Film Fest will be missing one
  • 27
  • 09

Bill Cowell’s heart is broken. But the show must go on.

It’s days from the opening of an event he’s devoted much of his life to — the inaugural Niagara Falls International Film Festival— and instead of celebrating, he’s mourning his greatest loss.

His daughter, Alyssa, who has worked at his film festivals since she was a pre-teen, died unexpectedly last week due to complications from asthma. Her memorial will be Friday. The festival begins on Wednesday.

The 26-year-old, his youngest of two daughters, was an important part of the planning of the festivals that Cowell has founded and run the past 15 years as the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, an ever-evolving annual gatherings of filmmakers and film lovers, but she was also a big part of the joy in his life.

When I reached him by phone this week, Bill tried to compose himself after he told me about her recent death. As he began telling me stories about the joy she brought to his life, he managed a laugh when he recalled a birthday surprise she had planned for him this year. It came about because he was always yelling at her and her boyfriend, videographer Ian Brennan, for using too much tin foil to cover food in the fridge. In response, the pair covered nearly everything in his house in tin foil, from the chairs and the tables to his hat.

She was also the one who gave her dad the big dog who is always at his side, a 150-pound gentle rottweiler named Mr. Lahey, who is a sort of mascot of the film festival. That she named the dog for a drunken character on a Canadian TV show about a crazy trailer park, gives some insight into her personality.

“She was a prankster and a rebel all in one,” Bill said.

Alyssa was also a budding movie maker, following in the footsteps of her dad, who has made about a dozen movies. She was often at his side during the filming of his documentary-in-progress called “Bad IQ” about autism, filmed by autistic students and featuring interviews with celebrities including Charles Grodin, Robert Forster and others whose lives have been touched by the disability.

Both his daughters, Alyssa and Michelle, worked with their dad on films and past festivals and made quite the impression on some of the celebrity guests, Bill said proudly, noting actors like Richard Dreyfuss, Lou Ferrigno and Robert Culp would tell him how composed and professional his two daughters were.

The loss of Alyssa has devastated what has already been a tough year for his family. His wife Karen had a massive brain hemorrhage in April and as she struggles to heal from that, their pregnant eldest daughter, Michelle, 31, and her husband and child had come home from California to help Karen while Bill geared up for the festival. That Michelle was in town when her sister died is a blessing of sorts in such a dark time for the family. At least they were together.

Now Bill is carrying on with his mission to produce the film festival. It’s quite an undertaking, with films and filmmakers coming from around the world for showings throughout the Niagara Region at theaters including the Regal Cinema Niagara Falls 12, where Alyssa worked; the Rapids Theatre on Main Street and the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda. There are also opening and closing celebrations to coordinate and film panels to put together. The logistics of such events are daunting.

When he learned of Alyssa’s death, Bill didn’t know if he could go on without her, but then he remembered. “I taught my children never to quit,” he told me. “They’re fighters, they’re great people, they definitely outshine me.” The festival will be held in memory of Alyssa, he said.

The family will be greeting friends from 4 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Wattengel Funeral Home, 533 Meadow Drive, North Tonawanda, where memories will be shared at 9 p.m.

For those who would like to support the festival in some manner, showing up for a party, panel or screening would do it. At this inaugural event, all the short films will be free and because they are shown in batches, it’s a great way to sample a film festival.

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