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Joedance Film Festival blasts off in 2013

From the death of a film buff, a film festival sprang to life. From a lost battle in the war on cancer came a small army ready to fight with renewed vigor.

That’s the story of Joedance Film Festival. It began as a friends-and-family, donations-only gathering in 2010 and has swelled to a $25-a-head event in Fourth Ward that will sell out Friday and Saturday and send an estimated $20,000 to Levine Children’s Hospital.

Joe Restaino isn’t around to see his legacy: He died of osteosarcoma, a cancer that got into his bones at 16 and felled him at 20. We’ll never know what his profession would’ve been, but his passion seems clear.

“He loved film,” said his mother, Diane Restaino. “He’d see a movie and come home and want to tell you everything that was right or wrong with it.”

That’s why she and husband Mike chose movies as a way to pay homage to Joe and to the Levine, where he was treated.

The first year was so casual that hardly anyone knew about it: A small circle got together to eat popcorn and see two movies (“An Education” and “Big Night”) projected on the wall of a Fourth Ward townhouse.

That outing collected $950. Restaino raised $1200 in 2011 and $3000 in 2012, when local media specialist Bert Woodard offered his help and Joedance got its Facebook page here.

Then things exploded.

“We wanted this year’s to be a coveted ticket,” says Restaino. “It’s under a tent for the first time; you get a souvenir wine glass with a free pour; and we get to raise a significant amount for the Levine.”

She’ll also devote all the screen time to local filmmakers this year. Writer-director John Schwert’s “In/Significant Others” became the first local Joedance movie in 2012; now Joedance will show two mid-length movies and five shorts. Of course, “local” has a loose definition: people who grew up here, live here, shot most of the movie here or know the Restaino family closely.

Two documentaries anchor the event. “From the Back of the Line” charts the lives of undocumented immigrants living, working and raising families in Mecklenburg County. “The Projection Room” looks at the dying art of projection, as digital machinery replaces human expertise in virtually all theaters. (If you miss “Projection” at Joedance, you can see it on WTVI Sept. 26 at 9 p.m.)

Restaino didn’t expect such rapid growth when she started.

The death of one of her three sons brought her down but also fired her up to activism: She was shocked to realize chemotherapy protocols for Joe’s illness hadn’t changed in years.

First she designed Joedance to raise awareness and money for rare pediatric cancer research and clinical trials at the Levine. Then she committed to “the coolest thing we do: supporting local filmmakers.”

Now, less than four years later, she has applied for nonprofit 501 (c) 3 status for the festival, quit her part-time job at Bliss to focus on Joedance, signed Archer Daniels Midland as its presenting sponsor and found multiple individual and corporate sponsors. (Whether you attend the festival or not, you can donate at Joedance.org.)

This effort is growing into a year-round push: A Joedance film committee started vetting submissions in April, while a Joedance Jam in Fourth Ward Park provided the fest’s first musical component in June.

She and other board members now have to decide to lengthen the festival, find a bigger venue or keep it as it is.

“We’re now where I thought we would be in five years, and I’m just taking that in,” says Restaino. “The day I write that $20,000 check will be one of the proudest of my life.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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