A chat with Cinetopia's Elliot Wilhelm 

'We're here for the movie lovers'

Elliot Wilhelm watches something like 15 films a week. It's part of his job at the Detroit Film Theatre, where he's the curator of film and video. While he's watching, he isn't just thinking about which films make sense to screen at the DFT, he's also keeping in mind which will work for Cinetopia.

Now in its fourth year, Cinetopia is a film festival that screens around 70 films over 10 days in Detroit and Ann Arbor. In addition to showcasing new, international movies, this year the festival will also hold an Orson Welles symposium, free outdoor screenings, roundtables, chats with directors and actors, and even a Michael Jackson singalong and dance party. We chatted with Wilhelm about all the festival has to offer and more.

Metro Times: What are some new things that are happening at Cinetopia this year?

Elliot Wilhelm: One of the things that we've done to really concentrate a little bit more on each city's experience and to make our resources work a little harder for us is to actually have the festival take place in Detroit and Ann Arbor, and of course other cities too, but not necessarily simultaneously. In other words, the Detroit portion of the festival will be the opening portion of the festival on June 5, and it will be followed by the Ann Arbor portion, which will open on June 11.

MT: In your own words, what is the festival about?

Wilhelm: It's about bringing an international film festival experience to the Detroit and Ann Arbor areas, southeast Michigan. What Cinetopia is at heart, technically, is films that we think are extraordinary discoveries that have been discovered at festivals around the world and bringing the cream of those festivals — so the most important discoveries at those festivals — right here to Detroit for people to discover in their own festival.

MT: How should people decide what to see at Cinetopia?

Wilhelm: One of the things that I recommend, that I do when I'm in Toronto, for example, is to go to whatever films happen to be playing near a particular time that's convenient for me. Not necessarily knowing anything about them — walking in, sitting down and seeing them, and trusting the programmers of the festival because it's not simply dark things coming out of the wall, but films that have been curated, experiences that we think are worthwhile. It's that sense of discovery that is the principal gift that we are trying to give filmgoers, not just a concentrated and early way to see films that may be playing in theaters later on because they've gotten earlier critical acclaim, but to discover unheralded films from countries that they may not be used to seeing films from. You'd be surprised what you find fascinating.

MT: The festival is about more than just seeing movies, right?

Wilhelm: Part of the film festival experience that's also so great is that many of the films — and we're making a real effort to make sure this gets bigger every year — many of the films, in fact most of the films, will have something extra other than just the film itself. This will be a completely interactive experience. There'll be people there who will have worked on a film, directed a film, acted in a film, as well as people who might be experts on a particular subject that a film deals with who will be there to discuss it with the audience and make the experience one that's more than simply viewing a movie in isolation.

MT: How do you decide which films to screen and which to pass up?

Wilhelm: The ratio of things that we take to things that we don't take is very high. I must look at something like 15-plus movies for every film that we say that we want. So, there are a lot of great films out there, but there are also a lot of not-great films out there. And we take very seriously our responsibility in deciding which ones are worth the time of the audiences that come both to the DFT and to Cinetopia. And that's not necessarily a guarantee that you will absolutely love and fall head over heels in love with every movie you see. If that were the case, we'd probably be doing something really wrong because it's not about crowd pleasing. It's about finding what we think is the most significant, important, and exciting new work around.

Cinetopia runs June 5-14; showtimes and ticket prices vary; check cinetopiafestival.org for more info.


Alysa Offman is associate editor of the Detroit Metro Times.

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