Historic Midway Theatre to Host Independent Film Festival

Visits: 1562

Festivities at the Midway Theatre. 

Forest Hills is a magnet for culture and history, with iconic sites such as Forest Hills Stadium, Eddie’s Sweet Shop, and the Midway Theatre, home of the 7th annual Festival of Cinema NYC. 

Independent films will be in the spotlight from August 4 to August 13, and the tradition keeps growing. The mastermind behind the festival is 49-years-young Jayson Simba, who was born in Woodside and raised in Forest Hills.  

“What makes us unique is our organization’s effort to really connect with our community, and the dedication to really helping artists and filmmakers further their aspirations,” said Simba. “While other film festivals focus on the glitz and glamor of what they offer and who they are, Festival of Cinema NYC makes it a point to seek out and partner with other organizations that can offer opportunities beyond our capabilities.”

“Our team never imagined the festival taking place at such a majestic venue that carries so much history,” said Simba, after learning that the Art Moderne-style Midway Theatre, which opened in 1942, was named after WWII’s Battle of Midway and designed by America’s foremost theater architect Thomas Lamb, along with consulting architect S. Charles Lee. “It is absolutely amazing,” he continued. 

Much has transpired over the past seven years. Simba explained, “Over 17 films, consisting of shorts and features, have landed a distribution deal from being discovered at Festival of Cinema NYC. We also had a feature film in 2017, which was shortlisted for an Academy Award. Other than that, I continue to see actors and directors landing their work on TV and streaming channels, including Netflix and Hulu.”

A scene from Where Is The Lie.

Festival of Cinema NYC is constantly seeking ways to expand its program to benefit the community and beyond, and is open to ideas. “Back in 2018, we reached out to the Queens Public Library, and we were introduced to the Forest Hills Library’s management. We developed a great relationship and keep looking forward to our partnership,” said Simba. Now the public can anticipate more interactive workshops and seminars at the library. “We wanted to expand beyond just watching independent films by catering to individuals with other interests,” he continued. 

Newly on the map for this year are interactive performances and presentations. The first will be “Fire Bones,” a multimedia creation initially presented in July at the Deep In The Heart Film Festival in Waco, Texas. This film by Greg Brownderville and Bart Weiss, will now debut on the east coast. “It features a whimsical southern Gothic shaggy dog story, told in ten chapters through podcasts, short films, music videos, poems, and images. Fire Bones follows a poet and filmmaker who meet one crazy character after another, as they investigate the mystery of a missing pilot and Pentecostal preacher, who vanished on a transatlantic flight,” said Simba.   

A scene from Fire Bones.

Another highlight is the “Detroit Street Films Poem Series,” where attendees will participate in creating a poem by submitting one word during the show. “Fire Bones” will be screened at the Midway Theatre, whereas the “Detroit Street Films” presentation can be seen at the Forest Hills Library, and is free for the public. 

Among this year’s partners are Theaters Unsilenced, a Queens-based non-profit which advocates for subtitles on films in movie theaters, in order for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to participate and enjoy films, and feel like everyone else. Another partner is Ghetto Films School, a Bronx-based non-profit that helps guide inner city individuals through their involvement with the art of filmmaking. FoHi Improv will offer a free workshop to spark one’s interest in learning about and participating in improvisation.

Interviewer Bonnie Rose interviews director Daniel Merino Villavicencio at the screening of his short film Sweet Pea & Glass.

Guests are bound to encounter influential figures, as in the case of Broadway stars and boy band members who attended the festival in prior years, where all were surprise guests. Simba explained, “This year, we will be honoring Queens native writer and director Dito Montiel with our first ever Indie Film Vanguardian Award to recognize his work and accomplishments as an independent filmmaker. Dito will also be present for a one-hour moderated Q&A, following a screening of his breakthrough film, ‘A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints.’”  

This film is a coming-of-age drama that spotlights a boy being raised in 1980s Astoria. It earned him awards at Sundance and Venice, launching his indie filmmaking career. Some of his works include “Fighting” (2009) and The Son of No One (2011), which starred Channing Tatum, “Empire State” (2013) featuring Dwayne Johnson, “Boulevard” (2014) with Robin Williams, “Man Down” (2015) with Shia LaBeouf, and “The Clapper” (2017) with Ed Helms and Amanda Seyfried.

A scene from A Guide To Recognizing your Saints.

Another highlight is Alethea Root’s “Good Side of Bad,” which focuses on a brother and sister who find it challenging to care for their sister with mental illness. The film was recently screened at the opening night selection at L.A.’s Dances with Films.

Anna Baumgarten’s “Disfluency” was the recipient of several awards on the film festival circuit. It narrows in on a promising scholar who returns home without graduating, as she contends with PTSD resulting from an incident.

A scene from Disfluency.

How Simba set foot on his mission is a story within itself. At 13, he began pursuing acting after being most inspired by the film, “The Lost Boys.” He reminisced, “I saw how much fun they were having on screen. As I grew older, I began developing a passion for filmmaking and have written, directed, and produced over 14 films. From 2013 – 2015, I have acted in three films that did very well on the festival circuit. I traveled around the world, and visited some of the best and not so best film festivals. At that time, I had not even coordinated a birthday party, much less a film festival of this scope. When the festival runs would end, I felt there was a void. I wondered why there is not anything like that in Queens, and specifically in Forest Hills and Kew Gardens.”

From that moment on, Simba devised an idea for Festival of Cinema NYC, originating as the Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema in 2017, and the festival was initially staged at Kew Gardens Cinemas. His original vision was to screen independent films by local filmmakers, with hopes of generating a small crowd. “I never imagined that it would grow to what it is today,” he continued. 

Professionally and personally, Simba has been inspired by many people. “I’ve looked up to individuals who made a change and led an effort to bring something valuable to society,” he said. 

Festivities at the Midway Theatre. 

When he is not coordinating the festival, he can be found cultivating his talents as an artist who paints clients’ toy action figures to look realistic. He studied art for over 16 years and achieved a degree in illustration at the School of Visual Arts. His alma mater is also LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts. He explained, “When we are not on strike, I am an actor with over 40 credits on IMDB. I studied acting at The Neighborhood Playhouse and at The Acting Studio NYC. When I am not painting, running festivals, or working on films and TV, you may find me working a day or two each week at the Forest Hills Target.” 

For young filmmakers or any generation hoping to pursue their dreams, he said, “Don’t wear yourself out fighting to convince the wrong people of your talent or your ideas.” 

Eye-catching trophies await. Photo: Michael Perlman

Simba feels it is incredibly fortunate this year, for Festival of Cinema NYC to be recognized and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, in addition to receiving multi-year support from New York State Council on the Arts and NYC Department of Cultural Affairs for the following three years.

Since 2020, Resorts World Casino has been a major sponsor. Other sponsors include NYC & Company Foundation and the Queens Borough President’s Office. Venue sponsors are Regal Cinemas and the Queens Public Library. Local sponsors include Ridgewood Savings Bank, Ponce Bank, Plaxall (the Mathis-Pfohl Foundation), 5 Burro Cafe since 2017, Yant Tattoo Studios in Forest Hills, which serves as their Official Filmmaker Lounge since 2019, Minuteman Press of Forest Hills and Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery.  

As Queens has been nicknamed “The World’s Borough,” the festival also feels culturally diverse. “By representing numerous cultures, we are making people aware that we are one and helping them expand their views, thoughts, and opinions,” said Simba.

“Hopefully I will be in a place where I can continue to inspire others, but not a government position,” said Simba, in reference to where he envisions himself in a decade.

To follow Festival of Cinema NYC, visit www.facebook.com/FestofCinemaNYC and www.instagram.com/festofcinemanyc    

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