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Local film fare on full display at ’09 IFF Boston

Victoria Leenders-Cheng
Local film fare on full display at ’09 IFF Boston
Former Boston Red Sox star Luis Tiant, subject of the documentary “The Lost Son of Havana,” lights up a cigar upon arriving in his native Cuba after 46 years of exile. The film is one of many with a local connection being showcased at the Independent Film Festival Boston, running through Tuesday, April 28, 2009. (Photo: Alastair Christopher)

Cindy Cheung (center) plays Elaine, a newcomer to Boston who gets ensnared in a moneymaking pyramid scheme, in Independent Film Festival Boston feature “Children of Invention,” a film based in part on director Tze Chun’s experiences growing up in Quincy and Chinatown. (The Kids are Alright Productions LLC/D. Robert Wolcheck photo)

A pair of movies about Boston’s lost sons and daughters puts the city itself in the silver screen limelight of the Independent Film Festival Boston, which began Wednesday, April 22, and runs through next Tuesday, April 28.

Now in its eighth year, the volunteer-run festival sprang from a desire to bring a world-class film festival to Boston and to tailor the event to films of particular interest to local audiences, according to festival program director Adam Roffman.

“We definitely noticed that Boston audiences really turn out for films and documentaries that revolve around social issues,” Roffman said, citing as examples movies about prison reform, gay rights and the agricultural industry. “They’re really concerned about social issues happening today, and they stick around afterwards to discuss.”

Local films and filmmakers have put in a particularly strong showing this year, added Roffman.

“We have more local filmmakers in the festival than we’ve ever had, [because] many local films were better than films we saw from around the world,” he said.

Among these selections are two films that focus on the life of Boston-area immigrants and the financial, cultural and emotional challenges they encounter.

The documentary “The Lost Son of Havana” follows former Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant, the famed “El Tiante,” on his first visit to his native Cuba in 46 years, while “Children of Invention,” a narrative feature based in part on director Tze Chun’s experiences growing up in Quincy and Chinatown, catalogs the misadventures of two young children who venture into Boston after their mother fails to return home one night.

Both works consider the costs of pursuing the American dream.

Tiant was forced to leave his family behind in Cuba to become a major league pitcher, explained producer and Quincy native Kris Meyer. Meyer met Tiant while filming “Fever Pitch,” a comedy by filmmakers Peter and Bobby Farrelly about one man’s love affair with the Red Sox that dovetailed with the team’s 2004 World Series win.

“Luis’ journey to the U.S. from Cuba is unlike any I’ve heard,” said Meyer, explaining why he immediately suggested the story to Peter and Bobby, who are the film’s executive producers. “My pitch to the Farrelly brothers, since it’s a bit of a departure for us from our usual style, was that it’s a human interest story.”

Meyer noted that Tiant’s tenure as a beloved Red Sox pitcher in the 1970s was “incredible unto itself,” while Tiant’s “personal journey to, and from, and back to Cuba again is about love, loss, family, reunion, the color barrier. … It runs the gamut of every emotion you can think of.”

“In the film, Luis is not just a baseball player,” Meyer added. “He’s a human being.”

“Children of Invention” director Chun also wanted to bring a human face to a challenging cultural moment — the plight of people lured into financial irresponsibility by the promise of great and sudden wealth.

Chun’s film focuses on Elaine, a newcomer to Boston who gets ensnared in a moneymaking pyramid scheme.

“One of the best ways to do a movie that speaks to everybody is to create a very specific experience,” Chun said, explaining that the events of the film are partly autobiographical.

“The story is a personal story,” he said. “I spent a lot of my youth going to a lot of pyramid scheme seminars all over Boston with my mom and little sister. … I think that subculture of America trying to get rich quick is a culture I grew up in.”

The movie has also taken on a new layer of meaning given the country’s dire financial situation and the highly publicized investment fraud scandal that saw former NASDAQ chairman Bernard Madoff bilk investors of nearly $65 billion.

“It’s interesting to write a movie that … can be part of the conversation going on right now about Ponzi schemes and people buying houses they can’t afford,” Chun said. “The film looks at these things through the very narrow lens of one family.”

The ability of film to generate conversation and thought about subjects such as immigration, family dynamics and economic travails is a crucial element of movies and movie criticism, argues Boston Phoenix film critic Gerald Peary.

Peary recently directed “For the Love of Movies,” a documentary affirming the role of movie critics and movie reviews that will also play at the film festival.

The longtime critic also lamented the cultural impact of the decline of print media.

“Film critics are losing their jobs everywhere, and that is stopping dialogue with audiences for films that need critic support,” he said. “Art films, independent films, foreign language films and documentaries [need] critics there to support them” and to help lure viewers to screenings.

While this year’s festival has seen its tickets sell faster than any of its predecessors, according to program director Roffman, it is still dependent on the support of financial sponsors and on people coming out to watch movies.

“When we first started [eight years ago], no one knew who we were,” he said. “Last year, we had 23,000 people attend and we look every year for films that we find to be original and captivating that a Boston audience would enjoy.”

The Independent Film Festival Boston runs from April 22, 2009, through April 28, 2009, with screenings at the Somerville Theatre, the Brattle Theatre, the Coolidge Corner Theatre and the Institute of Contemporary Art. For a full screening schedule and more information, visit http://www.iffboston.org.