The Gulf Coast Town of Sarasota, which leans largely Republican and is home to the infamous Katherine Harris, was “discovered” by a Chicago socialite in 1910, and was never the same since. Soon after her arrival made the frontier town a trendy destination for the elite, John Ringling (of circus fame) settled there, built a museum and an art school, infusing the area with a dedication to culture that still thrives today. The ninth annual Sarasota Film Festival, which wrapped up this past Sunday after a ten-day run, is just one of the many products of that continued dedication to the arts.
Executive director Jody Kielbasa, along with director of programming Tom Hall and festival programmer Holly Herrick, compiled a broad slate of 207 films from six continents–all while managing to deliver a highly organized yet intimate festival. Guests of note this year included Edward Norton, Norman Jewison, Joe Pantoliano, IFC Entertainment‘s Jonathan Sehring, Sony Classics‘ Tom Bernard, THINKFilm’s Mark Urman, Marcia Gay Harden, Chad Lowe, and Zoe Cassavetes, along with dozens of filmmakers and several other key industry folks.
Appropriately, the festival opened with a screening of David Sington‘s “In the Shadow of the Moon,” a documentary detailing the Apollo space program and the remarkable stories of the astronauts involved. Other narrative features ranged from Joseph Greco‘s “Canvas,” a hopeful family film about a mother’s struggle with mental illness and the impact it has on her family, to Alex Orr‘s “Blood Car,” a campy horror film about a guy named Archie (played brilliantly by Mike Brune) who accidentally invents a fuel that avoids the need for costly gasoline entirely.
“We we’re toying with ideas for a low budget genre movie we could do very cheap, and we came up with a car that runs on blood,” Orr told indieWIRE. “We jammed out a script in a couple weeks and funded the film ourselves with help from the crew and our families. We had a production budget of about $15,000 and we totaled about $25,000… One kid in one of our screenings actually had to leave the theater and fainted in the hall. He only suffered minor carpet burn.”
The documentary features program included Jennifer Baichwal‘s sublime “Manufactured Landscapes,” a meditation on the work of photographer Edward Burtynsky and his large-scale explorations of the industrial impact humans have on our planet. The film manages to extend the reach of Burtynsky’s still photographs, which find remarkable beauty in stark quarries, factories and mines. Another standout in the section was Eric Breitenbach and Phyllis Redman‘s “When Pigs Fly,” an inspiring look at a quadriplegic woman and her tenacious efforts to care for more than 700 abused and abandoned pigs with virtually no help. The film captures Lori Yazurlo, a former tractor-trailer driver who was hurt on the job, with compassion and dignity, while effectively incorporating insights and concerns from her friends and family.
Ry Russo-Young‘s feature debut “Orphans,” a standout in the Independent Visions competition, tells the story of two very different sisters (Lily Wheelwright and James Katharine Flynn) who reunite for a birthday party. The young sisters had lost both parents five years before, and they struggle to work through the tragedy while reconnecting on an emotional level. “I knew I wanted to tell a story about two sisters, and began working through several screenplay drafts,” Russo-Young told indieWIRE. “When I had finished the screenplay and cast both of the lead actresses, the three of us began rehearsing for a two month period in New York. We shared our personal childhood stories and memories from our favorite toys to the music we listened to as kids… We improvised scenes from when the sisters were little and walked around New York creating new memories that the actresses could store inside them.”
The festival’s diverse short film programs included a music video section which featured David Wilson‘s “Love, for Want of a Lesser Word,” the first music video from the new Gena Rowlands Band album “Flesh and Spirits”. Wilson, co-director of the True/False Film Festival, delivers a clever and quite beautiful video that hints of a possible future in features. Student shorts were also highlighted, among them Stephen Gurewitz‘s “Grace,” a striking black-and-white look at a silent, anonymous romance between a lonely beauty and a mysterious killer. Also of note was Ray Tintoni‘s “Death to the Tinman,” which was awarded Best Short Film at the fest. (A list of all the award winners was published in indieWIRE earlier this week.)
Panel discussions proved to be very popular at the festival as well, with diverse topics ranging from the art of short filmmaking to women in film, as well as a lively and very funny conversation with Steve Buscemi, who made several appearances at various events throughout the week.
Sarasota also offered daily parties that rivaled many of the bigger fests, with live music, great food, and free-flowing booze, such as the Opening Night Gala which featured the song stylings of Matt Dusk, and the World Cinema Celebration–an outdoor street festival with gourmet offerings from over two dozen of the area’s best restaurants.
“Sarasota was a great festival for me and a fantastic festival for ‘Orphans’,” says Russo-Young. “Both of our screenings were very well-attended and the audience really seemed to understand the movie on a deeper level. The questions they asked were extremely thoughtful and showed an impressive attentiveness. What more could I ask from a festival?”