Following my dalliance with Bacchus in Orlando, I hopped on I-4 and I-75 and headed across the state to Sarasota for the second half of that event. While I certainly had a good time at the Florida Film Festival and think it's a fantastic event, those who know me are well versed in my deep love for the festival that lies 130 miles to the Southwest and this year was no exception. in everything from programming (the most important aspect of a festival, of course) to hospitality to organization to extracurricular options, the Sarasota Film Festival (sometimes referred to as SRQ, the local airport's call letters) does a masterful job at putting on a show. I was excited to be returning.
First things first, however, as I met Submarine Films' Josh Braun at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota for a Spring Training match-up between the Cincinnati Reds, who train in Sarasota and my beloved New York Yankees who train an hour North in Tampa. Even if you're not a baseball fan, if you're in the position to see a spring game, with teenagers trying to impress and an intimate setting, you should take it. Josh and I sat in the shade (lucky us, as it was sweltering) and chatted about films and festivals and baseball. We should have passed a baton, since while I was arriving in Sarasota from Orlando, Josh was departing the former for the latter.
While much is made of the demographics of the area (the joke goes: "You know those folks who retire to Miami or Boca? Their parents live in SRQ.") it is also a very cinema savvy audience and one that's not even remotely afraid of busting a filmmaker's chops about something that concerns them in a film or performance. While the local audience does indeed skew older and you do get more than your share of folks who think they're in their living room and thus provide a running commentary during the film, it's also a concerned film audience who, for the most part, are eager and interested Q&A participants.
For example, one of this year's standout events was a live performance from TJ and Dave, aka TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, two Chicago actors who improvise 50-minute plays. I hate to use the "you just have to see it" excuse, but it's almost too amazing to believe. Each performance is completely improvised...on the spot! No discussions beforehand, no stock characters or settings, no planning. It's theater tightrope walking at its most exciting and the post-performance Q&A session was thoughtful and entertaining, with none of the "Come on! You guys write this out before, right? Stop foolin'!" kind of idiocy one might expect. An excellent film about the duo, "Trust Us, This is All Made Up" by director Alex Karpovsky screened at the festival in the days following the performance.
In recent years, Sarasota has become known for a few things, including championing the work of the most recent group of DIY filmmakers (Ry-Russo Young, Joe Swanberg, Aaron Katz and Michael Tully, to mention a few), programming exceptional non-film events alongside the festival and like most festivals these days, screening an outstanding group of documentaries. Through no plan of my own, all but one of the films I saw this year were docs and all were either very good or exceptional.
On the upper end of the scale was Samantha Buck's "21 Below," which had its world premiere in Sarasota. A largely vérité-style film about a middle class family in Buffalo, New York trying to keep from irrevocably shattering apart, "21 Below" addresses complex issues of class, race and gender, all within an extended Upstate New York family. Sophia Raab (also one of the film's producers) returns to visit her family when she learns that her pregnant 21 year-old sister Karen's 14 month-old daughter is dying from Tay-Sachs disease. On top of that, Karen's 29 year-old African-American former gang member (and at the time, drug dealing) boyfriend Courtney (and the father of her unborn child) is either unwilling or unable to step up to the plate and care financially for his family, thus helping to deepen a rift between Karen and her mother Peggy who is footing the bill for the couple.
While difficult to describe in print, the intertwining threads of the story are easily grasped in this well-edited portrayal of a family in the throes of dysfunction. The three women central to the story--sisters Sophia and Karen as well as mother Peggy--are all struggling to make sense of their situation and for Sophia that means trying to repair a long-standing feud between Peggy and Karen, while dealing with being pregnant for the first time. This is a story with elements that most of us can relate to, but rarely would one family have to face so many different issues at one time. "21 Below" gives us a look into a family that, despite myriad roadblocks and a tragedy that would destroy many families, continues to work at repairing their relationships and lives.
Supplementing the new films, SRQ's team of Tom Hall and Holly Herrick also offer attendees the chance to sample retrospective films. This year's honoree was the late, great Hal Ashby ("Harold and Maude," "Shampoo," "Being There"). In addition to a Saturday night panel discussion with Ashby actors Jon Voight and Burt Young, Ashby friend and set photographer Dianne Schroeder and author Nick Dawson ("Being Hal Ashby: Life Of A Hollywood Rebel") festival goers got the chance to see the world premiere of Ashby's recently discovered director's cut of "Lookin' To Get Out," starring Voight, Young and Ann-Margaret.
Of course Sarasota is loaded with other attractions, including great parties, tributes and a lovely setting, not to mention unrivaled hospitality. All of these combine to attract more and more filmmakers every year, all of whom dream of returning with other films. The low-key atmosphere ensure that filmmakers have a chance to mingle with each other, high-profile festival guests (both Bill Paxton and Richard Schiff attended the local karaoke nights) and locals (did someone say hot tubs at 4am?) in a warm and supportive atmosphere. What's not to
The complete list of winners at the 2009 Sarasota Film Festival:
Best Narrative Feature Award - "The Maid" directed by Sebastian Silva.
Special Jury Prize - "Children of Invention" directed by Tze Chun.
Special Jury Prize for Cinematography - "Nurse. Fighter. Boy" directed by Charles Officer, with cinematography by Steve Cosens.
Best Documentary Feature Award - "Winnebago Man" directed by Ben Steinbauer.
Special Jury Prize for Cinematography - "Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same" directed and shot by Jody Lee Lipes.
2009 Audience Award For Best Narrative Feature - "That Evening Sun" directed by Scott Teems.
2009 Audience Award For Best Documentary Feature - "Over The Hills And Far Away" directed by Michel O. Scott.
2009 Audience Award For Best In World Cinema - "Nurse. Fighter. Boy" directed by Charles Officer.
The 2009 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best Short Film - "Second Guessing Grandma" directed by Bob Giraldi.