Film fest winner leaves a little something behind
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The big winner at the Niagara Falls International Film Festival left the city with a special gift the whole community to enjoy.

Matt Shapira, who won the top prize at the festival for his film “Big Muddy,” and showcased another film there called “The Reason,” had a bit of extra time between his busy schedule of appearances and film showings at the recent four-day event. During those spare moments, he painted a mural of elephants on the brick exterior wall of the Hard Rock Cafe Niagara Falls, as part of his passionate message to the world.

His belief is that in order to see the world, you must “Roam like an elephant,” and he says his murals depict the feelings he gets when he thinks of the giant creatures. He has painted such artwork throughout the world, including Nepal, Thailand, Zambia, France, Jamaica, Wales, England, India and now Niagara Falls.

“I paint murals to bring awareness of the plight of the elephants and the need to support conservation efforts in each of the countries they roam free,” the Studio City, California resident said. “Seeing an elephant on a wall is a gentle nudge for us to give a voice to those who are without a voice. We can make a change and do our part to protect all the wildlife that that are endangered one kind and compassionate act and choice at a time.”

Shapira’s “Big Muddy” took home the award for Best Narrative Film at the second annual festival. April Wright’s “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the Movie Palace,” was given the nod for Best Documentary, and C.D. Malloy’s “Sing You a Brand New Song: The Words and Music of Coleman Mellett,” won the Audience Award.

Niagara Falls International Film Festival’s Founder and President Bill Cowell, said of the awards process, “Our award winners all shared a common theme which is – and will always be – at the center of this film festival — heart.”

NFIFF closed out a festival-long posthumous salute to director Samuel Fuller with a screening of Fuller’s beloved “The Big Red One,” with special guests Christa and Samantha Fuller, the filmmaker’s wife and daughter and several of the film’s stars, including Robert Carradine, Perry Lang, Kelly Ward and Bobby Di Ciccio, in attendance.

Moderated by filmmaker and film historian, Michael Schlesinger, Cowell said the post-screening Q&A was an entertaining and frequently emotional – with fond remembrances of Fuller and the film’s star, Lee Marvin. The moment was made all the greater thanks to a surprise voice message from another of the film’s stars, Mark Hamill, who was unable to attend.

The awards ceremony followed, led by the special presentation of the film festival’s Humanitarian Award to Medal of Honor recipient and Lyndonville High School graduate David Bellavia to honor his military service during the Iraq War and a Special Humanitarian Mention for Shapira, due to the murals he has painted throughout the world.

Lyn Moncrief from “The Wall of Mexico,” won a Best Cinematography Award, which brought a $15,000 prize from Panavision. “Olympia” director Gregory Dixon received an Honorable Mention for Best Directing and Rob Margolies and Tim Realbuto shared an Honorable Mention for Best Storytelling for their work on “Yes.”

Kyle Thompson’s “The Boy Hero,” was named Best Short Film, and the film’s young star Jeffrey Benson took home a special Rising Talent Award.

NFIFF opened with a red carpet gala at The Rapids Theatre celebrating Academy Award-winner Louis Gossett Jr. and Samuel Fuller. The celebration reception featured a display of the first Niagara Falls Walk of Fame stars set to be installed this year with the names of Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Mark Bridges. Isaacs was in attendance and presented the festival’s Legacy Award to Gossett Jr. and both Fuller and Gossett Jr. were presented with stars on the Walk of Fame, as well. Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster presented a proclamation for the Bill Cowell and the festival and a recent finalist from “The Voice,” Mikaela Astel, performed.

The 2019 Niagara Falls International Film Festival award winners also included:

Best Short Film Documentary, “Once in a Hundred Years: The Life and Legacy of Marian Anderson,” Best Cinematography, Lyn Moncrief of “The Wall of Mexico; Honorable Mention for Directing, Gregory Dixon of “Olympia,” and an Honorable Mention for Storytelling, Rob Margolies and Tim Realbuto for “Yes.”

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