It’s been one year since deadly fires and mudslides came close to shutting down the 33rd edition of the Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival. The Thomas Fire and subsequent flooding devastated the city and left 23 dead in the Montecito area. After some soul searching, organizers decided to carry on as scheduled.
“Last year there was a lot of questioning about whether we were going to move forward with the festival,” admits executive director Roger Durling, at SBIFF since 2004. Ultimately, the disasters gave organizers a renewed sense of purpose.
One year later, they are preparing to open the 34th edition of the festival with a greater appreciation of the event’s role in the community. SBIFF gets under way Jan. 30 with a lineup that includes 63 world premieres and 59 U.S. premieres from 48 countries.
The lineup is bookended with films deeply rooted in Santa Barbara: Mimi deGruy’s “Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike deGruy” will kick off the fest while Wyatt Daily’s “Spoons: A Santa Barbara Story” will serve as the closing-night film.
“This will be the first time in our history that both the opening and closing-night films are exclusively about the Santa Barbara area, which we thought was essential,” Durling says. “Both films stand on their own merit as terrific, but to us they are also both very symbolic of our community’s strength.”
“Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike deGruy” is a feature documentary about the biologist-turned-filmmaker who recorded rare sea creatures in oceans around the world. In 2012, deGruy, a Santa Barbara resident, died in a helicopter crash in Australia while filming for director James Cameron. The doc is told through the eyes of deGruy’s wife and filmmaking partner, Mimi.
“Mike was one of my best friends and instrumental to the festival,” says Durling. “He created Mike’s Field Trip to the Movies, which went on to become a signature festival program.”
For the past 16 years Mike’s Field Trip to the Movies has brought film education to thousands of fourth, fifth and sixth graders — many from underprivileged communities — in Santa Barbara County. Beginning with in-school demonstrations and ending with screenings and filmmaker Q&As, the program has hosted viewings of movies including “Frozen,” “Inside Out” and “The Lego Movie.”
Fest closer “Spoons: A Santa Barbara Story,” which will make its world premiere at the fest, is about the history of surfing and Rincon, a popular wave riding spot located at the Ventura and Santa Barbara County line.
The festival, which typically draws 100,000 attendees, has become an important part of the Hollywood awards season calendar. This year SBIFF will pay tribute to actors including Glenn Close, Melissa McCarthy, Viggo Mortensen, Michael B. Jordan, Claire Foy and Sam Elliott. And Variety will present the fifth annual Artisans Awards on Feb. 4, with a panel moderated by Tim Gray, Variety senior VP.
As with last year, the fest’s program will feature films about globalization and the immigration crisis, as well as movies including “Diving Deep” that take on the environment and sustainability.
“It’s essential for us to keep these issues at the forefront,” Durling says. “Especially in this day and age with what is happening with our leadership at the White House and all the issues that are under attack.”
Mexico City’s Salomon Askenazi and Santa Barbara’s Jason Baffa are returning to the fest as filmmakers this year.
Askenazi, who attended SBIFF in 2015 with “The Incident” — a documentary he produced — this year is bringing his narrative “Two Times You,” about a fatal car crash and its aftermath, to the festival. The film will make its U.S. premiere in Santa Barbara, where Askenazi hopes to find an American distributer.
“Santa Barbara Film Festival is very well regarded and close to Hollywood,” Askenazi says. “So it made perfect sense to bring my film there.”
Baffa’s doc “Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk,” making its world premiere at SBIFF, explores the personal bond that develops between golfers and their caddies. It is narrated by Bill Murray.
“This festival has been supporting me since 2005 when I had ‘Singlefin: Yellow’ [a documentary], and Roger said, ‘You have to bring it to our festival,’” Baffa says. “I’ll always appreciate that and I mean, this is a beautiful place and the festival is a great experience. Why wouldn’t I want to debut my latest film in Santa Barbara?”
What: Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival
When: Jan. 30-Feb. 9
Where: Santa Barbara