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Smashed Pumpkins and Mountain Climbing Come to The Cleveland International Film Festival

Steve Belkin, Fran Belkin, Chagrin Falls pumpkins
WKSU, r43 Productions
Steve Belkin (left) takes his Mother, Fran, and a tour group on an adventure in 'Tripped Up,' while pumpkins litter Main Street in Chagrin Falls in 'Grove Hill: A True Story.'

Teenagers throwing pumpkins down a hill, and senior citizens climbing up mountains, are the subjects of two documentaries running at the Cleveland International Film Festival this week. Both films also share Northeast Ohio roots and a personal message lurking behind the action on-screen.

“The pumpkin roll used to be all but a military operation. The dead of night, barns and out buildings would be thrown open.”

Kirk Gebler remembers going into those barns and out buildings to steal pumpkins for the annual pumpkin roll down Grove Hill, at the north end of Main Street in downtown Chagrin Falls. It’s a rite-of-passage for high school seniors in the city, and has taken place for nearly 50 years around Halloween. That’s the subject of the new documentary, “Grove Hill: A True Story.”

“Yeah, this is really weird. It’s crazy, but it really brings all these kids together.”

That’s the film’s co-director, Bill Thomas.

“There is such an interesting story line of acceptance and camaraderie and people coming together. And they’re all in something when they’re in school. The jocks are with the jocks. The choir kids are with the choir kids. But when it comes to this one event, everybody is included.”

Thomas got the idea to make the film from long-time resident Molly Gebler. Her brother-in-law, Kirk – the one who described the military operation of pilfering pumpkins – participated in the 1970s. Back then, the event was just rolling large, orange pumpkins down Grove Hill. But as the film shows, it’s gotten more and more elaborate, and more and more dangerous, as teenagers now sled down the hill over smashed pumpkins.

“Everyone has a story about their night. We got pictures, we got memories, we got to see scars. And our film is very well-rounded.”

The event does involve theft of property, and it’s not officially sanctioned by the city, but Gebler says it was easy to get pro-pumpkin-rollers on camera.

“The side that was angry about it on Facebook, the side that feels very comfortable behind the screen, were not so likely to go in front of the camera.”

The tug-of-war between those two sides, and the bonding that happens among the students, form the basis of the film. And that’s what Gebler and Thomas say make it about more than just a crazy senior prank.

Going on a 'competitour'
Another documentary at the Film Festival also shows unusual activities that forge relationships, this one through a crazy challenge.

“This trip is going to have some brain-freeze moments. And a lot of it’s done on purpose.”

That’s University Heights resident Steve Belkin, founder of Competitours. His company organizes tours of Europe that are like something out of the reality TV show, “The Amazing Race.”

“I’m the beautiful mind of frequent flyer miles. So I’ve already figured out 16 different airlines and five different frequent flyer programs. And give me about 34 to 38 seconds and I’ll tell you how to get there.”

That’s how he gets people to their destinations, as outlined in the film, “Tripped Up.” It’s a skill which almost got him into trouble with federal authorities when flying to locations normally known for the drug trade. But Belkin was just trying to rack up miles and, eventually, he used the skill as the basis for Competitours, which he says is not for sight-seeing, but “sight-doing,” with competitions like mountain climbing along a path known as a via ferrata.

“Most of the ‘fear factor’ that we do on this trip is not the physical kind, but it’s mental. Nobody ever dies on a via ferrata, otherwise it won’t be good for my Trip Advisor rating, right? But it would never occur to any of these people who come on this trip that this is something that they think that they could do. Everybody complains of, ‘well, I have a fear of heights.’ Well, nobody really has a fear of heights. You’re in an airplane at 30,000 feet; we’re only at 7,000 feet.”

Production on “Tripped Up” began in 2015. Belkin says the documentary will show audiences how people bond when they’re tested mentally more so than physically.

“There were nine teams. Seven of them – who are scattered all over the country – are coming into Cleveland to watch this film. And not just to see them on the big screen. But because they really all maintained friendship. It’s not easy to do when you get 18 strangers in a room. I’d like to say that this trip creates a much broader and durable sense of friendship.”

“Tripped Up” has its world premiere tonight at 7:20 p.m. at the Cleveland International Film Festival, and runs again tomorrow at 2 p.m. “Grove Hill: A True Story” runs tomorrow night at 9:30 p.m. at the film fest.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.