"Tapia" Screening at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival
Casey Cipriani "Tapia" Screening at the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival

Roger Ebert once wrote about the Toronto International Film Festival, "In the beginning, its organizers were happy to sell out a 500-seat theater." 

The same can be said for The Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, whose inaugural fest was financed with funds won in a no-limit poker game, and welcomed 500 attendees. Now in its fifth year, SFIFF has grown into the highest attended festival in the state of New Mexico. 

SFIFF was born in 2009 when co-founders and filmmakers Jacques Paisner and David Moore decided to start a festival honoring local filmmakers and stories. In the five years since its inception, SFIFF has grown exponentially each year, expanding its programming to include national and international films. By 2012, SFIFF had grown to 5,000 attendees. This year, it is expected to hit 10,000. 

"When we started this five years ago, we had no idea what it would become, and we certainly didn't think it would be as massive," Paisner said on opening night. SFIFF has since been embraced by local theaters and businesses as a celebration of homegrown talent and emulates the early years of independent film festivals like a young Sundance.

This year's SFIFF opened Wednesday night with a screening of John Sayles' "Go For Sisters" starring Yolonda Ross, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Edward James Olmos. Shot under four weeks with a budget well under $1 million, "Go For Sisters" is a return to Sayles' signature guerrilla style film making.

Actress Yolonda Ross and Co-Founder Jacques Paisner
Casey Cipriani Actress Yolonda Ross and Co-Founder Jacques Paisner

"John Sayles is a modern day Cassavetes," Paisner said. "He's doing something that embodies what The Santa Fe Film Festival believes in." Ross, known to wider audiences for her role on HBO's "Treme," saw the film for the first time at SFIFF and loved that it featured elements of a gritty action film, but in a more realistic way. "It's a real actors movie," Ross said. "It's got action but it's not a shoot 'em up, bang bang."

Before "Go For Sisters" began, Ross also premiered her short film "Breaking Night," which follows a young woman who flees a horrible home situation. Ross was inspired to write and direct the film because of what she saw as a lack of significant roles for black women. "I also wanted to see what I could do behind the camera," she said. Ross is now in the process of writing a feature length film that she plans to direct.

SFIFF's local focus was showcased Thursday night at the sold out screening of Eddie Alcazar's "Tapia," the documentary chronicling world champion boxer and New Mexico native Johnny Tapia. Tapia's success was plagued by drug addiction and depression stemming from the rape and murder of his mother when he was 8 years old. The film marked its New Mexican premiere to a sold out crowd at the 800 seat Lensic Theater.

Chris Eyre (Director, "Smoke Signals") at "Tapia"
Chris Eyre (Director, "Smoke Signals") at "Tapia"

Local film fans, family members, boxing fans and citizens of Tapia's native Albuquerque packed the 82-year-old theater and gave the film a roaring applause. "The fans tonight were so amazing," said producer Andrea Monier.  "Obviously they were very receptive to the film. They knew Johnny and it was so lovely to hear all of their stories. They told me about the first time they met him and how they saved the newspaper clippings."

Tapia passed away only three weeks after shooting completed. Monier and Alcazar are now working on a feature film based on Tapia's earlier years.

SFIFF continues tonight with the New Mexican premiere of "Sweetwater," a 19th century set Western starring January Jones and Ed Harris that was shot locally.

But New Mexico isn't the only location that SFIFF is honoring this year. The fest is also highlighting the city of Baltimore with screenings of Lofty Nathan's "12 O'clock Boys," "I am Divine," a documentary about the famous drag queen, and John Waters performing his one man show, "This Filthy World." 

SFIFF closes Sunday evening with "Ass Backwards," a comedy starring Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael.