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Aaron Sorkin, Holly Hunter Headline Savannah Film Festival’s 20th Anniversary

While so many film festivals focus their attention on unveiling the latest big screen projects up for sale, as one of the few — and the largest — affiliated with a university, the SCAD Savannah Film Festival makes the event an opportunity not just for cinema buffs and industry tastemakers, but also students seeking to emulate the directors, writers, and actors who’ve carved a place for themselves in the film industry.

Now in its 20th year, the festival, which runs through Nov. 4, kicked off its opening weekend by honoring such Hollywood luminaries as Oscar-winning actress Holly Hunter — “I’m a Georgia girl,” she told the crowd gathered at the Trustees Theater, Saturday Oct. 28 — and Aaron Sorkin, whose directing debut “Molly’s Game,” starring Jessica Chastain, bowed that same night. Sorkin served up inspiring tales of his humble beginnings as a writer.

“Like any struggling artist in a city, I had a whole bunch of survival jobs,” Sorkin told the audience. “I bussed tables, I dressed up as a moose and ripped tickets. I worked as a coat-checker at a theater. I wrote most of ‘A Few Good Men’ on cocktail napkins during the first act of ‘La Cage aux Folles.’ I would come home with pockets full of cocktail napkins.”

When asked what today’s youth could learn from Jane Goodall, the trailblazing primatologist Brett Morgen profiles in his new National Geographic documentary “Jane,” Morgen answered: “Everything.”

“I think Jane is timeless,” he continued, relaxing between panel discussions at Savannah’s The Brice hotel. “Someone said to me the other day, ‘You know, you’ve made the definitive film on Jane Goodall.’ And I said, ‘No I didn’t. I made perhaps the definitive film of this moment about Jane Goodall, but I think that she’s someone who will transcend this moment in time.’ But for this moment, for the moment we’re in — and I’ve been making films for my whole life, professionally 20-plus years — I’ve never had a film so synchronized upon its release as this film seems to be.”

Morgen pointed to our current political climate — redolent with strife and turmoil — as creating a special environment for the documentary, which screened at the fest.

“Films are organic, they come from the moment we accept them into our lives as a progenitor and up to the moment we bring them into the world,” Morgen said. “And sometimes that’s for the better and sometimes it’s not, but we can’t predict two or three years out what the currents will be. So when this film was conceived in 2014 we lived in a slightly different climate. There was hope in the air, we were about to have the first female president and, in a way, if that had happened ‘Jane’ might have reflected the spirit of the times, but I don’t think it would have had the same cultural value that it does today.”

For Sean Baker, director and co-screenwriter of “The Florida Project,” and co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch, presenting their film, which earned raves for its realistic, heartbreaking portrayal of poverty in a welfare hotel outside Disney World, to a university crowd is an important way to engage in conversation with the next generation of filmmakers.

“For us, it’s always nice to present our films to younger audiences,” Baker said. “It means we’re connecting with multiple generations. I remember, and Chris does too, at NYU one of the most memorable things about school was when filmmakers came and talked. It meant everything when I got to see Zoe Lund to come talk about ‘Bad Lieutenant.’ Those moments still stick with me, almost more than some of the complete semesters. So it feels great [to give students] what we got and it’s great to see that there is a young, cinema-loving crowd who wants to make films, and we’ll support it in any way.”

For female filmmakers Dee Rees (“Mudbound”) and Laura Poitras (“Risk”), whose films also played the fest, meeting with students provides an opportunity to inspire young adults to take chances with their filmmaking endeavors and to carve their own path artistically.

“I think the thing to learn is that when it comes to filmmaking, it’s all about execution,” says Rees, who wrote and directed the Netflix feature film based on the best-selling book about race relations in the Deep South during WWII. “It’s also interesting to do an adaptation in a not-literal way. I think adaptation at its best kind of elevates itself and expands on the material. The idea is that it doesn’t have to be a literal page-by-page extrapolation, so I think that’s something to be learned.”

For Poitras, who won the Academy Award for best documentary feature for her documentary “Citizen Four,” says that she learns as much from her encounters with students as they do from her.

“I love working with students and artists,” said Poitras. “I learn so much about what people are doing and what people are passionate about and what they’re actually willing to take risks to make happen. And I don’t think this means danger. What it means is pushing boundaries, pushing yourself to go deep, knowing your craft and not trying to follow what other people are doing because. I think everybody has their own unique set of skills. I’m a strong believer that any type of artistic practice is about the process and there’s no way around the process — there’s no shortcuts. It’s always hard and it doesn’t ever get easy even if you’ve done it before. Part of that process is knowing what you’re passionate about.”

Morgen also made note of the recent firestorm of sexual abuse allegations in Hollywood and the way that has affected how films, including “Jane,” are received and perceived from a cultural and societal point of view.

“There was a moment at the Los Angeles premiere at the Hollywood Bowl where I was doing interviews on the carpet and the Harvey Weinstein scandal had exploded that weekend, and this reporter from ‘USA Today’ was asking me about Harvey, which was a weird question, but it caught me so off guard that I couldn’t help respond,” said Morgen. “And I said something along the lines of ‘You know, that represents everything that needs to be purged about our industry, everything that is vulgar and gross, and yet here walking toward us is this beacon of light, this woman who overcame the structural opposition of our time to achieve her dreams, who was able to have a child without compromising her career, who was such a tremendous role models for young boys and young girls in terms of passion and not letting someone else in an authoritative position define you.’ And so in that context I couldn’t think of a better moment to bring ‘Jane’ into this world.”

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