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Surging Forward, Sarasota Fest Celebrates Films, Stars and Eyes A Homegrown Project

By Brian Brooks | Indiewire April 13, 2006 at 10:13AM

The Sarasota Film Festival has a few natural - and some not so natural - resources at its disposal that not all regional festivals can readily exploit. Situated along Florida's central Gulf coast, the average high temperature in April is about 82 degrees Fahrenheit, and the fest is also blessed with a seemingly supportive local populace of affluent fest-goers. Closing night, a few hundred showed up for an awards presentation in a tent at the upscale Longboat Key Club and Resort open to those willing to shell out $300 per person. But, the cash not only allowed guests to indulge in champagne, schmoozing and a chance to strut their designer best, it also gave them a chance to rub elbows, or at least subtley gawk, at the night's honorees including director Robert Altman, writer Robert Towne ("Mission Impossible II"), actors William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman as well as producer Paula Wagner ("Mission Impossible III") among others.
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The Sarasota Film Festival has a few natural - and some not so natural - resources at its disposal that not all regional festivals can readily exploit. Situated along Florida's central Gulf coast, the average high temperature in April is about 82 degrees Fahrenheit, and the fest is also blessed with a seemingly supportive local populace of affluent fest-goers. Closing night, a few hundred showed up for an awards presentation in a tent at the upscale Longboat Key Club and Resort open to those willing to shell out $300 per person. But, the cash not only allowed guests to indulge in champagne, schmoozing and a chance to strut their designer best, it also gave them a chance to rub elbows, or at least subtley gawk, at the night's honorees including director Robert Altman, writer Robert Towne ("Mission Impossible II"), actors William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman as well as producer Paula Wagner ("Mission Impossible III") among others.

Of course, a festival does not - or at least should not - survive on cash and stars alone, and the Sarasota Film Festival has certainly bolstered its programming. Just a few years ago narrative jurors refused to award a prize to any of the films in competition, but now, thanks to choices made by Sarasota executive director Jody Kielbasa and the fest's programming director Tom Hall (who hailed from the Nantucket Film Festival two years ago), the fest seems to have improved its selections.

"Overall, the festival grew by leaps and bounds this year," commented Hall in a chat with indieWIRE after the festival concluded on Saturday. "We worked very hard with our filmmakers, producers, distributors, and our community to meet the festival's ambitions and for the most part, those ambitions were met. When Werner Herzog and Robert Altman both express an interest in returning to Sarasota, you are obviously doing something right."

Herzog traveled to Sarasota, receiving the fest's World Cinema Master Award, and took part in a retrospective of his work, which screened fourteen of his non-fiction films, including his recent "Grizzly Man," "The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner" (1974) and even "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe" (1980, directed by Les Blank), in which Herzog makes good on a bet that then fledgling director Errol Morris would never make a feature, and takes to the stage to eat his shoe upon the premiere of Morris' "Gates of Heaven."

This year's narrative competition films included a line-up of fest-winning titles such as Romanian director Cristi Puiu's black comedy, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," which won awards in 2005 Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard section as well as Spirit and European film award nominations (and received a special jury prize in Sarasota). Multiple Venice '05 winner, "Mary" by Abel Ferrara joined the competition, about an actress (Juliette Binoche) who becomes inspired by the life of St. Mary Magdalene after playing her in a film.

This year's Sarasota winner, however, was Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy," a story of two friends, played by Daniel London and Will Oldham, who reunite for a hiking trip in Oregon's Cascade Mountains.

Seven documentary films screened in Sarasota's documentary film line up, including Toronto '05 favorite "51 Birch Street" by Doug Block, and Sundance special jury prize-winner "American Blackout" by Ian Inaba. Peter Richardson's doc, "Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon" took top honors in the jury competition in the category, while Gary Tarn's "Black Sun," received a special jury prize.

"Clear Cut" chronicles the upheaval in logging town Philomath, OR, which saw its traditional blue collar community change with the emergence of new affluent urban newcomers who changed the town's traditional "small town values" much to the dismay of local logging heirs who administer a scholarship program designed to defray tuition costs at the local high school. "Black Sun" is the story of painter and filmmaker Hugues de Montalembert who suffered blindness as a result of a mugging in New York City in 1978. The story is a unique and visually stunning first-person account of de Montalembert's attempt to deal with his loss of sight.

In all, the Sarasota Film Festival presented 185 features, docs and shorts, including sections on "Women's Voices," World Cinema, "Family Films," and "Independent Visions," making the Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20, the main screening venue for the festival in Sarasota's town center, a hive of activity for locals and the fest's numerous invited filmmakers throughout the ten day event. Maintaining audience attention is obviously a core programming goal.

"I think the key to a good festival is to program for your own tastes and for your understanding of the community in which you work," said Hall about finding films for this year's fest. "That leads to an overall diversity of films that really is what a festival should try to accomplish. Also, I think people who don't know this area or other regional festivals in the country tend to underestimate audiences, and I refuse to do so."

Director Steven Schachter and producer Keri Nakamoto (pictured here at the Sarasota closing gala) are teaming up with actor William H. Macy on new film, "The Deal," which will begin filming late summer in Budapest. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

The biz of festivals is a game in flux, however, and the Sarasota team appear committed to evolve. "I know Jody Keilbasa, our executive director, is deeply committed to improving what needs to be improved and further establishing the festival as a premiere regional film festival on the national scene, and I think we're on our way," said Hall. "Both Jody and I recognize there are several ways to grow and improve, including trying to connect artists with investors interested in film projects, and I think we will be setting a precedent for regional festivals in the coming months in terms of new initiatives and film projects finding a home at the festival."

One particular project on the horizon is "The Deal," a film spearheaded by actor William H. Macy, television director Steven Schachter and Sarasota resident Keri Nakamoto (a Sarasota Film Festival board member) who will produce the film with Macy. He will star in the film and Schachter will direct, the two adapted the screenplay, and Nakamoto told indieWIRE that "The Deal," which is a working title, is based on the novel of the same name by Peter Lefcourt. The romantic comedy will also star Lisa Kudrow.

The $8.725 million project will begin principal photography in Budapest in August, with additional filming in Canada and L.A. "I was turned on to this [story] by a script given to me by Jody [Kielbasa] and partnered with Bill [Macy]," Nakamoto to'd indieWIRE Thursday. "[We're] hoping to premiere the film at Sarasota next year."

2006 Sarasota Film Festival Winners:

2006 Narrative Feature Competition Award: "Old Joy," directed by Kelly Reichardt, and starring Daniel London and Will Oldham.
Special Jury Prize: "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," directed by Cristi Puiu, and starring Ion Fiscteanu and Luminita Gheorghiu.

2006 Documentary Feature Competition Award: "Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, OR," directed by Peter Richardson.
Special Jury Prize: "Black Sun," directed by Gary Tarn.

The 2006 Independent Visions Competition Award: "Find Love," directed by Erica Dunton.
Special Jury Prize for Screenwriting: "Somebodies," written and directed by Hadjii.
Special Jury Prize for Originality: "Wild Tigers I Have Known," directed by Cam Archer.

2006 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature: "Neo Ned," director Van Fischer.

2006 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature: "Abel Raises Cain," directors Jennifer Abel and Jeff Hockett.

2006 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best In World Cinema: "Lady Vengeance," director Chan-Wook Park.

2006 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best Short Film to "Dammi Il La," director Matteo Servente

[DISCLOSURE: indieWIRE Associate Editor Brian Brooks served on the documentary jury at this year's Sarasota Film Festival.]