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Curtain is raised on first Queens World Film Festival

Several prominent members of the Queens film community wasted no time in establishing and running a successful film festival in the wake of a fraud scandal at the now defunct Queens International Film Festival, which shocked area film buffs and movie makers.

The first Queens World Film Festival, which its organizers planned in a hurry beginning in late December and concluded a four-day run with a Sunday evening awards ceremony, attracted about 125 film submissions and directors from all over the world.

At Sunday’s celebration at the Renaissance Charter School, at 35-59 81st St. in Jackson Heights, many of the top films and their creators received recognition for their efforts. Students from Paul Alper’s fifth-grade class at PS 69 screened short films they made themselves.

Katha Cato, the festival director, said the event was a huge success and that it will return bigger and better next year.

“It was fantastic. Four days, I don’t know how many people. Every screening except for one had people come. There were filmmakers from around the world, submissions from around the world,” she said at the ceremony. “People land in Queens every day, then drive through our borough to go to festivals in Manhattan. We can do that here, and I think we proved it.”

The husband-and-wife team of Katha and Don Cato were the brains behind the event, conceiving and quickly putting together a world-class festival in the wake of the November deportation of Marie Castaldo, the disgraced founder of the defunct QIFF, who pleaded guilty last year to fraud in Queens and multiple counts of animal cruelty in Ulster County, N.Y. QIFF operated from 2003 to 2009.

Castaldo had been charged in August with failing to pay more than $14,000 to multiple vendors for the 2007 and 2008 film festivals. In September, she pleaded guilty to one count of fraud and was sentenced to a conditional discharge, which meant she was able to avoid jail time but had to abide by certain conditions, including a requirement that she pay back the companies and stay out of trouble for a year, the Queens DA’s office said.

The response to the new festival from participants and attendees, who traveled from around the country and the globe to see their work screened in Jackson Heights, was overwhelmingly positive.

Iranian-born filmmaker Farzin Farzaneh, winner of the Best Animation Award for his short film “Drat,” flew in from Montreal to see its world premiere at the Jackson Heights Cinema at 40-31 82nd St.

“It was a unique festival because of the community aspect, the fact that there were kids’ filmmaking workshops, and that a lot of the directors were from Queens,” he said. “It was really a great chance for the community to see the films being made here.”

A number of directors, including Brian Smolensky of Los Angeles, and winner of the Best Feature Award for his film “The Gadarene Swine,” said they chose to submit their work to the show because of its emphasis on independent, edgy and low-budget films.

“The description of the festival fit the type of festival that I was looking for. It’s a festival that’s looking for films that are daring, that take chances and are truly independent,” he said. “It was truly international and the ones that I actually got to see were beautiful, really well-done.”

Visit queensworldfilmfestival.com for more information about the festival.

Reach reporter Connor Adams Sheets by e-mail at csheets@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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