Jeff Vaclavik, the owner of Deja Brew, sits in his coffee shop decorated in different forms of art and media. Vaclavik started the Southside Film Festival out of appreciation for the arts. (Megan Reimer/BW Staff)

SouthSide Film Institute and Festival: Celebrating the humanity of cinema


The SouthSide Film Festival embraces the intersectionality of different cultures, backgrounds and art forms all within the heart of Bethlehem.

Jeff Vaclavik, the owner of the Southside Bethlehem coffee shop Deja Brew, crafted this festival out of appreciation for the arts. 

“It’s my way of helping to contribute to the community,” Vaclavik said. 

This summer marks the 18th annual SouthSide Film Festival, not counting the year skipped due to COVID-19. In acknowledgement of the festival’s support of the arts, Vaclavik said they recently received an award from the Fine Arts Commission. 

When accepting the award, Vaclavik made a speech for those in attendance.

“My whole speech was that my son, who was three or four at the time, has grown up surrounded by the arts,” Vaclavik said. “I talked about how, when I was growing up, we had no art whatsoever. The biggest thing that I hate is when people say there’s nothing to do around because there’s so much live music, poetry and art.”

The Film Festival is a joint effort to not only promote the arts scene in Bethlehem, but also to promote local businesses. In the past, Vaclavik said the festival has shown close to 1,600 independent films from 102 countries and 47 states.

The festival usually starts on a Tuesday night with an opening night party, typically held at the Charter High School for Performing Arts. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, films are screened from about 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., Vaclavik said, and then they start again on Saturday  at noon. 

The festival will take place from June 14 through 18 this summer, with the deadline for film submissions on April 1.

Aside from geographic diversity, Vaclavik said the films also vary in their length and the experience of the filmmaker. 

Filmmakers often return to Bethlehem every few years. Specifically, Vaclavik referenced David Chai, a recognizable filmmaker from California who came to a past festival.

“He was able to come to the festival for the first time, and he’s pretty well known,” Vaclavik said. “There was a young girl who graduated from the Charter Arts School and she had her very first film. We had her up on stage and David was so inclusive. Every question he would either defer to her or he would answer it and then ask her. He didn’t even think twice about doing that.”

The Film Festival has drawn the attention of avid cinema fans to the artistic culture Bethlehem has to offer.

Jenn Cotto, director of the festival, organizes and plans the event, including the film screening schedule and opening and closing night parties.

“Every year we strive to bring quality independent films from across the globe right here to Bethlehem,” Cotto said. “We hope to engage our patrons in the arts by showing small, thought-provoking films that many people in the community wouldn’t normally have the chance to see.”

As the film wrangler, Ben Bertalan searches for and handels the talent at the festival. He said he is looking forward to the upcoming annual festival.

Bertalan has been involved ever since the first year of the SouthSide Film Festivals and said he enjoys the collaboration he observes among local institutions to support the filmmakers.

“It’s always amazing to partner with so many Bethlehem organizations and individuals like Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts, Touchstone Theatre and the National Museum of Industrial History,” Bertalan said. “I love to see people that have returned every year to the film festival and hear what their favorite movies are.”

The award offered at the festival is The Linny and Beall Fowler Audience Award, named after Beall Fowler, a retired Lehigh physics professor, and his late wife. Vaclavik said the pair were ardent supporters of the festival.

The award celebrates the audience’s favorite film and is a way to make the experience more interactive.

Vaclavik said the board and jury of the festival review all submissions and members have become keen to recognize a good film.

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