it's been an interesting 12 months since last documenting French conwoman, Marie Castaldo. Thanks to Arnold Diaz, Willow Belden, a budding team of financial victims, led by Dan Nuxoll, who unified in making their complaints public, and websites like this one, the roof came crashing down on the founder and director of the now defunct, Queens International Film Festival, last year. Since then, distract attorneys from two separate New York counties working on two separate and unrelated cases, have put a stop on Castaldo, and in turn her burgeoning but corrupt festival.
In 2003, the Queens International Film Festival (better and more fittingly known as QiFF) began as a small, underground-type festival which screened only 10 films in Rego Park. That total doubled the following year and in 2005 the fest shed any underground status by finding a home at the Museum of the Moving Image, once a part of the Paramount Studios complex, in Astoria. By 2006 it added seven smaller locales around its base at the museum. A year later QiFF was even mentioned in the New York Times. A step back was taken in 2008 when due to a renovation being done at the museum the fest moved to a hotel near LaGuardia Airport. By 2009, however, and with the support of local politicos, it was on the verge of truly breaking out. Based at the uber modern, Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (just across the street from the museum) and with other smaller area screenings as well, QiFF was set to be a real player on the circuit. A French website, Frenchmorning.com, went so far as to call QiFF the "Cannes of Queens" in a fluff piece documenting its growth and Castaldo's many years in the film business.
Unfortunately, Frenchmorning, was not doing the type of homework that Diaz, Belden and Nuxoll put forward. On the surface QiFF, with its fancy screening and party venues, did seem like a player. A deeper look revealed a different story. One which exposed angry former festival workers, filmmakers, film goers and sponsors too. The 2009 festival was an exorcize in lies, fraud, and mind numbing incompetence.
If judged only on the incredible levels of incompetence, one could feel bad for Marie Castaldo. She came off as a hard worker in over her head. Someone unable to make the transition from underground to major festival due to poor planning and an even poorer group of assistants.
Incompetence, as seen with a story involving Cavu Pictures, was not the real problem. Cavu execs, Michael Sergio and Isil Bagdadi, were hired by Castaldo to give a lecture on film distribution for the festival. Due to traffic in getting to Astoria, Sergio and Bagdadi, both Queens natives, were late to that lecture. Phone calls to the festival about running late went unanswered, messages unreturned. When they finally arrived, about 20 minutes after the scheduled start, they spotted two strangers speaking to a room of filmmakers. The strangers, QiFF volunteers, were pretending to be replacement representatives from Cavu. Sergio and Bagdadi were surprised to hear that Marie had instructed the volunteers to come up with a story to cover for their absence. The volunteers couldn't even get that right as at first they claimed that Sergio and Bagdadi had both suffered from food poisoning but then suddenly changed the story to a more believable car accident. Sergo and Bagdadi laughed off the incident and relieved the volunteers from their Cavu duties and asked them to join the audience. According to one filmmaker however the crowd was less then amused, especially after one of the fake reps later dosed off while the real reps gave their real lecture.
As it turned out, incompetence was just one of many symptoms of the true disease. Unfortunately, that disease was Marie Castaldo's (according to the Queens Courier she has also gone by the aliases Jocelyne Castellano, Marie Jocelyne Rousseau, Marie Helene Rousseau, Marie Jocelyne Plante, Jocelyne Plante) widespread fraud. Through the years she has dabbled as a small-time producer, film distributor, acting school founder and festival founder of two previous scam fests before ever starting QiFF.
In 1997 she helped found the rather ambitious, Hollywood Film Festival. A dinner for the festival which cost over $35,000 was paid with a rubber check. A year and a half later she moved to the small Catskills village of Narrowsburg, New York. There, with her then husband, small-time actor/full-time liar, Richard Castaldo, the two became mini celebrities. Richard (who had already changed his name to Castellano in hopes of seeking a tie to the late mafia cappo, Big Paul Castellano) was fresh off the release of his first movie role, Analyze This. Playing alongside Robert De Niro, Richard shined in doing what he spent his entire life doing, being a pretend mobster. According to a radio segment on This American Life, Richard, who could easily pass for a movie star, mobster or both, was quick to fool many in the village of only 300. He'd often walk around Main Street with a hop in his step while sporting a black leather jacket and handing out autographed head shots to anyone in sight. Almost as often, he'd slip into the local diner and loudly proclaim "Free breakfast for everyone!" while throwing his newfound, Hollywood money around. He spoke in a demanding, scratchy voice and made big promises about bringing a movie, a film festival, even an acting studio to the sleepy hamlet. With the help of Marie, he made good on all of those promises. Of course each endeavor turned out to be a scam.
The film, Four Deadly Reasons, written in part by his then 16 year old son and produced by his wife (then going by the name Jocelyne Castellano) was shot with an actual crew and professional actors in the summer of 1999. Unfortunately, more people were ripped off than paid. None was ripped off more than Korean War veteran and local egg farmer, John Borg. According to the Public Radio International story, Borg, originally from Brooklyn, loaned $150,000, his entire life savings, to produce the film and never got any of it back. Crew members, promised less, had their checks bounce. Although some real actors like, Paul Borghese, who also directed the film, were hired and paid, Richard took advantage of starry-eyed beginners.
Through an acting school established with his wife, Richard promised SAG cards to students in exchange for cash. When those guild memberships never materialized, the students sued. While Richard was being sued on a number of fronts, so was Marie. Her festival, the Narrowsburg Independent International Film Festival, was started as promised, but checks to festival workers also bounced. They didn't bounce quite as high as the Hollywood fiasco (who in the Catskills would charge 35 G's for a one night shindig?) but she did owe over $16,000 to workers.
Even the Castaldo lawyer, Deb Ireland, filed a law suit after her work went unpaid. Ireland further had Marie arrested for verbal threats made against her. By the summer of 2000 the entire town had turned on the couple as both were facing a plethora of legal troubles. Richard, owing much more, and with a rap sheet which included the armed robbery of a Brooklyn shoe store, was eventually sentenced in May, 2001. Marie facing a bunch of small claim suits eventually skipped town. Borg was never paid in full as Richard filed for bankruptcy. Marie had earlier pulled the same bankruptcy stunt while in California. Eventually the devious duo divorced. Richard was sent up river while Marie resurfaced in Rego Park, Queens. Once again she did what she did best. By 2009 however, QiFF had grown so big that she wasn't simply skimming a couple of hundred dollars here and a thousand dollars there. By 2009, on top of the many smaller claims, she had owed advertising firm, Ballyhoo Central, $8,000, and Texas based promoter and producer, Kerry Wallum, $20,000.
Thanks to then City Councilor and current State Senator-elect, Tony Avella, as well as Queens Borough President, Helen Marshall, the Queens District Attorny, Richard Brown, was able to charge Marie on fraud and grand larceny. We're not sure when that case would have begun as Castaldo seemed to have abandoned her Rego Park apartment at 64-00 Saunders Street (other records had her living at 65-61 Saunders) for a Motel 8 room in Kingston, New York. It was while Upstate, on July 28th, 2010, when the entire Marie Castaldo saga took a stranger and more inhumane twist.
Living out of her room at 487 Washington Avenue, she started a dog kennel called Le Beau Chien Country Boarding. She offered her services to local animal rescues who paid her to shelter their dogs until they could find permanent homes. She had nearby friends watch 8 dogs from their home. Another 40 were placed inside the abandoned store front of what had been the Phoenicia Feed Store at 1026 Old Route 28 in Phoenicia. There, she confined the dogs, many muzzled, inside filthy cages where they were trapped in their own excrement. Occasionally, Marie would take some of the cleaner and healthier dogs to a parking lot in front of the West Hurley Supermarket, off Route 375, to sell on her own. Three separate bite incidents which led to one dog having to be euthanized eventually brought about a year long investigation by the SPCA. According to Nathan Duke, SPCA Executive Director, Brian Shapiro and his team of investigators made the arrest in late July. Shortly later, the Ulster County Sheriff's Office took over the case.
According to Arnold Diaz, the 48 dogs were not immediately up for adoption. Instead, they were held as evidence by county police (the police had earlier sent the dogs, all emaciated with many also suffering from open soars, to an emergency recovery center) as Ulster County DA, Holley Carnright, brought charges. After serving 42 days in a Shandaken jail, she was sent to Riker's Island while facing scheme to defraud and grand larceny charges being complied by the Queens DA. Brown charged her for $14,000 in unpaid services to QiFF workers. Wallum, who had not been paid upfront as promised by Castaldo, cancelled his QiFF concert (featuring Kris Kristofferson and Levon Helm) and moved the event to Woodstock, coincidentally near Castaldo's dog running racket. The promoter was forced to eat his $20,000 debt and could not join the others in their case but remained active on the Internet in making sure others did join.
Both cases ended with Castaldo pleading guilty. On probation due to her prior conviction in California, with over $50,000 in previous judgements already against her, and with her visa expired, Marie was deported back to France. Now the land of Jean-Luc Godard will have to be on the lookout for abused animals and corrupt film festivals. Meanwhile, with its reputation already ruined, QiFF died quietly last year. Its ties to WithoutABox, an online festival database has been severed, and its own rather impressive website has not only been shutdown, but its entire history has been scrubbed off any archived, time capsule searches. Without any archives what so ever, it's as if QiFF never happened. Yet, the legacy lives on. Not only in the infamous tales tied to Marie Castaldo, but in a new festival being put together by former Castaldo victims. Don and Katha Cato as well as William Shahin have teamed up to create the Queens World Film Festival which will debut in early 2011. A "Marie Castaldo Award" for best actress would be a fitting touch.*
Full Disclosure: I, Johnny Salvatore, worked for QiFF in 2009 and later wrote about my experience. Despite a few angry e-mails from Marie afterwards, as well as some cheerier ones from others like Dan Nuxoll, Marie did later send me a check for my services. Checks had also been sent to two friends who were also paid in full. One who worked as a photographer in 2009, another to a projectionist who was paid on time back in 2007. Perhaps we were simply the lucky ones.