Santa Barbara Film Fest Strives for Community Inclusion

Summer camp might not seem to have a lot to do with film festivals unless you’re talking about the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival.

While the festival proper is about to kick off its 31st year and 13th with executive director Roger Durling at the helm, it’s not just about film: SBIFF has for many years been about community enrichment for all, including those who might not get a chance to participate in the full film experience without a little help from others.

That’s where camp comes in. This year, in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, festival executives and mentors will spend five days in the wilderness with 26 students from lower-income families and teach them how to make movies in what’s being called film camp.

It’s a bold concept, but also very much in line with Durling’s vision for the festival, which runs from Feb. 3-13 in venues throughout the coastal city.

“For me, the festival had to be very specific to the community from the start,” says Durling. “It had to represent all the different classes of Santa Barbara. It’s about how all of the patches of the quilt make the festival unique and a better representation of our community.”

Putting together those patches means SBIFF films focus on areas as diverse as food and wine, or the environment and social justice. Durling believes in an all-access, year-round approach to his programming; donations, for example, fund programs like the 10-10-10 student screenwriting competition, AppleBox family-friendly free programming screenings, and a film studies program held during the festival — all of which are made available regardless of family income. Approximately 90,000 people attend the festival yearly, with over half being locals whom Durling doesn’t want left out.

That’s part of the reasoning behind this year’s opening night film, the U.S. premiere of the animated “The Little Prince,” which will have four screenings of the film free to the public. “Prince” is just one of the festival’s selections, which include 53 U.S. premieres and 52 world premieres (over double the number of world premieres from 2015) from 60 countries. Highlights include the U.S. premiere of Terrence Malick’s “Knight of Cups” and “Marguerite,” the closing night film set in Paris in the 1920s from Xavier Giannoli.

In addition the Global Hollywood section will screen 10 documentaries that focus on the film industry’s history.

“We’re hoping to build on the momentum we’ve carried from the last few years,” says programming director Michael Albright. “Films are getting stronger, premieres are increasing and we’re becoming an alternative to Sundance to some extent.”

Underscoring all of this — from the charitable good works to the increased focus on acquisitions and world premieres — lies Durling’s long-in-planning goal of teaching film fans. It’s a stealth system in which he provides movie access (often free) throughout the year. (In addition to the main festival, senior programmer Mickey Duzdevich programs the Wave, a series of small festivals during the year that focus on different countries’ movies).

“We have a huge local base of cinephiles here, and that basically helps us to keep teaching them about how to look at cinema, molding them into being even bigger cinephiles,” Duzdevich says.
“When I started the questions were ‘how much is your budget?’ and now they ask about panning from one side to the other in scenes, like ‘why did you do that?’” Duzdevich says. “If you have a shy director who doesn’t want to talk, our audience will get them to come out
of their shell.”

This egalitarian approach to a film festival isn’t completely unique, but Durling has been honing it so long it makes SBIFF stand out among the crowd. Sure, there’s the whole Hollywood element, including numerous movie stars, and it does provide a nice run-up to the Academy Awards later in the month. But in the end, Durling is a kind of evangelical cinephile himself.

“The experience of watching a film is not fully accomplished until you’re able to turn to someone next to you and ask, ‘What do you think about that?’” he says. “The moments I cherish most come from talking to total strangers about what they’ve seen, and recommending things.”

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