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FESTIVALS: Santa Barbara’s Grand Ambitions, Out of Reach or Just in Sight?

FESTIVALS: Santa Barbara's Grand Ambitions, Out of Reach or Just in Sight?

FESTIVALS: Santa Barbara's Grand Ambitions, Out of Reach or Just in Sight?

by Andrea Meyer

As its artistic director and former film producer Renèe Missel says, “I want us to be a cross between Telluride and Sundance, a mini market and a festival where one can see terrific films, and be a meeting place for filmmakers. I would like to start an Institute here and offer a directing and writing lab for filmmakers where they could develop projects. All that is needed is funding.”

With a glut of small festivals cropping up in just about every town on the globe, it will take a lot more than funding to lure the best films and the industry that comes with them to a small-town event. So can the SBIFF, propelled by Renèe Missel’s vision, transcend the masses of smaller festivals to become a market and showcase for important new films? “I am trying to position Santa Barbara as one of the top film festivals in California,” Missel says. “With our proximity to Hollywood, our beautiful locale, and good programming, why not?”

Unfortunately, in this cutthroat industry, good intentions do not a top festival make. Buyers, celebrities, negotiations, international press, and major cinematic discoveries are necessary to build status and reputation. Like many other festivals, Santa Barbara had documentaries, foreign films, retrospectives, awards, an injection of life into the sleepy city streets, but still the question is begging to be asked: how is this festival different from any of the others?

Adam Vetri, who screened his film “Not Afraid to Say,” a New York twenty-something romantic comedy, found the festival more relaxed and supportive than others he’s attended. “It seemed that everyone I talked to said, ‘Oh yeah, we heard about your film. We’re coming Monday.’ And they did!” Impressed with the promotion of his film, he added, “I’ve never seen my film with a sold out house before, having people stand in the back because they couldn’t find seats. It was truly an amazing experience.”

Missel is very clear about her programming goals: “better and better films, bringing the world to Santa Barbara, mentoring new filmmakers, [and] strong Human Rights films.” While she is some way off from achieving those lofty goals, the film program offers a bit of everything. The international line-up was particularly strong. In addition to a Zhang Yimou retrospective, there were French favorites like the whacked comedies “Bernie” and “Le Crèateur” by Albert Dupontel and Academy Award nominee “East-West” by Règis Wargnier, Norway’s charming romantic comedy “The Prompter” by Hilde Heier, and an outstanding Spanish program, that included Vicente Aranda‘s “Jealousy” and Fernando Trueba‘s “The Girl of Your Dreams.”

In addition to “Me & Isaac Newton” by Michael Apted and “Barenaked in America” by Jason Priestly, the documentary program included quite a few films just off the boat from Sundance, such as “Americanos! Latino Life in the United States” by Susan Todd and Andrew Young, “Legacy” by Tod Lending, “Long Night’s Journey into Day” by Frances Reid and Deborah Hoffman, and “Scottsboro: An American Tragedy” by Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker, as well as James Ronald Whitney‘s brave “Just, Melvin” about the shocking cycles of child abuse, incest and depression in his own family, which won here the Body Shop’s Insight Award for best documentary.

In keeping with Missel’s focus on social issues, a Human Rights side bar that included Haskell Wexler‘s “Bus Riders Union,” Lisa Gossels and Dean Wetherell‘s “The Children of Chabannes,” and Meema Spadola‘s “Our House: A Very Real Documentary about Kids of Gay and Lesbian Parents,” brought even more documentaries to Santa Barbara. The Fund for Santa Barbara’s Human Rights Award, for a film promoting social justice and human rights, went to Kevin McKiernan‘s “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds.”

Where all film festivals compete to the bitter end is, of course, the American indies section. And it’s the lesser-known festivals like Santa Barbara that inevitably come up short. Among the usual dizzying mix of bland romantic comedies, coming of age flicks, and clever twenty-something ensemble pieces, a few films stood out. Amy Goldstein‘s “East of A,” which won the Body Shop’s $5,000 Burning Vision award, takes a neat spin on the three cute roommates in a New York loft thing, by only showing one day a year for ten years. While not always super-realistic, the film is very funny and often moving, and performances by leads (and screenwriters) Patrick Breene, Scott Kraft, and Nadine Van der Velde are great. Martin Davidson‘s “Looking for an Echo,” starring Armand Assante as a one-hit wonder who has to face his past before embracing his future, continued its trip along the festival circuit. Davidson attended with a large chunk of his cast and crew in tow, including promising newcomers Edoardo Ballerini and Christy Romano.

Robert J. Siegel‘s surprisingly touching coming of age tale, “Swimming” (following debuts at Slamdance and Rotterdam) tells the story of one confusing summer, when an unusual young girl’s life is turned upside down when she’s befriended by the sexy new girl in town. With a subtle yet compelling performance by Lauren Ambrose, this film manages to slowly reveal the lead’s growth and self-discovery without whacking the viewer over the head.

Jon Dichter‘s “The Operator” is more ambitious than most of the low-budget American selections. This psychological thriller stars Michael Laurence as a smug, attractive lawyer who cheats on his wife. When he lashes out at a telephone operator, the wronged public servant decides to become the agent of his much-deserved karmic retribution. The tight script and strong performances suggest a promising future for this first time director. The film followed Santa Barbara with a trip to South by Southwest, where Dichter reports that the film received the attention of several distributors.

Also en route to SXSW was Melissa Painter‘s “Wildflowers,” starring Clea Duvall and Daryl Hannah, an uneven coming-of-age story about Cally, the daughter of a couple of sixties commune dwellers who’s obsessed with finding her mother. While the script is often predictable and unrealistic, Clea DuVall’s remarkable performance and Paul Ryan’s striking cinematography make the film worthwhile.

Robert Greenwald‘s prior Lions Gate acquisition, “Steal This Movie” about 60’s radical Abbie Hoffman, starring Vincent D’Onofrio, Janeane Garafolo, and Jeanne Tripplehorn, also had its world premiere. D’Onofrio’s enthusiastic and layered performance is magnetic, and it’s nice to see Garafolo with a serious role for a change. The film is choppy and the framing device — a journalist investigating Hoffman’s life underground — contrived. The film will probably be criticized by the generation who lived through those times, but for those of us who did not have the chance to witness the days of loudmouthed, radical provocateurs, it’s a gas.

If the most important step in building a strong festival is attracting good premieres. do the filmmakers think Santa Barbara is a worthwhile stop on the festival circuit? One filmmaker said that there was so much going on, his film got lost in the shuffle. He said it felt like “being invited to someone’s country house only to find a note that said, ‘Help yourself to whatever you can find. I’ll be back next week.'” Others were more positive. Jon Dichter says, “I saw ‘The Operator’ premiere in front of a large, enthusiastic audience, which continued the conversation with me and the actors for days after, in the streets and in coffee shops.” He adds, however, that, “the scene is relatively early to bed and early to rise. It was tough to find a drinking buddy at two in the morning.”

Dichter admits that there was not an industry presence at the festival. “I wanted the world premiere to be in a festival which loves movies and properly promotes them,” he says. “Santa Barbara has more than met my expectations. And it provided the perfect ramp to SXSW, which has more of an industry attendance.”

Still, Santa Barbara guaranteed celebrity attendance by honoring a number of screen giants throughout the week. Sir Anthony Hopkins received the annual Modern Master Award. Hopkins chatted with Leonard Maltin, who showed clips of the actor’s work in front of hundreds of fans, including Jodie Foster, who made the trip from LA for the occasion. Hopkins was down-to-earth and humble, entertaining the audience with anecdotes about working with Katherine Hepburn in his film debut “A Lion in Winter,” directors he reveres like Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone, and others, he doesn’t like David Lynch. He also told the charming story of getting Richard Burton‘s autograph as a child in his home village in Wales, and watching Burton’s car driving away, thinking, “I want to do that. I want to get out of my life and loneliness.”

More touching still was Richard Pryor receiving the first annual Lifetime Achievement Award, as part of the festival’s celebration of the art of comedy. Several comedians including Lily Tomlin honored the great funnyman. Clips from his many films and concerts were shown, as well as excerpts from the 1998 Kennedy Center award ceremony where Pryor was also honored. After seeing the young Richard Pryor strutting, cursing and making so many people laugh on screen, it was painful to watch him being pushed out in his wheelchair to receive the award. Other comedians recognized were Whoopi Goldberg with the Ruby Award and Ivan Reitman with a special tribute.

Seminars were universally strong at the event, attracting bigwigs from all facets of the industry. However, none stayed around long enough to watch movies like they would have at Sundance. Next year, the festival staff might try to tie them to chairs and make them watch some movies. They might also try to cozy up to the press (invite us to some of the nicer events and let us into screenings hassle-free), rather than treating us like second-notch stepchildren.

“We need to sell a film here during the festival,” proclaims Renèe Missel. “That will put us on the map in a different way. After being rejected by Sundance, what is a filmmaker to do? Where should he or she go?” Missel’s answer: “Why not here?”

[Andrea Meyer is a New York-based freelancer writer and frequent contributor to indieWIRE.]

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