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St. Louis International Film Festival returns after a pandemic slowdown

Cinema St. Louis
Director David Kirkman's "Underneath: Children of the Sun" is an Afrofuturist tale about an enslaved person in 1857 Missouri who encounters an alien. It is one of the 256 films showcased in the 31st annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival.

The 31st annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival kicks off Thursday with screenings at the Contemporary Art Museum and the St. Louis Galleria.

The 10-day event features 256 films, spread across nine venues including Plaza Frontenac, longtime home for much of the foreign fare.

This year’s iteration is a slimmed-down affair, after many years of programs that boasted about 400 films. Festival producer Cinema St. Louis saw weak ticket sales for its online-only event in 2020 and its hybrid festival the next year.

“Thankfully we have some savings, and some generous sponsors that just wanted us to do it, no matter what,” Cinema St. Louis Artistic Director Chris Clarke said.

The organization also lost access to the Tivoli Theatre in University City, which had been its principal venue. In 2021, Cinema St. Louis leaders made an arrangement with One Family Church, which bought the building earlier in the year, to screen festival films there.

They were unable to come to a similar agreement this year, Clarke said. That cut down substantially on the number of films the festival could present.

The festival program includes more than 100 feature-length films and 21 programs of short films.

Opening night film “Empire of Light,” directed by Sam Mendes, features actors Olivia Colman, Michael Ward and Colin Firth and is described as a love letter to cinema. Director John Waters’ 1972 classic “Pink Flamingos” closes the festival with a screening at Webster University on Nov. 13.

Films by artists from the St. Louis region include the Afrofuturist “Underneath: Children of the Sun,” the first feature by director David Kirkman. The story centers on an enslaved Black person in 1857 Missouri who encounters an alien from a crashed spaceship. Director Seth Ferranti’s documentary “Night Life” tells the story of the Rev. Kenneth McKoy, who takes his ministry to the streets of north St. Louis at night. Thirty-six poets are included in Dana Christian’s documentary “Poetry in Motion: St. Louis Poets Take the Mic.”

Continuing its hybrid model from last year, the festival offers in-person and online screenings. Feature film streams cost only $5, as do all in-person and virtual screenings of shorts programs.

“Some people just don’t like to go out anymore, and they’ve learned to enjoy the online thing in their home as opposed to going to a theater. And some people are ready to abandon that entirely and grab the popcorn and soda and sit down in an actual theater,” Clarke said. “So we have something for everyone.”

The festival will honor longtime Executive Director Cliff Froehlich with a screening of one of his favorite films, “His Girl Friday,” at Webster University on Nov. 12. Froehlich retired from Cinema St. Louis in June after 19 years with the organization.

Other special events include master classes with industry professionals about the casting process and the ins and outs of investing in new films. There will also be a discussion of “Assumption,” a film shot in St. Louis, with writer/producer Peter Hanrahan, producer Michael Kennedy and director Alfredo De Villa.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the ticket price for short films. It is $5 to attend in person or stream online.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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