As Orlando cinephiles gear up for the 25th annual Florida Film Festival, which begins Friday, there’s a similar event already in full swing on the Gulf Coast, and it’s arguably just as good.
The Sarasota Film Festival has been going strong for 18 years. With an annual attendance of just over 50,000, a slate of films numbering around 250 and six separate screens at the downtown Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20 (not to mention other venues for special screenings and parties), the Sarasota event is quite a bit larger than the Florida Film Festival. It doesn’t have Oscar accreditation like its Orlando cousin and it doesn’t offer anything quite as magical as the ambience of the Enzian Theater (which hosts the Florida Film Festival), but it’s still something to behold thanks to its enormous number of films, special events, celebrities and excellent organization.
Oh, and the best part: For the first time in more than a decade, it doesn’t completely overlap the Florida Film Festival. That means, of course, that Orlando movie buffs can attend the Sarasota event, and vice versa – although, if you want to go, you better get your skates on (and be prepared to miss some of the Florida Film Festival’s opening weekend), as the Sarasota festival wraps on Sunday, April 10.
Overview and travel tips:
Held in downtown Sarasota, the festival has more of an urban feel than the Florida Film Festival. It also has a better selection of restaurants, thanks to the theater’s location on Main Street. Particularly convenient and delicious are Bravo Pizza & Eatery (adjacent to the theater) and Sol’s NYC Deli (offering a wide selection of Jewish delicacies). Parking is convenient, plentiful and free (if you show your ticket stub) at the theater garage.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the festival is its organization. The nearly 300 volunteers are helpful and easy to find (if not always perfectly informed), films start on time, Q&As with filmmakers (more than 100 of whom are in attendance) are abundant, and badge holders are given priority seating before the regular ticketholders are ushered in from well-organized queues in the lobby. (Unlike the Florida Film Festival, however, badge holders do not see films in advance.) The festival films are clearly not treated as cineplex afterthoughts. Instead, they essentially take over the venue, with general-release movies relegated to second class.
If you’re planning an overnight trip, remember that you get what you pay for in Sarasota. I’d suggest spending a bit extra instead of settling for the array of mediocre and just plain nasty motels along the Tamiami Trail north of downtown. (Avoid the Regency Inn & Suites as if your life depended on it.)
If you’re a visiting filmmaker, you might check out the Ringling College of Art and Design. The school, which is widely considered one of the three best in the country for digital animation (and one of the 25 best for live-action film), is building a new library, art museum, soundstage facility and post-production complex. For more information, see http://www.ringling.edu/initiatives.
“We’re a town of cinephiles,” says festival president and chairman Mark Famiglio. “[The festival] spans 10 days now, and, so, it’s gotten to the size where people come here for the event … whereas maybe 12 or 15 years ago, we were the tail wagging the dog. … We’re well entrenched now. … The community embraces the filmmakers.”
That reputation is reflected in the number of submissions, which increased from about 800 in 2015 to roughly 1,300 this year. When you include all the films that were considered but didn’t go through the formal submission process, the number balloons to around 2,000. Particularly noteworthy, according to Famiglio, is the festival’s youth-film program.
Whereas Famiglio has been involved with the festival from the beginning – serving as president since 2008 – programming director Michael Dunaway is in his second year. But the two have good camaraderie and are passionate about their filmmakers.
“We’re famous for being one of the most filmmaker-friendly of the major festivals in the U.S.,” says Dunaway, who seems particularly proud of the large proportion of female filmmakers. “We’re pretty sure we were the first major American festival … to have films by 100 women filmmakers.”
However, Dunaway stresses that the number of female-helmed movies is not due to quotas but is “the unintended consequence of doing things the right way. … We’re not going to accept an inferior film just because it’s directed by a woman, but if it’s directed by a woman, we especially want to look at it.”
And how does Famiglio view the Florida Film Festival?
“Good festival! We’ve always kind of considered them maybe not a sister, but a cousin,” he says. “They’re all like-minded people. They’re creative; they’re artists. … We love the Florida Film Festival!”
I don’t consider my three days at the festival adequate to fully gauge quality, but I can point you in the right direction. And if you are unable to catch these films in Sarasota, look out for them at other festivals, or in wide release later this year.
The best I saw was Tale of Tales (3 stars on our zero-to-5 star scale), a uniquely structured fantasy-horror offering three interwoven stories. Based on the writings of 17th-century poet and fairy-tale collector Giambattista Basile, the film is directed and co-written by Matteo Garrone. Perhaps because it’s his first English-language project, the dialogue and pacing can be clunky and inelegant, especially during the first section, which also features an awkward performance by John C. Reilly. But stick around for the full two hours and you’ll be enchanted by breathtaking visuals and the power of the 400-year-old stories, not to mention interesting performances by Toby Jones and Bebe Cave.
The Man Who Knew Infinity (also 3 stars) features Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel, the latter playing Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, who revolutionized his field in the early 20th century. The film holds few surprises and feels too often like a pedestrian biopic, but it is well acted and emotionally satisfying. (If you miss it here, it’ll be in wide release soon.)
Films you’re unlikely to see in your neighborhood multiplex are Art of the Prank and Unlocking the Cage, both also worthy of 3 stars. The former tells the strange story of master jokester and performance artist Joey Skaggs and the brilliant hoaxes he’s perpetrated on the media for 40 years. (As entertaining as the film is, I was hoping the doc itself might be part-hoax, similar to Orson Welles’ F for Fake. Alas, it rejected that metatheatrical approach.) The latter movie, about animal rights (or, more specifically, non-human rights) is directed by doc legends Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. Although it sometimes struggles to find the best way to tell its story and fails to fully answer all the pertinent questions, it’s well worth a watch even if the subject isn’t your favorite.
After Circus (2 stars), about the life of retired circus performers, is, predictably, a crowd-pleaser in Sarasota, “the circus capital of the world.” Lovingly directed by Vivika Melki, who was nice enough to sit down for an interview with me, it contains some great and profoundly human moments, but it ultimately doesn’t justify its feature-length runtime thanks to its overreliance on interviews and everyday trivialities. Still, it’s nice to see circus history being preserved and celebrated, which Melki told me was one of her main reasons for making the film.
The one big disappointment for me is Elbow Grease (1 star), a comedy, which, despite some honesty and sweetness – specifically by stars R. Keith Harris, Whitney Goin and Burt Reynolds (who is vastly underused) – is an exercise in amateurism, particularly in regards to its editing and writing. I wish I could be kinder, especially because supporting actor Michael Abbott Jr. spent time with me talking about the film, but the movie simply never coalesces or produces enough laughs. (Look for better work from the multi-talented Abbott.)
As at most festivals, shorts are a mixed bag. I attended Shorts 7 (Documentary Shorts 1) and Shorts 5 (Narrative 2) and would recommend both. The former program is described by festival programmer Larisa Apan as “what it is to go past the obstacles” of life. That’s a fitting description considering two of the five docs are about surviving cancer. While One Way: A Journey to This Moment (2 stars) doesn’t feel profound or cinematic enough, Phil’s Camino (4 stars) is a beautiful and unique meditation on how cancer can kill us but the idea of death can ultimately save us. Also strong is The House Is Innocent (3 stars), which is playing the Florida Film Festival too, and, to a slightly lesser extent, The Gnomist (3 stars), a sweet story of one family’s remarkable gift to their neighbors.
The Shorts 5 program is notable for two wonderfully surreal offerings, Twisted (4 stars), about a balloon-animal duel (yes, really), and Rated, by John Fortson. The latter asks the question: What if we were burdened with our own star-rating hovering above our heads, announcing to the world whether we’re a 1-star human or a 5? This reviewer doesn’t know how he’d be rated (I’m hoping for at least a 3), but I can safely say Rated rates at least a 4.
Lastly, the pre-show material is somewhat effective. Before each program, an aesthetically pleasing presentation rolls across the screen offering audiences the soothing sounds of the surf and wind chimes. However, the rest of the pre-show – especially the cute but dumb “My Mom on Movies” film-preview segments – can get a bit grating, especially on multiple views.
The incomparable Barbara Kopple:
Though this year’s festival features Sophia Loren, Matthew Modine, Olympia Dukakis and Rosie Perez, my personal highlight was sitting down with documentary-film goddess Barbara Kopple to discuss her career and her new film, Miss Sharon Jones! (3 stars), which is screening at the festival.
Though Kopple’s latest offering – the tale of the legendary soul singer’s inspirational battle with cancer – isn’t necessarily her finest work, it’s infused (as are all her films) with overwhelming humanity and moments of “I can’t believe her camera captured that!” And though she’s best known for Harlan County U.S.A. (1976), which I contend is the best documentary ever, she’s spent just as much time chronicling celebrities, such as Mike Tyson, Gregory Peck and Woody Allen. So how does she switch from covering the little guy (as in Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream) to focusing on the stars?
“I think it’s not so much about the celebrities as it is about the story,” she says. “For example, Wild Man Blues – Woody Allen – I mean he was petrified about going to all these different cities [to perform], you know. He didn’t want to go, so that was what his nervousness was about. … So we just followed him.”
Celebrity or not, Kopple’s subjects are always captured truthfully, as if Kopple herself doesn’t know what to expect until her camera roles.
“I never really anticipate,” she says. “You don’t go in with a prescribed plan because it’s real life, and real life takes you around whatever corner it’s gonna take you, and you just have to be fast enough and together enough to go with it.”
And what about her apparent objectivity, her non-Michael Moore approach?
“No, in Harlan County, I was not objective,” she says. “I lived with the coal miners. They took care of me. I was very much for them. And in American Dream, it was very complicated. It was three different sets [of people]. … So I just sort of let it play out.”
Finally, because Kopple’s films are so emotionally gripping, is she able to forget them once they wrap?
“Never,” she says. “I totally stay in touch with my subjects, even the ones in Harlan County – their children and their grandchildren are calling me still. No, once you’ve signed up for it, we’re all part of each other’s lives. … They’re part of you, they’re part of your soul, they’re part of who you are.”
Click here to listen to the whole interview with Barbara Kopple
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For more information, including a complete schedule and list of films, see www.sarasotafilmfestival.com. I owe a special thanks to the entire staff of the festival, particularly Famiglio, Dunaway and publicist Nicole Kerr, and to Ringling College public relations manager Stephanie Lederer.