Joseph Pulitzer, Akron's Tent City Among Documentaries at Cleveland International Film Festival

Apr 4, 2019

'Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People' starts its run at the film fest tomorrow night, and will air as part of PBS' 'American Masters' series on April 12.
Credit OREN RUDAVSKY

The media plays a role in a number of films at this year's Cleveland International Film Festival. One documentary examines a giant of journalism, while one of the shorts takes a look at an issue that has dominated local news.

“There is only one way to get a Democracy on its feet: and that is by keeping the public informed.”

The words of Joseph Pulitzer – who died in 1911 – are brought to life by actor Liev Schreiber in the film, “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People.” The documentary is the work of filmmaker Oren Rudavsky.

“Journalism and newspapers, in general, have been in a difficult place. And Pulitzer was a great newsman who people know very little about expect for the Pulitzer Prizes.”

Rudavsky – who spent part of his childhood in Beachwood, and later attended Oberlin College -- examines Pulitzer’s life and work in the documentary, which is part of PBS’ “American Masters” series. He says the idea for the film came to his producing partner before the 2016 Presidential election. But since then, it’s taken on added importance.

“Today, with leaders around the country and the world attacking newspapers and journalism, it’s time to recognize how important they are to a Democracy. And that’s why Pulitzer said, quite succinctly, ‘our Republic and its press will rise or fall together.’ And I think the population of people who don’t know what is truth and what is accuracy can’t successfully vote or know how to make decisions.”

Pulitzer said, “a journalist is the lookout on the bridge of the ship of state. He is there to watch over the safety and the welfare of the people who trust him.” Those words in the documentary are echoed by Bruce Winges, recently retired editor of the Akron Beacon Journal. He’s interested in seeing the film when it airs on PBS on April 12. And he was with the paper when it won Pulitzers for covering the attempted takeover of Goodyear in 1986, and then in the 1990s for a year-long series on race.

“At the end of the day, the prizes are really nice. And they’re great to put on a wall. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to be serving your community. And those stories, I think, showed that the Beacon Journal served its community well. I think that’s the legacy of his prizes: they really acknowledged the good work that journalism does.”

A look at Tent City
Some of that work over the past two years has been coverage of Second Chance Village, the tent city for 

Kevin Naughton, director of 'Inside Akron's Tent City,' says he's planning next to work on a documentary about homeless students in the Akron Public Schools.
Credit KABIR BHATIA / WKSU

homeless people in Akron. Part one of “Inside Akron's Tent City” is in the Cleveland International Film Festival. Winges says from what he’s seen, the piece is more documentary than news. Kevin Naughton, director of the short film, agrees.

“We did want to be super unbiased in the beginning. And then, as we went on, we were like, ‘nobody’s standing up for the people here.’ So we said, ‘we see these news stories; they’re doing the unbiased thing. Let’s focus on the people who are there. We just want to hear their stories.’”

Naughton said he has made some experimental films in the past, and didn’t expect to spend a great deal of time at Tent City after finding out about it through social media.

“Two days before we were scheduled to go down there, all these news stories came out: ‘Forced to close down on Thanksgiving.’ We expected to be down there for two or three hours [but] we spent the whole day down there. I got back all this footage, and I was like ‘we have, like, three hours of usable footage. What are we going to do with this?’”

What Naughton decided to do was edit the footage into six short films that he posted online. Part one looks at how the village sprang up on land owned by community activist Sage Lewis.

“I always maintain that the thing I did was just not say ‘no.’ I came out one day, and there were three tents in my back yard. And then I just went inside.”

Other parts – which are available online – delve into Akron City Council’s response to the tents, how residents handled winter weather, and Naughton’s belief that Akron is a microcosm of homelessness in America.

“The way the documentary ends, Sage says, ‘this is just a small chunk of what’s happening,’ and while he’s saying that, we’re overlaying this news footage of Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Cincinnati -- and it’s all the same footage. It’s all the same groups of tents. I mean, this is everywhere.”

Part one of “Inside Akron's Tent City” is showing at the Cleveland International Film Festival tonight only, as part of a program of shorts. Next month, The Nightlight Cinema in Akron is running all six parts. “Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People” premieres tomorrow night at the film fest and runs through the weekend.