SouthSide Film Festival

By J.F. Pirro

Bethlehem is a city of festivals. Of course, there’s the granddaddy, Musikfest, a summer calendar must. And there’s the Celtic Classic in the fall; however, late spring welcomes the SouthSide Film Festival, a combination of art and culture.

“It’s really a testament to Bethlehem that it can have such a variety of festivals, and that Bethlehem never tires of its festivals,” says SouthSide Film Institute Board President Jeff Vaclavik. “Maybe Bethlehem should change its name from ‘Christmas City’ to ‘Festival City.’”

The eighth annual five-day independent film frenzy will run June 14-18 in three walkable SouthSide locations: Sinclair Auditorium at Lehigh University, Victory Firehouse at 205 Webster St.—also the setting for the Southside Film Institute’s Third Thursday Film Club screening—and the new auditorium at Broughal Middle School in the Bethlehem Area School District. “It’s an absolutely beautiful room,” Vaclavik says. “It holds 750 with the balcony, but if we get 500 on any given night, we’ll be happy.”

In its history, the festival has screened nearly 700 independent films, and represented filmmakers from 38 states and 67 countries.

There’s always a genre and cultural focus, or spotlight, but it’s a great misconception that all films fall under those umbrellas. This year’s theme is folklore and the cultural focus is Africa. Each year, a quarter of the films fall into the chosen categories, but they’re intermixed within each block.

The schedule is the work of Festival Director Graham Stanford. Watch for a film listing and trailers at There’s an average of 50 to 75 films of varying lengths. They’re grouped into viewing blocks of two hours each, which includes question and answer sessions with filmmakers on hand. Stanford schedules blocks from venue to venue with walk time budgeted in, so it’s possible to see every film.

The festival’s mission has remained twofold—the promotion of independent film and the celebration of South Bethlehem’s commercial district. The festival partners with its merchants, restaurants and pubs and, typically, 20 filmmakers attend.

“One thing that’s different about our festival is that we offer the opportunity to meet the filmmakers,” Vaclavik says. “We encourage interaction. It’s a lot of work for the board, but when the week comes, and we get feedback, that’s the part that really makes it worth it.”

Attendance has grown each year. Last year’s opening night at Lehigh—where all the films screened—sold out. About  300 people attended.

The bulk of the films, and their filmmakers, aren’t household names, but once the schedule is out, Vaclavik says he’s amazed by the buzz of knowledge and anticipation. “People will come into Deja Brew Coffeehouse and Deli (which he owns and operates), and say they can’t wait for a certain film,” he says.

Having some filmmakers return year after year helps the public develop a following. Some follow a creator’s three-year progression from a five-minute short to a half-hour documentary to a feature film. “It’s really cool that even if they aren’t a big name—though they might be one day—they start to get a following,” Vaclavik says.

Prospective films are viewed individually by jury members (a panel that decides which films are included and which are not), then together on jury nights. This year, submissions opened after the last festival ended. Typically, they opened in October and closed in March.

Board and jury member Ben Bertalan, a librarian at the Allentown Public Library, travels on his own to scout other movie meccas like the Sundance Film Festival. For films and filmmakers he likes, he extends an invitation to Bethlehem. “It’s like working on a jigsaw puzzle and trying to find films that tell a great story and fit with our overall lineup,” he says.

The contact date for acceptances is April 15, income tax day. “Yeah, it’s a big day for everyone,” Vaclavik says.

Patrons can purchase individual block tickets for $5 ($10 at Broughal) or a $75
all-access pass. Tickets are available through the festival website, at Cleo’s on 3rd Street or at Deja Brew at 101 W. 4th St., festival headquarters that week.

“Come and explore the South Side, eat, shop, drink beer—and buy a beer for the filmmakers,” Vaclavik says.

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