo, QiFF left behind a trail of corruption, broken promises and bounced checks. Castaldo herself, jailed and deported over a year ago, left behind a record of several scam festivals, a scam feature film, a scam acting school, and sadly, an unrelated story involving an entire kettle of abused dogs. Bizarrely, it was the animal abuse which finally led to her deportation.
Enter Don and Katha Cato. Over Castaldo's ashes, the husband and wife team rebuilt. For Don, an award winning filmmaker and Katha, an accomplished theatrical actress, rebuilding is nothing new. From Oregon they arrived to New York separately in the mid 1980s. Each found a city in decay. Their first act together was building a community garden over a lot filled with diapers, needles, vials, and random junk. The creation of the garden seemed like a natural move for Don who majored in Landscape Arts before turning to film. From that garden, to Katha's work at Henry Street Settlement, one of the country's largest social service agencies, they did their part as the city itself entered a much needed Renaissance.
Perhaps no neighborhood has been transformed like Jackson Heights, where the couple spent the past 23 years together. Gone are the prostitutes lining Roosevelt Avenue, shootouts between rival Columbian drug gangs, and gay bashing by wannabe skinheads from nearby Northern Boulevard. Thankfully the violence is gone, but just as thankfully, the energy remains. Mom & Pop shops which survived the worst of times are now thriving and have not been usurped by Williamsbug-type bars, lounges and tea houses. Instead, Jackson Heights maintains its ethnic flavor as other nearby neighborhoods drown in gentrification. Obligatory vegan eateries aside, 37th Avenue is still home to some of the best Hispanic, Central Asian and Far East restaurants New York has to offer. Authentic restaurants, quite unlike the tourist traps and fusion hotspots Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn are famous for. Manhattan may have the money, Brooklyn may have the name, but Queens, even without the trendiness, is the city's true melting pot. On paper these same conceptions held true when talking about film festivals. Festivals like New York and Tribeca boast big monied sponsors. Others like Brooklyn International and Coney Island offer a level of unmatched coolness. But thanks to some international connections, Marie Castaldo was able to bring a more authentic melting pot type flair to her screenings. One thing about Castaldo, she knew flair.
The Catos first crossed paths with the shyster in 2006. Their movie, Be My Oswald, (written and directed and by Don but starring Katha) was still looking for a premier on the festival circuit when landing a spot at QiFF. That premier took place at the Adam Zucker screening room inside the Kaufman Astoria Studios, original home of Paramount. In the very room where Paramount producers watched dailies by the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Oswald played to a packed house. Better still, the black comedy surprisingly won the festival's best drama award. That win opened doors to many other fests (where Oswald was submitted as a drama) and the couple felt grateful to QiFF for getting the ball rolling. The following year the Catos reached out to Marie, not knowing of her dubious past. The Catos offered their services to help start a youth initiative to bring filmmakers together with kids who might one day become filmmakers themselves. The first of these programs took place at the Our World Neighborhood Charter School. The K-to-8 school was connected to Katha Cato through her work at Henry Street and coincidentally stood just a block away from the Kaufman Studios. The addition of the youth initiative assisted in making QiFF a bigger player on the local festival circuit. By 2007 Castaldo even gained a small mention in the New York Times. What happened afterwards has been well documented on the web, in print, even Arnold Diaz' "Hall of Shame" segment on FOX-5 News.
But the festival's true end was never covered. That happened in 2010 at the same screening room where the Catos first met Marie Castaldo. Back inside the Kaufman Studios, the couple finally got to screen their 2009 block of youth films. Ones put together by the Our World Neighborhood Charter School for QiFF but never screened by Castaldo who was on the run from a slew of different people she had owed money to. What happened after finally putting Castaldo's festival to rest also went uncovered.
Despite losing over $5,000 in spotting Castaldo to help pay off a venue as well as some advertising in 2009, the Catos didn't want to abandon the work they had been doing. They still wanted to inspire a new generation of filmmakers. Of course this would be difficult without a connection to today's filmmakers. So the Catos again dug into their own pockets and tried creating their own showcase event. Picking up the pieces would not be easy. Post-QiFF investors as well as venues became hard to come by. As did potential filmmakers, all still wary of the Queens name. The Catos knew they'd have to start small. It would take several years just to get at the level of popularity Castaldo reached before her house of cards collapsed. Even starting something small proved difficult. Meetings with other former Castaldo volunteers and staffers went no where. Talks about a new festival turned into talks about having talks on a new festival. As the retreads planned parties (or talked about planning parties) the Catos tried focussing on baby steps. Over time the big talking retreads lost interest and slowly phased themselves out of Queens World.
By the time Q was actually born (last March at the Jackson Heights Triplex Theater) the Catos had surrounded themselves with a virtually new team. Through personal friends, internet ads and chance encounters, the Catos found a group of young volunteers (Katha calls them associates) to do the work other former QiFF members had only talked about. As the amount of associates grew and as the amount of film submissions grew, the Catos were allowed to take the next step. Aside from the old-school community theater, Q2 also finds itself expanding into Astoria. More specifically, it comes to the Museum of the Moving Image, ironically, one of QiFF's many former homes. Ask Katha Cato "Why Astoria? And why the Museum of the Moving Image?" and she laughs "There's something about that block." Of course she means a small section of 35th Avenue. A strip that's home to the museum, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (where QiFF infamously imploded), the Kaufman Studios, and even the Our World Neighborhood Charter School.
Up to 190 submissions this year, still less than half of what QiFF received before the Castaldo collapse, the Catos are still taking the slow lane. Not that the slow lane is clear of any struggles. Putting together a film festival, well an honest one at least, requires watching every submitted film. It requires an active website, constant communication with accepted filmmakers and endless paper work. From movie passes and invites, to insurance forms, to press kits, to movie coverage, to contracts with venues, to sponsors, the Catos have all of their bases covered. By doing the legwork, by building a loyal group of associates, by doing everything on their dime, and by treating filmmakers fairly (submission fees are only $25, half of what Castaldo charged), the Catos have positioned themselves to build something which Maire Castaldo never could. A film festival worthy of its location.
Between the multiethnic streets and rich film history, Queens deserves the type of fests that are almost common in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Thanks to the Catos and their many associates, one of whom is named Keara Castaldo (no relation!), Queens might finally have one. Q2 kicks off at the Museum of the Moving Image this Thursday, March 1st.
Part 2 will offer post fest coverage and a full sitdown interview with Don and Katha Cato*