What a great film festival Sarasota has. Gorgeous city to get to hang out in, enthusiastic audiences, sunshine, beautiful beaches, fabulous parties, and most importantly, a really solid slate of films, curated by Artistic Director Tom Hall and Director of Programming Holly Herrick, who, in addition to having excellent taste in film, are two of the nicest people in the indie film world.
I was in Sarasota to serve on the Independent Vision jury, along with David Fear, editor of Time Out New York, and director Jay Duplass (The Puffy Chair, Baghead, Cyrus), and I couldn’t have asked for two better folks to jury with at a festival. Both are brilliantly smart and opinionated about what they think makes a movie great — which made our jury deliberation interesting and fun. We were tasked with selecting a winner from among seven diverse, solid films, and much passionate discussion ensued before we agreed upon the category winner (Mark Jackson’s Without) and special jury prize winner (Calvin Lee Reeder’s The Oregonian).
At Sundance and Toronto, my schedule is all about making it to the next screening and packing as many films as possible into each day, while also writing about them all. At Sarasota, though, once I got through my jury films, my itinerary was so booked with parties and such that there was very little time for sitting in dark rooms. Many of the films I would have wanted to catch, I caught at Sundance, fortunately, and our jury’s selection covered a nice swath of SXSW and Slamdance (thanks, guys), so I didn’t feel too guilty. After all, the edict of this fest seemed to be that they wanted their jurors, panelists and filmmakers to soak up the atmosphere of being in Sarasota as much as we possibly could, and if that’s the edict, well, who were we to argue? I was thankful that I paid attention to the itinerary and brought proper clothing along, though, because in addition to loving good films, the folks in Sarasota do love to party in style.
From the Caribbean-themed party Wednesday night at the Sarasota Yacht Club; to the Friday night beachside bash at the Ritz Carlton (which featured a lovely fireworks display for everyone to “ooooooh” and “ahhhhhh” over); to the Filmmaker Tribute at the Sarasota Opera House, followed by the elegant President’s Dinner served right on the stage afterwards, these folks know how to throw some parties.
And I did manage to make it to the one film I most wanted to catch that wasn’t on my slate: Romanian film Tuesday, After Christmas, directed by Radu Muntean. The film premiered at Cannes last year, and as it happened, it ended up winning the narrative features prize at Sarasota. I was glad I made time to catch it; it’s a terrific, spare drama about a man in love with two women — his wife and his mistress — and there’s a riveting 12-minute or so scene near the end that knocked my socks off.
There were less lavish and splashy moments at Sarasota that also made being there memorable: happy hour frozen daiquiris on a balcony looking out at Lido Beach and St. Armand’s Circle with a friend; an intimate steakhouse dinner with fellow jurors and fest staff; a late-night karaoke bash — always a blast with the ever-competitive indie film world karaoke masters in attendance; and breakfast with Terri director Aza Jacobs and his lead actor, Jacob Wysocki (both of whom, it must be said, are just incredibly nice and charming and funny).
A real highlight, though, was an afternoon schlep over to stunningly beautiful Siesta Beach with some fellow jurors, where we walked on sand that was, as one of my cab drivers promised, “like angel kisses on your feet” and marveled at dolphins frolicking very near the shore. Sure, I forgot to bring the sunscreen and ended up with a very unattractive (and rather painful) sunburn, but … dolphins! Frolicking!
Also filed under Things that made SFF 2011 Memorable: Joyce McKinney, the subject of Errol Morris’s documentary Tabloid, showed up at the fest and made an appearance Saturday night after party at Ceviche with her clone dog — immediately becoming the biggest “gotta show my friends this” photo op of the fest. No, I did not get my picture taken with the clone dog … but if you ask in private I might tell you who did.
On the more serious side: Sarasota plays a role to at least some extent of helping bring together people with money and the desire to invest some of it into film, with some of the best, most up-and-coming young indie filmmaking talent working today. And beyond that, they have one of the most extensive outreach and education programs I’ve seen, helmed by Allison Koehler.
Now their O&E is getting even more expansive, with the announcement that Sarasota Film Festival will partner with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (and its programming arm, See Jane) in a new outreach program that will focus on filmmaking with an awareness toward gender representation.
Everything about this year’s SFF is even more impressive when you consider that just a few years ago the fest, like many other regional fests, was very much struggling financially and in danger, perhaps, of disappearing entirely, particularly in the wake of the plummeting real estate market and tightening belts everywhere hitting not-for-profits particularly hard.
Prominent Sarasota businessman Mark Famiglio, a founding board member and executive board president since May of 2008, took the reins at a time when the fest was on the brink of financial disaster, and in the ensuing three years, the fest has gotten back on solid financial ground. I sincerely hope it will stay that way for years to come. Famiglio struck me, beyond being passionate about this film festival in particular and non-profits generally, as being a genuinely nice guy. He was endlessly around with a big smile and a hug, and a “Hey, how are you, how’s the fest going for you?” for everyone in sight.
All of these things make Sarasota a fest that should serve as a model for other regional fests looking to be truly great. Your fest might not have dolphins and beaches with angel-kiss sand, but your city does, no doubt, have lots of film buffs hungry for excellent cinema and thousands of kids (maybe even some future filmmakers) who could benefit from an education program like this fest puts on.
I cover regional film fests as much as I possibly can, in part because I believe very much in the work those fests do in bringing independent film to far-flung places and to people who would never make it to Sundance, Toronto or Cannes. The Big Three fests — and I’d have to add SXSW, which has become important in its own right as a destination for folks around the world — serve their own purpose, but if you’re a local who gets to attend any of those fests as a civilian, you’re a lucky cinephile indeed.
For Sarasota residents, though, how many of them would get to see the excellently curated films their fest offers if Sarasota FF didn’t exist? Sarasota folks get to see a selection cherry-picked from the best of the bigger fests. The same is true of many regional fests from coast to coast, and they’re all run largely on sweat and blood and tears and love of cinema, because no one works in any aspect of the indie film business for the money.
Now that SFF 2011 is wrapped, I hope all the hard-working staff and volunteers take some much-deserved time to chill on the beach, watch the dolphins frolic, and spend time with their families … at least for a day or so, until it’s time to start working on next year.