Let’s call this “A New Hope,” because the New York City Cannabis Film Festival (NYCCFF) is back to kick off its fifth year of cinematic jubilation – and with talk of adult-use legalization in the air, it could well be the last prohibition-era edition. Created by High NY, the state’s largest cannabis community meetup group, the beloved festival seeks to reverse the stigmas around the plant and, in the words of founder Michael Zaytsev, “provide a safe space for filmmakers and enthusiasts to celebrate Cannabis positive art.”

Since 2015 NYCCFF has annually screened shorts, features, and documentaries that explore all facets of cannabis culture, from medical and scientific revelations to artistic fantasies. This year’s iteration promotes affirmative vibes right from the get-go, as it will be hosted in Bushwick’s famed House of YES, a creative collective and nightlife performance space (Time Out has lauded partying there as the #2 coolest thing to do in the world). Patrons from all over the cannabis sector are coming out to support, such as the Cannabis World Congress & Business Expo; Citiva, Brooklyn’s first dispensary; the publicly-traded extraction company HempAmericana; Come Back Daily, a popular Tribeca CBD retail shop and experiential center; High Beautiful, an accessories, apparel, and events company; telemedicine platform NuggMD, which helps patients enroll in New York’s medical marijuana program; and the veteran-owned 3D printing company Roboto.NYC (the makers of the festival’s awards).

As usual, award categories are varied – such as Most High, Best Music Video, Best Journalism Film – and moviegoers of all tastes will find something to inspire them. Notable selections include Out of Options by Edward R. Murrow award winner Todd Wiseman, a documentary following Texas families as they explore cannabis treatment for their children’s epilepsy; the highly acclaimed One Bedroom, about an African-American couple in a gentrifying neighborhood (it’s won Best Feature at the Tallahassee Film Festival, London Film Awards, LA Film Awards and many more plaudits); and the experimental paean to New York called City of Dreams. Multi-sensual treats will abound, both the visually arresting kind onscreen and free popcorn and munchies supplied by favorite local eateries.

It’s been a big season already for cannabis-themed documentaries such as Mary Janes: The Women of Weed, Ricki Lake’s Weed the People, and the scientific odyssey The God Plant. While festival founder Zaytsev hasn’t seen those films yet, he salutes their efforts to raise awareness for the cause. He is, however, psyched for NYCCFF to challenge audience’s perceptions and transport them to worlds of pure imagination. As a pioneer in modern cannabis culture and the bestselling author of The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Cannabis, the visionary certainly knows how to craft life-changing experiences. We caught up with Zaytsev to find out how the festival is expanding in the mode of its more mainstream cousins, and how people can, as he encouraged in his 2016 TEDx talk, “Think Differently About Cannabis.”

HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: What is the mission of High NY, and how did you create NYCCFF?

MICHAEL ZAYTSEV: High NY’s mission is to raise public awareness around Cannabis and to cultivate consciousness around the many ways this magical plant positively impacts humanity. Many High NYers enjoy pairing Cannabis and cinema; many filmmakers and artists utilize Cannabis in their creative process already. However, these relationships have been in the shadows and I wanted to change that. The NYC Cannabis Film Festival is an attempt to be authentically loud and proud of the Cannabis lifestyle –whatever that is.I remember when I was in high school, the Tribeca Film Festival [had just] launched. Now it’s huge. I thought to myself, the NYC Cannabis Film Festival can grow into an iconic cultural event too. Why not?

What makes the creativity of the cannabis community unique? What do we learn through cannabis narratives, both fictionalized and told through documentaries?

I’m guessing it’s the Cannabis. (Laughs) In my experiences with High NY and in my international travels, weed makes friends. I believe the Cannabis plant allows those who consume it to access a different–perhaps a higher–perspective. By seeing things differently, you become more open to new possibilities, more curious, more compassionate. I believe those qualities-openness, curiosity, compassion–are hallmarks of the Cannabis community.

In what ways is NYCCFF helping to break stigmas and end Prohibition?

I believe that just by existing and having a space where people can go enjoy art that honors Cannabis helps to normalize the plant and undo the stigma against it. Some of the films are very educational and inspirational and I believe they have the power to spark the ambition of the next great Cannabis leader.

What makes House of YES such a great venue for the festival, and what can we expect about this year’s incarnation that will be different from previous versions?

House of YES is one of the coolest venues in the world. It’s near and dear to my heart because in 2016, I delivered my TEDx talk there. The venue is beautiful and funky in an elegant way. I’m in awe to be hosting the film festival at such a prestigious venue and also to have Brooklyn’s first Cannabis dispensary participating as a patron of the festival. For me personally, this year’s festival will forever stand out as one of the most special of the ~50ish events I’ve produced.This year, we’ve got free popcorn, pizza, sandwiches, and ice cream for the attendees. I hope they have the munchies.

A number of acclaimed works have debuted at NYCCFF, like Dark Harvest with Cheech Marin. Which films are you most excited about in this year’s program?

Wow, that’s tough. Most people don’t know this, but I was a film studies minor in undergrad. Every film in the festival is pretty dope, but I have to say I was completely blown away by City of Dreams and think it’s a cinematic masterpiece. It’s jam-packed of gorgeous NYC visuals that left me in awe. It’s like the Samsara of NYC.

On Film Freeway, you say you give priority to submissions of medical cannabis documentaries, though clearly much is offered in the way of narrative projects too. What do you look for when you select the films?

Quality, creativity, and integrity. Ultimately, I want to give the audience a fantastic moviegoing experience. The best films are the ones that are like Cannabis; they offer the viewer a new perspective or an elevation of the spirit.

Do you think that Governor Cuomo’s recent calls for adult-use legalization will change the way that people view these films?

No, I don’t think Cuomo’s calls will do much to change how people view the films. The films speak for themselves. Maybe Cuomo will help me sell some tickets as some people will feel safer going to a “Cannabis event” because they think legalization is around the corner.

Any other big messages for the mainstream community?

Mainstream media world, if you’re watching, get involved with the festival soon before the price gets too high.

The New York City Cannabis Film Festival’s program takes place at House of YES on Sunday, January 13, 2019. Short film blocks screen at 12PM and 6PM, feature blocks at 3PM and 9PM. Visit www.NYCCFF.com for more information and get tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/nyc-cannabis-film-festival-tickets-52516491239 Learn more about High NY events at www.HighNY.com or follow on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.