Queens World Film Festival (Queens World) is a multi-genre film festival dedicated to both short and long films. Created by husband and wife team Don and Katha Cato, the festival aims to introduce diverse audiences to indie films by utilizing both traditional and alternative screening locations and venues to screen independent cinema. Queens World also implements educational programs for children and senior citizens and industry events that provide training and networking opportunities for filmmakers at every stage of their career.
A filmmaker himself, Don Cato’s works have been widely screened in festivals all over the world. Don now teaches film making at the Digital Film Academy in NYC and runs Queens World with his wife, Katha, who has a strong theater background, especially in the field of comedy. A skilled improv performer turned director, Katha has worked extensively in the field of education and has developed a range of programs in theatre arts, film and video.
Recently both Don and Katha agreed to an exclusive interview where they discussed their careers, the film festival, and plans for the future.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you decide to enter the entertainment industry and why did the theater world initially appeal to you?
Katha: I came from a small town in the southern California desert and from my earliest memories, I just wanted to create. My family’s business was livestock and agriculture related. My Father ran a feed yard and my mother trained horses and was very active in the local horse scene. Even though I had absolutely no interest in riding horses, I did realize that showing horses and competing involved showmanship…and I LOVED THAT PART OF IT. It was never a secret to anyone that as soon as I graduated from High School, I was going to pursue a life in the theatre. When I began working with Don, I was able to transition into the world of the moving image. Even though we are producing a film festival, my responsibilities are about putting on the actual show, so in a very real sense I am still in the world of theatre
Don: My background is agriculture also. I am from upstate NY where my family ran a small specialty fruit farm. I have three degrees in landscape architecture and practiced for about ten years. When I transitioned into film making, I found that many skills carried over and I have always been conscious of how landscape affects story. In my own work of over 125 films of all lengths and genres including experimental and narrative features, I have been able to explore themes that are of interest to me and I appreciate the work it takes to get a film ready to be screened. In my current position, I screen literally hundreds of films every year and feel confident that our curation represents works that must be seen.
MM: What are the major differences between working in theater and movies?
Don: With film you have a permanence. Generations from now that film will still tell the story, in its original form, the way the filmmaker wanted to tell it. However, each new production of a theatrical play will represent the contributions of the current cast and production crew. Each new production will be fresh and new and alive.
Katha: Both are collaborative art forms; both require the viewer to suspend their disbelief however the theatre engages the audience in the moment with the artists. From the back of the theatre to the back of the stage, everyone in that space is part of what is happening. Films bring us together as well, and I find those moments when the entire audience reacts to the film, in unison with a gasp or a laugh to be incredible. I love the time before the film and I love the talkbacks after the film when everyone is gathering, talking, arguing…I love the coming together, how the films bring so many people together.
MM: How did you meet and what prompted you both to start Queens World Film Festival and why did you pick Queens?
Katha: We met in Eugene Oregon where I was in graduate school and Don was making his first feature. His casting agent knew me and brought us together. It turns out that we had met months before. I remembered him and he remembered me and had created a role that he thought would be perfect for me in a project he was working on. Even though I was moving to NYC in a few days, we met to talk about the project. We agreed that I would return to work on the project once he had all funding in place. Two years later I returned to the North West to work on his film. We became best friends on set, however I returned to NYC after the filming. When he later came to NYC, we became close again and eventually fell in love and got married. I feel that he probably saved my life multiple times and here we are thirty years later!
Don: She caught my attention early on and has kept it for three decades. We have had successes and disappointments; we have shared time with my children who she step-mothered with complete commitment and love. We got the kids through college and we fought her cancer multiple times together. She supports my work, demands my best, makes me laugh and can really irritate me and she is my best friend.
Katha: When Don moved to NYC, he landed in Queens and eventually helped find an apartment for my parents in this building. Then we moved into the building as well and when the girls came to live with us, we put down some serious roots in Queens. The Borough has embraced us, the girls were supported by the staff at IS 145, John Bowne High School and Bryant High School. We get our fresh produce, fish and beef from the Sunday Market, go to incredible film events at MoMI, work with wonderful interns from LaGuardia Community College, Queens College and we run programs in elementary and middle schools with our partners at PS 69Q, Commonpoint Queens and Queens Community House. We enjoy strong partnerships with the Queens Economic Development Corporation and the Queens Council on the Arts. Queens is home.
MM: How did you decide on the categories to award and the genres?
Don: Many of the categories we have are standard at festivals – Best Feature, Best Director, etc. However, every year there are films or filmmakers who don’t fit neatly into those categories, yet deserve recognition and we create special Jury Prize. Every year we have outstanding films that don’t fit in specific genres, they may challenge traditional storytelling forms. I am particularly drawn to films that tackle difficult subjects and follow through on where the story takes us, films that don’t back down, films that don’t contrive what I call an ‘un-earned ending or conclusion’, in other words films that slap on a happy ending so that they don’t offend. I am frankly offended when an artist panders and I hate bloopers. I want to present films that are honest, that have spent their creative currency boldly.
MM: How do you find the films to screen and how many are featured annually?
Katha: Within the festival circuit there are several submission platforms, the most notable and industry standard is FilmFreeway. Over 75,000 filmmakers worldwide have some kind of project registered on that site. About 8,000 festivals are registered on FilmFreeway as well. When our submission season opens, all of those filmmakers receive notice from FilmFreeway and they have the option of submitting. We post notices on multiple social networks and do direct emails to our mailing list, to our alumni and past attendees with codes to discount the submission fees. We reach out to industry groups, unions, Consulates, universities and film-schools with codes. We throw a very wide net. Annually, our submission numbers have grown and the number of films that we screen has fluctuated. The first year we screened around 100 films and in March 2019, we screened 200 films from 31 nations, 18 from Queens, 79 by women and 11 by children under the age of 11. Right now, we are over 600 submissions with about a month to go. We could hit 700.
MM: Is there a red-carpet event associated with the opening and how many venues are the films shown in?
Kaha: On opening night we have wine, red carpet and outstanding films. We roll out the red carpet for a few other selected events. We are in two venues with three screens for 11 days with over 100 hours of incredible indie work that both reflect and shape our world.
MM: Which films have made the biggest impact on you and why?
Don: It is different for both of us. I watch all of the films and Katha corresponds with the filmmakers much more than I do. So, for me, these are the films that have stayed with me:
Quiet Storm, the Ron Artest Story: https://www.queensworldfilmfestival.com/films/detail.asp?fid=1163
Oblivian Season https://www.queensworldfilmfestival.com/films/detail.asp?fid=612,
While all five features are unique both in structure and content, they all deal with humans that have overcome incredible circumstances and while they may be deeply flawed, there are reasons to root for them. These five films are personal, powerful and unflinching.
Katha: For me, the stories of the filmmakers themselves have stayed with me. I have communicated with filmmakers from Tehran, Vietnam, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Cuba and across the USA and really, I love them all. I have worked with them to overcome major obstacles to screening their work, I have worked with them to make their festival experience a positive one and I have held a few hands over the years. I love them all.
MM: How do you hope the Queens World Film Festival evolves and expands in the future?
Katha: We are very interested in sustainability and in remaining relevant. We are quite interested in our education programs and would like to expand those. There is no doubt that the sponsorship landscape is changing and we have a few ideas about the future that I am excited to try. I enjoy pushing the boundaries and would like to see the festival take on a few initiatives around new media.
Don: I would like to be able to travel to festivals around the world, and I would like to have programmers and festival directors from those festivals be able to attend our festival, sit on panels, etc.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to talk about?
Don: Queens World is a local event that has an international profile. We work year-round on programming, Encore Screenings, youth programs, submissions and creating strategic partnerships. We are always open to individuals who are interested in getting involved. We have positions open on the Board, we have new projects all the time and we would love to hear from you.
Katha: We will see you in Queens!
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To learn more, visit the official website of the Queens World Film Festival.