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San Diego Film Festival Gives Stars, Veterans Cinematic Salute

Now in its 14th year, the San Diego Film Festival, produced by the San Diego Film Foundation, bills itself as “5 Days, 100+ films — binge watching for film lovers.” And in the crowded fall festival landscape it has managed to separate itself from the herd by offering “more star-power, more gala films and more industry-related events, including panels and parties, than ever before,” says Dale Strack, chairman. “This year we got nearly 2,000 submissions from some 65 countries.”

While the fest has grown, it has also fine-tuned its focus and embraced new programs, adds Tonya Mantooth, VP of programming.

For this edition, SDFF has partnered with Susan Sarandon and Thomas Morgan (“Waiting for Mamu”), who together run Reframed Pictures, to create the Social Justice Initiative — a panel and workshop making its debut Oct. 2.

This new program is designed as a platform for documentaries telling transformational stories of lasting social impact, with the goal of shining a light on socially relevant causes, people and issues. Sarandon, Morgan and Mantooth are curating the films.

Moderating the panel: film critics Jeffrey Lyons and Ben Lyons. Panelists include Sarandon; Morgan; Kweku Mandela of Out of Africa Films and Nelson Mandela’s grandson; Roger Ross Williams (“God Loves Uganda”); and Dawn Porter (“Gideon’s Army,” a 2014 Spirit Award nominee).

Others addressing social justice issues at the fest include Jack Robbins, Sarandon’s son, who co-directed “Storied Streets” about homelessness; and Leslee Udwin, whose “India’s Daughter”  centers around a brutal rape and murder in New Delhi.

Mantooth also notes that the fest will screen “He Named Me Malala,” the new Fox Searchlight documentary from Davis Guggenheim.

Strack and Mantooth see social-issue films as moving SDFF into a year-round role. “We plan to take them — and other films — to schools, to help educate and foster awareness of these issues,” Mantooth says.

The fest is also more San Diego-specific than ever, recognizing the role and presence of the military in the city’s life. “We’re starting a new military initiative this year, with films and filmmakers that tell military stories,” Strack says. “And we’re mixing civilian and military audiences to try and help close the growing gap between the two.”

The program will screen a diverse range of independent and studio films about service members, followed by discussions with military personnel.

As with the social-issue films, the fest plans to make the military movies a year-round initiative, taking them to bases, Strack says. “And we’ll also take indie films that aren’t military-themed to bases, and gradually radiate the program out around the whole country.”

(Pictured: “I Smile Back,” which plays at the festival.)

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