Reel Connections

by Michael Wojtas

A Peoria-area film group brings a high-minded sensibility and thoughtful discussion of cinema to central Illinois.

"Each one of us feels that film is something that brings substance to our lives,” says Mary Beth Mahoney of the principles that unite the members of Reel to Real Focus on Film (R2R).

A Peoria-based collective of filmm the ashes of the Peoria International Film Group (IFG). Mahoney trac enthusiasts, Reel to Real rose froes its origins to “a one-day retreat at One World about five years ago.” She and her husband, who had just moved to Peoria from Houston, met with members of the then-disintegrating IFG hoping to establish a new society for local cinephiles.

“Basically, everything we had in Houston culturally, we were able to find in Peoria—with the exception of foreign and international film,” she explains. “We’d been really involved in film events in Houston. We saw this as a way to bring this into fruition in Peoria.”

Envisioning an Experience
At the inception of R2R, Mahoney and other board members traded ideas and studied surveys that the IFG had conducted of its audience, which provided a blueprint of possibilities for Reel to Real. “It became clear that people were interested in social events and ways to connect around film, whether they were educational or social,” she recalls.

The typical Reel to Real format includes a film screening, a discussion led by a moderator with some kind of connection to the film, and a social hour. Besides bringing oft-overlooked films to the area, their screenings have evolved into a platform for cross-cultural understanding and conversations about the complexities of cinema.

“Most of [us] think that one valuable thing we bring to Peoria is a more diverse perspective,” says Mahoney. She offers the screening of the animated film Persepolis as an example. A coming-of-age story set during the Iranian Revolution, Reel to Real’s showing of the film was moderated by a Bradley professor who was an Iranian citizen.

The ensuing dialogue showcased a thoughtful, nuanced examination of the American perception of Iran’s history and people. The discussion, says Mahoney, was characterized by “aha!” moments which found attendees experiencing sudden insights into Iranian culture.

Encouraged by this success, Reel to Real continues to show films that can introduce Peorians to unfamiliar lifestyles and cultures. In March, the group screened Only Human, a Spanish comedy about a Jewish woman engaged to a Palestinian man, and The Band’s Visit, about an Egyptian band visiting Israel, was shown in April. While such cultural pluralism elicits rather serious input from Peorians, R2R members maintain that any film of high artistic caliber may become the centerpiece of one of their events. This open approach to selecting movies has allowed the group to continually refresh its palette and extend its high-minded sensibility to an expanding audience.

A Democracy of Film Fans
Selecting the films for Reel to Real is a relaxed but involved process. Each season, board members and other local movie lovers—some of whom see upwards of 300 films a year—meet to assemble a new list of potential films to screen. The emphasis: variety.

Reel to Real board members opine on directors, foreign films and guilty pleasure films.

Favorite Film?
CAROL MAY: Casablanca, hands down.
J.P. KUMAR: Taxi Driver, followed closely by The Godfather Part II and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai
MARY BETH MAHONEY: Antonia’s Line (1995 Dutch film, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.)
Favorite film screened for R2R?
MAY: A Heart in Winter (French drama) and My Architect (documentary).
KUMAR: The Fall (drama), Touch of Evil (drama) and Crumb (documentary).
MAHONEY: The Diving Bell & The Butterfly (French drama).

Best movie of 2009?
MAY: The Last Station.
KUMAR: Didn’t see enough new films in 2009. Up in the Air might have been the best that I saw. The White Ribbon may be in the running, and I will be seeing it shortly.
MAHONEY: A Serious Man.

Overrated film?
MAY: Titanic.
KUMAR: Star Wars, Slumdog Millionaire, Forrest Gump.
Underrated film?
MAY: Friendly Persuasion (1956), winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and snubbed by the Academy Awards.
KUMAR: So many! Touch of Evil (1958—everyone says it, but it’s still true), Manchurian Candidate (1963—acclaimed, but not sufficiently recognized for its utter genius), The Thing (1982—better than the original), Down By Law (1986), Ghost World (2001), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (especially the 1978 version; the 1955 classic gets its due.)

Overrated/underrated directors?
MAY: James Cameron is way overrated. Michael Curtiz is underrated.
KUMAR: Overrated: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, M. Night Shyamalan, Joel Schumacher, Ron Howard, Clint Eastwood. Underrated: Tarsem Singh, Terrence Malick, Philip Kaufman, Jim Jarmusch, Peter Weir.

Best movie/director of the last decade?
MAY: The Coen Brothers
MAHONEY: I have to agree with Carol—the Coen Brothers.
KUMAR: Coen Brothers are up there, perhaps more for the ‘90s for me. My choice would be David Fincher (especially if you loop in his late-‘90s work) or Werner Herzog.
French, Italian, American or other?
MAY: French.
KUMAR: French (esp. pre-1970) and Japanese.
MAHONEY: Japanese—love Kurosawa’s work.

“Guilty pleasure” films?
MAY: An Affair to Remember with Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr (1958) and The Parent Trap (1997)
KUMAR: The Terminator (1984) and other early Arnold films (Commando and Predator, for the lines, if nothing else).
MAHONEY: Working Girl (1988), though I must admit that as a child I loved Parent Trap (the 1961 version with Hayley Mills playing the twins.)

Want more information about R2R? Call 339-3001, visit or email

“We try to get a good cross-section for each season’s program,” says Mahoney. She explains that the group sustains a balance through a mix of “international films, U.S. films, serious things and light things.” The last several years have found Reel to Real branching out to more family-friendly fare in the warmer months.

Mahoney explains, “During the school year, we try to show things that are a little more intellectual and complex, but the summer criteria is a little bit different. We try to pick films that have a greater cross-generational appeal.”

Last summer, Reel to Real hosted one of its most unusual—and popular—events, as silent films of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were augmented by a live soundtrack from pianist Ben Rudolph. That season also found R2R hosting what Mahoney calls “our quintessential event.”

Memorable Moderators
Last July’s R2R film, Man on Wire, was the group’s most highly attended event in its history. This Oscar winner for Best Documentary traces the thrilling story of tightrope walker Phillippe Petit’s high-wire performance between New York’s Twin Towers in 1974.

For Mahoney, the Man on Wire screening was more than a chance to show a prestigious film to a packed auditorium. It stands out in her mind because the moderator actually worked with Petit in the 1970s and shared her personal memories and photographs of the daredevil, offering the Peoria audience a rare, intimate glimpse into a larger-than-life figure.

“We strive to put together events that make for personal relevance,” she notes. When R2R showed the documentary My Architect, about influential architect Louis Kahn, one audience member who shared Kahn’s profession was actually moved to tears. She recalls the experience warmly. “When you can create and bring together something that has that kind of impact on people, there’s a gratifying feeling.”

Mahoney characterizes the process of finding moderators as an “often serendipitous adventure.” The Man on Wire lecturer, for example, was a personal acquaintance she made in passing at the RiverPlex. She recalls driving through town and stopping at various architects’ offices to ask if they were familiar with Kahn. Through this loose system of discovery, R2R weaves tighter bonds within the community while introducing local artistry and intellect to a willing audience. “We like to help unearth the creativity and depth that already exists in the community—to bring it to the surface so people can appreciate it.”

Bridging Over Boundaries
Reel to Real does not shy away from more controversial cinema during the school season, and Mahoney does not hesitate to defend such films. “We try to pick films that our audience is going to appreciate,” she says, “but we also feel like part of our job in the community is to keep stretching the boundaries of that which we’re exposed to.”

Exposing people to new perspectives sometimes means nudging viewers beyond their comfort zones. Several years ago, R2R screened Crumb, the documentary that chronicles the artistic growth of the eccentric—to say the least—cartoonist Robert Crumb. This taboo-littered journey through the mind of the legendary illustrator was actually well-received by the local audience.

“Though we’ve shown some controversial films, one of the comments we consistently get during the social hour is ‘I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to see that film if you hadn’t shown it, but I learned something and saw a new perspective,’” explains Mahoney.

Such openness toward provocative material continues into this season, with The Double Life of Veronique, an elegant avant-garde film from the late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. Mahoney herself selected the film, which will be shown on May 7th. “I don’t advocate for films often,” she says. “I advocated for Double Life, and I’m excited about it.”

Expanding the Off-Screen Narrative
R2R continues to push itself and its audience into new territory. One of its long-term goals, a Peoria film festival, was initially no more than a “pie-in-the-sky idea.” Today, board members are in the early stages of planning such a festival for 2011. Though they have not yet secured a venue, the group has determined that the festival will highlight burgeoning local talent by including the films of ICC and Bradley students.

And R2R will continue searching for moderators to open new cultural and educational pathways for Peorians. Mahoney is particularly excited about Eight Below, an adventure film about dog sledding, which will be moderated by a Bradley sociology professor who is also the “pack leader” of five huskies. She expects the event to be a favorite among younger members of the audience.

Mahoney is aware of a less quantifiable evolution as well. She feels that the people who work to keep Reel to Real continually adventurous are “growing as a board,” and this confidence is extending to the audience.

“Five years ago, there were pregnant pauses in our discussions…People were a little shy about sharing their observations.” But the R2R members have noticed an obvious change in audience-moderator rapport. “The discussions have become more relaxed and nuanced. We delve into topics that have more substance than we did five years ago. That’s a function of time and developing relationships,” explains Mahoney.

“The film is not the whole event,” she explains. “It’s about the members and filmgoers. The audience is the lifeblood.” a&s