By Clint O’Connor

Beacon Journal ?popular culture writer

The Akron Racers, the women’s professional softball team that plays at Firestone Stadium, are about to get a big boost under bright lights. Not on the field, but on the screen.

Burn the Ships, a new documentary about the team, will have its world premiere at 7 p.m. Friday at Akron-Summit County Public Library as part of the opening weekend of the 41st Cleveland International Film Festival.

The festival, which launches its first full day of screenings Thursday at Tower City Cinemas in Cleveland, is once again reaching out to the Greater Akron community by holding a series of screenings here this weekend.

Six features and three collections of short films will play at the library, the Akron Art Museum and the Nightlight Cinema. In all, the CIFF will be showing 200 feature films and 216 short films from 71 countries through April 9. Many of the films will be presented by the directors, writers and performers behind them, with more than 300 filmmakers from around the world coming to Northeast Ohio.

Burn the Ships, which follows the 2015 season, was directed by Danielle Miller and Julia Thorndike, and was produced by Brian Glazen and his Mayfield Heights-based Think Media Studios. It follows the travails of the team, led by co-owner and General Manager Joey Arrietta, as it struggles for recognition.

“Making this film felt magical,” said Miller, who played softball in high school. “I never expected to have an opportunity to make a movie like this.”

The Racers are the oldest team in the National Pro Fastpitch League and will open their 16th season in May.

“Joey, who is our main character, eats, sleeps and breathes softball,” Miller said. “She is the heart and soul of the Racers. She supports these girls, sometimes on her own dime. She takes care of the field, she cleans the bathrooms if they need cleaning. You see how much she has sacrificed.”

In addition to the Akron screening on Friday, Burn the Ships will also play in the festival at Tower City at 11:10 a.m. Sunday and 4:15 p.m. Monday.

And that title?

“In 2014, the team was really struggling, but was able to turn it around at the last minute thanks to a speech” from manager Brian Levin, Miller said.

“He told them that when [Spanish conquistador Hernan] Cortes invaded Cuba he ordered his men upon arrival to burn the ships, because there would be no turning back. That became the theme of that season, and I think it’s still the theme of Joey and the Racers and the whole league.”

The other feature films playing in Akron include the sci-fi thriller Domain, about the aftermath of a worldwide epidemic; Do You Take This Man?, a drama about a gay couple juggling family mishaps on the eve of their wedding; The Force, an examination of the racial and social tensions affecting the Oakland, Calif., police department; and The Good Postman, a documentary about politics in a small Bulgarian village. (See sidebar for show times.)

‘Voices of the Hill’

Another documentary, much closer to home, is Voices of the Hill.

Directed by Carla LynDale Carter, it looks at little-known Twinsburg Heights in Summit County, an area that, according to the 2010 census, has a population of 925.

“It’s only about 13 streets long and four streets wide. I don’t even think it’s on Google Maps,” Carter said.

The project started in the fall of 2015 as a two-week filmmaking workshop with students primarily from Twinsburg High School. The objective was to tell the story of the Heights through its longtime residents, many over age 85 (two of the folks interviewed in the film have since passed away).

For decades, Twinsburg Heights was a segregated neighborhood cut off from the most basic of services, including running water.

“Back in the 1920s, it was the only place black people were allowed to live in the area,” said Carter, a 1999 graduate of Twinsburg High School, who now teaches at the University of North Texas.

“In the black community, we’re always celebrating the doctors and lawyers who left the neighborhood and became a success,” she said.

“This film is about the people who stayed, the people who really helped out their neighbors who had fallen on hard times through love and nurturing and community support.”

In addition to a screening at the Akron Art Museum at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Voices of the Hill will play at 4:05 p.m. Friday and 1:05 p.m. Sunday at Tower City.

Carter will be in attendance Saturday, along with several of the high school filmmakers and folks from Twinsburg Heights.

The film was shot largely by the students. “It’s not just my film,” Carter said. “It belongs to the students and the people who were interviewed. It’s really the community’s documentary.”

Clint O’Connor can be reached at 330-996-3582 or coconnor@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @ClintOMovies .