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Officials ask DA to probe Queens film festival founder

Queens elected officials are calling for an investigation into the Queens International Film Festival founder’s business ventures after having supported the festival as a borough cultural event for seven years.

A number of individuals and institutions involved in the distribution and screening of films have accused Marie Castaldo, QIFF’s founder and executive director, of failing to pay them thousands of dollars during the festival’s past several years.

QIFF screened movies from Nov. 12 to Nov. 15 at several borough sites, including Astoria’s Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, as part of its seventh annual celebration.

Queens officials, including Borough President Helen Marshall, City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) and Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), the city comptroller-elect, had thrown their support behind the festival prior to this year’s screenings. But some of them are now urging Queens District Attorney Richard Brown to investigate Castaldo.

“The people from the festival had reached out to me as an elected official to get more support and publicity,” said Avella, whose office sent out an advisory to constituents, notifying them that the festival was taking place. “But people should be careful what they wish for. We’ve had about 10 people call my office. I’m collecting information on all the people who have been victimized. It’s clearly a pattern this woman has to defraud people and take advantage of them.”

A spokeswoman for Liu said the councilman had been invited to speak at the festival’s opening night.

“The allegations are very concerning,” Liu’s spokeswoman, Sharon Lee, said. “John would concur with the calls for an investigation into these serious allegations.”

QIFF’s phone number is still in service, but its answering machine said the mailbox was full and could not receive messages. Her current whereabouts are unknown.

Marshall’s spokesman, Dan Andrews, could not be reached for comment.

Castaldo’s alleged victims include a number of individuals from different parts of the United States, including Brooklyn’s nonprofit Rooftop Films, Connecticut projectionist James Hill, Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image and Kerry Wallum, an Austin, Texas-based film production company owner who had organized a tribute to musician Levon Helm led by Kris Kristofferson for this year’s festival.

The two musicians later dropped out of QIFF and held a concert in Woodstock.

QIFF’s Web site listed Applebee’s, Holiday Inn, Clarion Hotel, the Louis Armstrong House Museum and Wallum’s own Fast Talk ‘N Productions among this year’s sponsors.

Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. (D-Astoria) said he found the accusations against Castaldo “troubling” and that QIFF’s founder had “scammed people who are trying to make it in the film business and may not have the financial resources to file a complaint.”

The DA’s office said Castaldo was currently facing no charges.

Dan Nuxoll, program director of Rooftop Films, said Castaldo owed him $2,750 after his company, a nonprofit film festival that also rents out projectors and audio equipment to other festivals, worked on QIFF in 2007.

“She made it look legitimate,” he said. “She’s got all these Council members supporting her and she picks young people who are vulnerable — filmmakers who have never been in a festival before. Everything is so preposterous that you can’t imagine she’d be doing it.”

David Schwartz, curator for the Moving Image, said he believed Castaldo received government support because elected officials want to bring cultural events into their districts.

“I think elected officials are happy to see any new undertaking happen,” he said. “Most film festivals all over the country get support from local officials because they bring attention to the community.”

A spokeswoman for the Moving Image said Castaldo never paid the institution $3,600 for its participation in the 2007 festival.

Reach reporter Nathan Duke by e-mail at nduke@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.

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