Above all the titles screening at the 35th Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival, a 13-minute world premiere short stands as perhaps the ultimate example of the event’s goal of presenting films that balance local interests and global perspectives. Titled “Santa Barbara,” the short is about director Diana Markosian’s mother, who came to the coastal California town as a Russian mail-order bride after seeing the NBC soap opera of the same name.
“It was the first thing to be broadcast on Russian television following the fall of the Soviet Union,” says programming director Michael Albright.
The short — one of a record 4,000 feature and short films submitted this year — came in as a Russian sidebar was being planned. “There was this weird phenomenon where we were thinking about doing this section and this submission came in, sort of bringing it all together.”
Synchronicities aside, that balancing act is a hallmark of the festival, which has grown over the past 17 years under executive director Roger Durling into a premiere event that this year features 47 world and 71 U.S. premieres from 50 countries and will fete talents including Renée Zellweger, Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern and Brad Pitt. The Variety Artisan Awards, presented Jan. 19, will recognize the work of songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, composer Michael Giacchino, production designer Barbara Ling, sound mixer Steve Morrow, costume designers Christopher Peterson and Sandy Powell, cinematographer Lawrence Sher, editor Lee Smith and VFX supervisor Adam Valdez.
Durling says in an age of instant media, festivals thrive on community experience. Festivals’ reason for being “is not just to showcase films and sell films, or whatever, it’s to bring people together,” he says.
The U.S. premiere of “A Bump Along the Way,” a comedy out of Northern Ireland directed by Shelly Love, opens the fest, which pared down its submissions into 14 shorts programs, 11 sidebars and six competitions, ranging from the Jeffrey C. Barbakow Intl. Competition to Nordic cinema and social justice documentaries.
Among the titles Albright was happy to land for the international competition are “If Only,” the drama directed by Ginevra Elkann that opened last year’s Locarno Film Festival; and Canadian feature “Kuessipan,” from Myriam Verreault, which premiered at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.
Sidebar highlights include a Bong Joon Ho retrospective with a free screening of “Parasite” followed by a Q&A with the director; Russian Arcs, which aims to put a human face on the people of that nation; and Crossing Borders, which is almost an analogy for the festival’s goal of bringing together audiences and filmmakers from around the world, Albright says.
The closing-night film is a series of short local documentaries.
The festival has come a long way since the Panama-born Durling took over 17 years ago. “Every town seems to have a film festival, and I understood when I took over that Santa Barbara needed an identity, a raison d’etre,” Durling says.
He inaugurated a then-rare showcase for Spanish and Latin American films to reflect the town’s Latino population and then further reflected community interests by adding a focus on films about surfing and the outdoors. He also moved the dates from spring to January, allowing the festival to tie itself into the Oscars’ nominations phase.
Durling is especially proud of the festival’s educational efforts, which have blossomed into a year-round program. A major turning point came in 2010 when James Cameron, riding high on the success of “Avatar,” agreed to teach a master class for third- though fifth-graders from schools in local low-income areas.
“We jumped that year from 300 to 4,200 kids,” Durling says. And it’s stayed there, with this year’s edition featuring filmmakers from Disney’s “Frozen 2” and Pixar’s “Toy Story 4.”
In 2008, footwear company Ugg became a presenting sponsor and the festival scored guests including Javier Bardem, who went on to win the supporting actor Oscar for “No Country for Old Men” and double Oscar nominee Cate Blanchett. “I think I understood we’d grown, and we were on the right path,” he says.
And two years ago, the festival became a focal point for the community as it recovered from the devastating Thomas Fire and the mudslides that followed.
“It totally crystalized what our purpose was, and our purpose was to bring people together in good times and bad times,” he says. “Art is there to help us process what is happening around us.”
What: Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival
When: Jan. 15-25
Where: Santa Barbara