FESTIVALS: It's Not Much Like Los Angeles -- Or Is It? 16th Santa Barbara Fest Takes on Industry
by Fiona Ng
(indieWIRE/03.19.01) -- Comparatively speaking, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival was a gathering of a more homey sort, in which power brokering and cell phone-toting publicists gave way largely (but not entirely) to a festival-going public sizably comprised of senior retirees and local patrons, but who -- when it came to getting a seat at a sold-out screening -- could be just as vicious.
As one long-time patron imparted to me sometime during the 11-day festival, which wrapped a week-ago Sunday with an award ceremony and a screening of Ken Loach's "Bread and Roses," Santa Barbara has always pride itself for being "not much like Los Angeles." Still, the SBIFF -- now in it's 16th year -- has long become a small attraction for folks in the biz, no doubt being as drawn to the city's oceanfront living as to the slew of films, seminars and special tributes on the festival slate -- including some spotlight bashes with decidedly Hollywood names like Rob Reiner and "Gladiator" producer Douglas Wick. So Los Angeles it might not be, but enough industry-types, haggling publicists, hustling agents, struggling actors, filmmakers looking for distribution and studio reps with the power of distribution were in Santa Barbara for it to take on the semblance of an L.A. scene.
This year alone, five tributes, some 15 seminars and symposia and more than 85 films vied for the attention of festival-goers. I myself stuck close to the task of trying to hit all the homegrown U.S. or world premiering indie films, ended up catching six out of eight, with director Hyatt Bass's familial drama "75 Degrees in July" and Julie Davies' sex comedy "Amy's Orgasm" -- winner of the Audience Choice Award for best feature -- being the more memorable out of the overall lackluster pack.
The true gems of the festival might best be described as previews of what's to come in the art-houses: Agnes Varda's humanizing documentary "The Gleaners and I," where the French New Wave harbinger takes to the road, following the trails of the titular gleaners -- dumper-divers and scavengers who live and thrive on what is generally considered "trash" -- while mediating on the finality of life; "Sexy Beast," the stylish British caper from director Jonathan Glazer about an erstwhile gangster (Ray Winstone) muscled out of retirement in Spain by a whacked-out middleman (Ben Kingsley) who won't take no for an answer. This one easily puts Guy Ritchie to shame.
Another notable from the world cinema program was Francis Veber's latest comedy "Le Placard" ("The Closet"), a film without U.S. distribution that stars Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu. The farce, about a man who pretends to be gay in order to save his job, was shown as part of a special tribute to the French writer-director. After the screening, the "La Cage Aux Folles" and "The Dinner Game" helmer offered his take on why U.S. adaptations of his films -- take the disastrous "The Birdcage" for instance -- usually suck. "I think that when a producer sees a foreign movie that he likes, he buys it, he shows that to a local writer and they want to make it richer, and more interesting," he said. "And they add things to the original movie that is sometimes wrong. I've seen that with my movies, where American writers are trying to make them better and sometimes it is just. . . un-digestible."
Indigestible in its own way, but every bit worth it was the West Coast premiere of Rosemary Rodriguez' "Acts of Worships" -- one of the best films of the festival, if I dare say. And apparently, the award committee thought so, too. The film -- one harrowing look at drug addiction on the streets of New York through the downward spiraling experience of a young street kid (Ana Reeder) -- earned Reeder the prize for best actress and two first-time director nods (Independent Voice Award and the Perrier's Award for best new director). "I have a personal pet peeve for glamorizing drug addiction. My intention was to do something, which I thought was lacking in movies, which was a realistic depiction of addiction," Rodriguez said, adding that she plans to bring the film to more festivals (the film debuted at Sundance and then went to Rotterdam) until she finds distribution.
Besides the customary eavesdropping one has come to perfect waiting in line after incessant line, the most illuminating thing the festival had in store were the symposia and seminars, where industry pros dispensed insights and information on every aspect of the trade, from selling an idea ("The Art of the Pitch") to producing ("Movers and Shakers") to directing ("Directors on Directing") to lighting a film ("Writing with Light") and notable "It Starts with the Script" symposium, covered last week in indieWIRE.
Noteworthy also was the seminar "Digital Realities" -- one of a program of six seminars focusing on digital cinema, the technology and the challenges facing the imminent transition from traditional filmmaking to that of digital video. Mediated by RES Magazine's editor Holly Willis, the roster of guests included (Sundance fav) "Dogtown" director Stacy Peralta, "Better Living Through Circuitry" documentarian Jon Reiss, "Northern Lights" director and digital guru Rob Nilsson and cinematographer Judy Irola.
Other than under-recognized screenwriters and obscure indie filmmakers, the SBIFF was keen on celebrities -- bona fide, marquee ones. This year brought to town two excellent actors, Ben Kingsley and Diane Keaton, on the pretext of honoring them with two special awards, the Special Tribute and the Modern Master Award, respectively.
"I think that what you have to do is you have to -- as an actor -- find the character who will make the text as a whole inevitable," Kingsley reflected on his prolific acting career between film clips of his work.
The same treatment was afforded to Diane Keaton, who was bestowed the Modern Master Award. Talk show guy Larry King moderated the event, which also included film clips showing and discussion with the actress. "Two words: Woody Allen," thus began the acceptance speech delivered by Keaton during the ceremony. Though the "Annie Hall" filmmaker was routinely absent, Keaton's "Father of the Bride" co-star Steve Martin was there to hand her the paperweight.
And last but not least, there was Rob Nilsson, who really is in a class all his own (and that's not necessarily a compliment). The filmmaker, responsible for the Sundance winner "Heat and Sunlight" and "Chalk," screened his latest project "Stroke," a digitally-shot feature founded upon improvisation with his San Francisco-based acting workshop the Tenderloin Y-Group. During the discussion, Nilsson was characteristically anti, pooh-poohing everything from the current state of cinema to working with a script.
"We are working on a kind of anti-cinema. We're not interested in the glitz, and the Hallmark card look," pontificated Nilsson during the Q & A after the screening. "The only thing we are interested is the way character is usually set up. We're not very interested in the way actors are normally set into circumstance. What we're trying to do is to create character and circumstance that is more the way that it happened to us."
"I think we need some arts that comes from the ground," Nilsson continued. "I'm tired of the stuff I see."
On that note, let's call it a wrap.
[Fiona Ng freelances as a writer in Los Angeles.]