FESTIVALS: Sarasota's Sunny Family Reunion of Film
by Andrea Meyer
Attending Florida's Sarasota Film Festival feels a bit like crashing a fancy family reunion. Welcome to five fun-filled days of glamorous parties and special events in a sunny beach town, where everyone seems to know everyone else (how can cold impersonal Park City compare?). Film professionals -- filmmakers, actors, press, the odd agent or production executive - appear like the kinds of invited dates that everyone wants to know better.
The locals pamper visitors with beachfront accommodations, good food, and a flattering fascination with its guests until the novelty wears off and they return to the comfortable company of their blood relatives. And the movies? At the moment, the raison d'être of the festival -- the more than fifty films screened -- seems to be second priority. If this is a family reunion, the films are the boat rides that everyone joins in as a prelude to the next cocktail party.
Community support and star-powered special events are the festival's strongest assets. For a fledgling festival in its second year, Sarasota put on quite an impressive show. Embraced by the arts-savvy community as another important date in their busy social calendar, the festival spotlights a nightly screening followed by a reception hosted by a local sponsor. The occasion gives locals and guests alike a chance to don their fancier attire and party with the stars. Opening night featured a cute but uninspired romantic comedy, "Seven Girlfriends" by Paul Lazarus, which stars Tim Daly as a guy who tracks down his exes (Olivia D'Abo, Laura Leighton, Mimi Rogers, and Jami Gertz, among other familiar pretty faces) in the hope of learning why he can't maintain a decent relationship. The after-party was a raucous affair featuring a mountain of raw shrimp, sushi, and fruit that was miraculously sweet for January.
Evening number two's focus was "Looking for an Echo" by Martin Davidson ("The Lords of Flatbush," "Eddie and the Cruisers"), a moving portrait of the once-successful lead singer of a doo-wop band (Armand Assante) who gave it all up to have a family. (The director is in negotiations for a summer release). Davidson was present with his wife and costume designer, Sandy, and rising young star Edoardo Ballerini, an actor with a lot of promise and looks that suggest a cross between Skeet Ulrich and Val Kilmer. Ballerini, who plays Assante's budding rock star son, was the center of attention at another after party, this time with disco ball and professional ballroom dancers.
As the week went on, the guest stars gained in popularity and appeal. The crowds put on tuxedos and gowns for a gala honoring Jon Voight (winner of the Regal Cinemas Lifetime Achievement Award) and pastel suits for a luncheon tribute to Gena Rowlands. Film critics Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, and Richard Corliss were there to give tribute to both actors, and journalist Kathleen Carroll joined them in honoring Mr. Voight. The crown jewel was a party at the palatial waterfront home of a local supporter following the screening of "The Weekend," directed by Brian Skeet and starring Brooke Shields, Gena Rowlands, and D.B. Sweeney, all of whom were present. (A Gena Rowlands retrospective would have perfected the program, but alas, the festival programming does not yet equal its social flair).
The lavish event was followed by a late night tribute to Stephen Dorff, recipient of the Young Lions award for a remarkable "rising star." Dorff was flanked by an entourage that included producers Sandy Stern and Michael Stipe ("Being John Malkovich"). A younger and rowdier crowd boogied until 4AM, when the honored guests relocated to the home of producing sponsor Mark P. Famiglio.
Scheduling was the festival's major downfall. While the pre-party screenings were packed, the locals -- and everyone else -- were conspicuously missing from those screenings sans after-parties. Many of the strongest films were hidden in the unpopular morning or early afternoon hours. A compelling Norwegian side bar, for example, included the devastating World War II story "A Warrior's Heart" by Leidulv Risan and the brilliant "Zero Kelvin" by Hans Petter Moland, about a young poet from Oslo who heads to the cold to work as a fur trapper. This intense work recalls early Polanski, as the hero is forced to live in close quarters with a bitter and often cruel hunter (Stellan Skarsgård) who mocks and berates his every move. One of the more disturbing and morally ambiguous movies I've seen in a long time, "Zero Kelvin" was virtually ignored by festival audiences.
Also screening were festival circuit favorites such as Damien O'Donnell's "East is East," a hilarious and poignant Miramax release about an interracial Manchester family that is torn apart when their father tries to impose Pakistani traditions on them, and Jasmin Dizdar's "Beautiful People" about disparate Londoners whose lives are affected by the war in Bosnia, to be released by Trimark. Another highlight was the Kidsfest, which included two separate programs (for 4-8 year olds and 9-12 year olds) of animated masterpieces. Konstantin Bronzit's hysterical "At the Ends of the World" is an absolute must-see that only about twenty people saw, even though it was screened two times.
The festival could benefit from hiring an experienced programmer to deal with scheduling glitches. For now, the hard-working staff is aware of the problems and intent on rectifying them. "I never expected this to happen this quickly," says Festival Executive Director Jody Kielbasa. "In the last three weeks, all of the sudden, we found out that producers, directors, and writers were coming in for their films. Of course you have some scheduling conflicts and glitches as a result of that." For example, Ismail Merchant accompanied his film "Cotton Mary," along with two actors, Phil Tabor and Sakina Jaffrey, and the film was screened at the same time as the reception for "The Weekend." "Last Chance" by Bryan Cranston and "The Last Best Sunday" by Don Most (Ralph from "Happy Days"), which features a truly outstanding performance by newcomer Angela Bettis, are two noteworthy films that were also up against "special event screenings." Luckily, both Most and Cranston were there to personally promote afternoon screenings, which were well attended.
More neglected were films that did not have a director or cast member present. The best time slots were given to the "Special Event Screenings" which took place every night at 6:30 with a Q&A and party following, making it difficult to see any of the nighttime programs. "I think we're a victim of our own success," says Kielbasa. "It kind of exploded. I think that in the future, we'll have to expand. We'll have to be over two weekends."
Sarasota is a young festival. The staff is still searching for a focus. They have garnered community support to create some great events and attract first-rate talent, both of which will help ensure support in the future. Now they've got to get down to the basics -- attracting strong films and scheduling them so that they can actually be seen.