Now in Year Seven, Sarasota Fest Bounces Back with Stronger Programming
by Lily Oei
Now seven years in, the 2005 Sarasota Film Festival continues to establish itself as a regional fest worth checking out. Ambitious and enthusiastic, the festival more than made amends for last year's unexpected ending -- in which the jury opted not to award prizes.
No such problem occurred this year with a dozen awards handed out across several categories. As if redeeming itself for yesteryear, the 2005 jury selected a pair of winners for the Independent Vision prize: Rob Stefaniuk's "Phil The Alien" and James Westby's "Film Geek," entitling each to $2,500. Honors also went to Danny Boyle charmer "Millions" in the narrative feature category and Stephen Vittoria's documentary, "One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern."
Audience prizes worth $1,000 were presented to Dave McKean's "Mirrormask" for fiction, and Rebecca Dreyfus' "Stolen" in the doc category. The World Cinema audience prize recognized forthcoming Magnolia release, "Ong Bak: Thai Warrior (Thailand)." Tony Mosher's short "Frijolito, Go!" picked up kudos in its cateogry, while the Emerging Filmmaker Award went to USC's Jason White for his short, "Spins."
In its ten days (Jan. 28- Feb. 6) fest faced small technical hiccups, but otherwise smooth sailing for its packed schedule of screening and special events for guests including Gary Busey, Rutger Hauer, Lainie Kazan, and Leslie Caron. Community wide outdoor events including the Hollywood Family Fair and World Cinema Celebration drew out the locals in droves.
Programming-wise, Sarasota boasted four world premieres, six U.S., 15 East Coast, and 29 southeast. The entirety of Wednesday dedicated to foreign films and a salute to Wellspring, with four films featured at the festival. At the screening of Zeitgeist's Danish film "Rule No. 1" one audience member (we hope) jokingly groaned, "Not more subtitles... it gets in the way of T&A."
Film selection was masterminded by Tom Hall, in his first year as director of programming. "My thought is, one for them, one for me," explained Hall of the lineup. Indeed, to appeal to young and old, the schedule was a rich mix and match of films, from the politically-minded "Return to Sender" to lighter fare such as Barry Strugatz's loopy sci-fi romance "From Other Worlds." Over the next few days, there was even room for the experimental, such as Jia Zhangke's "The World" and "Chain" by Jem Cohen.
"People have responded to the 'me' films," beamed Hall. "People want to have a serious film festival and they rise to the occasion."
While French drama "Kings and Queen" went over well, it could be pointed out that Asia Argento's "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things" and "Chain" were not as eagerly embraced by the locals. Former received an F in the local paper, and the latter triggered an awkward mass exodus of elderly patrons navigating stadium seating in the dark. More successful was the screening of quad rugby doc, "Murderball" fresh from it's award-winning turn at Sundance. On Saturday (Feb 5), subject Joe Soares and a number of players from local teams were in attendance to support the film, some unabashedly shouting out (at one point, "quad porn" during the "sexual reawakening" clips) as the mood struck.
"This is a transition year. It really is a delicate balance of finding stuff that's appealing and credible," said Hall.
Hall's efforts were praised by first time visitors including Rebecca Dreyfus, director of "Stolen." "They seem to have a palette for real filmmaking here," said Dreyfus. "The people running the festival set high expectations for themselves -- Tom has done an extraordinary job."
Programming aside, local awareness of the festival in Sarasota is hard to beat. A culturally rich town on the Gulf Coast with their own symphony, ballet, and even circus, the entire county seemed to be on the volunteer staff, shuttling visitors to and from airports and around town. The local media were everywhere on the scene, and klieg lights lit the way at each fete -- of which there were many. Opening night's "The Thing About My Folks" packed in 1,700 followed by a celebration at the Ringling Museum of Art that had the town talking for days. Attendees at Saturday night's Gala on the Green included Jerry Springer and Connie Nielsen, and what seemed like several boatload of shrimp served in every possible permutation. Enthusiasm for dressy functions continued the rest of the week at Friday's Night of a Thousand Stars, and ended with the Filmmakers Tribute Dinner at the Ritz Carlton where Leslie Caron and Rutger Hauer shared the stage.
Executive director Jody Kielbasa, spotted at the Filmmakers Tribute Dinner, agreed that things had "gone very well and smoothly." "We hit our mark and all of the events," he said. And to those who complained that the festival included a lot of glitzy gatherings said Kielbasa, "Films are at the core of the festival and I think that's reflected in this year's program."
Beyond the walls of the Regal Hollywood 20, public discussions were held in a courtyard nearby. Visiting filmmakers and industryites (including Wellspring's Marisa Keselica and David Mueller, Magnolia's Tom Quinn, and First Run's Seymour Wishman, engaged in a number of talks with topics ranging from the "Changing View of World Cinema" to "Delivering Distribution."
The demographic of local community -- which includes a pair of colleges -- instigated the inclusion of the Independent Visions concert series, where indie films were paired with alterna-tunes. Eclectic Devotchka, unlike anything the town had seen before with its four man, seven instrument band, had the crowd at Khrome bouncing on Monday night. Good sports that they were, the band went back on stage in the wee hours of the morning for Gary Busey who arrived after they had completed their set. Also on the Independent Visions bill, ex-Husker Du, Sugar frontman, Bob Mould, and Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. While both acts played solid shows, the performances suffered from being in the too-large Sarasota Municipal Auditorium.
The festival continued to court the same crowd on Tuesday, presenting a masterclass with Neil Gaiman ("Sandman," "American Gods") and his longtime collaborator, graphic artist Dave McKean in town with "Mirrormask," a "Labyrinth"-like coming of age fairy tale. By the end of the hour, a line of devoted fans waiting autographs transformed the Asolo Theater into a mini-Comicon.
An even younger demo was targeted Saturday (Jan. 29) when the Hollywood Family Fair brought out 1200 participants. A weeklong educational outreach program in association with the Film Foundation screened "To Kill A Mockingbird" for nearly 9000 local school children across ten counties.
Brant Sersen of "Blackballed" and a festival veteran himself was duly impressed with the community turnout, recalling that some he had attended in other cities were completely ignored by locals. "Of all the festivals I've been to, this is in the top five," said Sersen. Sersen's mockumentary about a paintball champ (Rob Corddry of The Daily Show) who needs to redeem his reputation had some locals adopting the phrase "buttermilk princess" into their vocabulary.
Thanks to the warm reception, even those who had not considered the festival circuit began to rethink their possibilities. "Because it's a romantic comedy we didn't think it was festival fare," said writer/director Jeff Oppenheim who brought "Funny Valentine" to town. "You feel so welcome just going around hocking your wares."
Next year, the ever-evolving festival will move to March 31 - April 9, moving it away from the awards season madness. "There are thousands of people down here dying for film and culture," said program director Hall. "We need to get more people from the film community down here. The Southeast has huge potential."