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Akron Hosts Films On The Racers and Twinsburg Heights From Cleveland International Film Fest

The Cleveland International Film Festival comes to Akron today, premiering a film about the passion behind one of the city’s professional sports franchises, and showing a documentary made mostly by Twinsburg High School students. 

Danielle Miller and Geoff Yaw discuss the responses to 'Burn the Ships' and 'A More Civil War'

“Our No. 1 draftee this year will be paid 350 times less than the No. 1 pick in Major League Baseball’s bonus (draft)," says Cheri Kempf, commissioner of the National Pro Fastpitch League, which is made up of five women’s professional softball teams.

The oldest of those teams is The Akron Racers, subject of the documentary “Burn the Ships.”  The film has its world premiere tonight at the Akron-Summit County Public Library’s main branch as part of the 41st Cleveland International Film Festival.

Why don't we know them?
Julia Thorndike, co-director of “Burn the Ships,” says the idea for the movie came out of a simple question:

“’Why don’t we know who these people are?’  And that’s really what appealed to us: there are these amazing athletes right next door; why don’t we know who they are?”

'She just wants to keep pushing and do everything that she can to open those doors for them.'

Who they are becomes apparent through the lens of their 2015 season, and one of the stars of the film is the team’s founder and GM, Joey Arrieta.

“You put your heart on this diamond every night. That’s what we do in Akron, because we play for a different reason!”

Thorndike says Arrieta has "played all her life [and] she loves it. And I think she wants to create a future for the sport and for young girls to have somewhere to go after their college career in softball; hey, there’s a professional career after that.”

Danielle Miller, who directed with Thorndike, says “Burn the Ships” will show Arrieta’s – and the league's – struggles.

“It’s really easy to say, 'Professional softball isn’t thriving because people don’t care.’ But that’s just not the truth; people do care. The Women’s College World Series breaks records every year on ESPN. People want to watch. And she just wants to keep pushing and do everything that she can to open those doors for them so that, in the future, that struggle isn’t there.”

'To them, she is like LeBron [James]'

That struggle – for fans, for dollars and, of course, for another championship – comes through in the film, as do moments that could easily have been missed.

“There’s this big hill that overlooks the stadium. And I was driving by and I thought, ‘I have to get this shot just for one second.’ So I stopped off, got out of the car [and] I’m rolling for maybe 10 seconds. I said out loud -- you can hear it on-camera – ‘Just hit a home run.’ The next swing, she knocks it over the fence. And also, I had to mute it in the cut, but you can hear me saying, ‘Are you kidding me?’ It was magic.”

The LeBron of Akron softball
Julia Thorndike says the player who hit that homer, Kelly Montalvo, is one of the other stars of the documentary.

“When we go there and there’s a fifth-grader team that you see and Kelly Montalvo – who’s the third baseman – they’re wearing her shirts! You’re like, ‘Wow. To them, she is like LeBron [James].  Seeing their smiles and their excitement when they’re getting their autographs at the end of each game, it’s like that’s why this is so important. To have that character of Kelly and being able to say, ‘I want to be her one day.  And I might have a chance to be.’”

“Burn the Ships” will also play next week at Tower City as part of the Film Fest.

Voices of the Hill
This afternoon at Tower City, the festival will show “Voices of the Hill,” about the predominantly black area of Twinsburg Heights. Jen Noga, a senior at Twinsburg High School, is one of the students who helped make the movie. She says the experience taught her a lot about her hometown, and about the area that’s been ignored and stereotyped for much of the past 90 years.

“I knew about it, but I had never really been there. The stigma that’s around the Heights is false.  Everybody there is very nice. When we would go out and shoot b-roll, we would talk to people, they would come up and talk to us, and we would have really nice conversations. It’s not this mean, scary, ‘Out Of the Woods’ place that I think a lot of people think that it is.”

Noga says, since the film’s release last year, more and more people with connections to Twinsburg Heights have come forward to share their stories. And she’s hopeful that could lead to a “Voices of the Hill, Part II” someday.

The documentary runs again tomorrow at the Akron Art Museum. That showing, and the premiere of “Burn the Ships,” are part of the Cleveland Film Fest’s annual neighborhood screenings in Akron.

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