The Queens World Film Festival proves that through tragedy comes triumph as what sprouted from a PR nightmare has now blossomed into one of the highest-regarded international film festivals in the borough.
Originally, the QWFF was called the Queens International Film Festival and in 2010, founder Marie Castaldo was convicted of scamming vendors, volunteers and venues as well as animal cruelty.
Katha Cato and husband Don were working as volunteers for Castaldo and recall how bad the experience was.
“It just blew up in everyone’s face in terms of financing,” Cato said. “She had completely disappeared and Don and I had to close out the festival. It was pretty bad.”
Rather than call it a day, they founded a new festival that they hoped would bring pride in film back to the borough.
“We felt the borough deserved a new one,” Cato said. “So we spoke with Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), who was just so supportive from the very beginning.”
The last year of the festival, which also featured films made by students, held a special screening and donated the funds raised to the ASPCA to help pay to care for the animals Castaldo had neglected.
Since then, the Queens World Film Festival has taken over, is entering its fourth year and is gaining momentum.
“We had 330 submissions from all over the world,” Cato said. “There were films coming from places that have government sanctions against filmmakers, which shows that these people were willing to sacrifice so much just to have their film shown here in Queens.”
But the festival isn’t only about honoring international films as the name suggests. About a dozen of the selected films are made by Queens residents.
Holding the festival in the city’s largest borough is important to Cato and her husband, who want to make Queens the go-to spot for film.
“We want the world to come to Queens,” she said. “There are two airports in this borough so if you’re going to see a screening in Manhattan, you have to land in my backyard. Why not see a quality film here in the birthplace of the industry?”
Long before Hollywood became what it is today, Queens — specifically Kaufman Studios — was the place for filmmaking.
The Queens World Film Festival does have standards when choosing which films to screen.
“We choose films that take a stand,” Cato said. “It has to take a stand and everything in the film has to relate to that stance.”
One such film is the highly anticipated documentary “The Act of Killing,” about death squads in Indonesia, which is expected to receive an Academy Award nomination.
“We will be screening the never-before-seen director’s cut,” Cato said. “We have things here that you can’t see anywhere else, which is a huge draw.”
Films will be shown in thematic blocks including a women’s block, a block all about New York and an LGBTQ block.
“The event is really equal parts industry event, community celebration and cultural celebration,” Cato explained. “If you make a movie in Iran, for example, and you can’t show it in your country, you can show them in my borough.”
Dozens of films will be shown during the festival at PS 69 and The Renaissance Charter in Jackson Heights, the Secret Theatre and Nesva Hotel in Long Island City, the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria.
Films will be shown throughout January and February for little to no cost, leading up to the main festival event on March 4.
“I eventually want March to be a month of film screenings where all of the borough’s hotels are booked and people are lining up to come to Queens, not to go to Manhattan,”Cato said. “We have everything here: great food, shopping and amazing filmmakers.”