When the coronavirus pandemic hit California in March, San Diego Film Festival artistic director Tonya Mantooth briefly considered canceling this year’s program. But when it came down to the final decision, she recalls, her team held her back, saying, “Wait a second, our mission is to use film as a catalyst to bring different perspectives and get them to the forefront. This is exactly why we exist as a festival — we need to stay in there and fight the good fight.”

In a year that is seeing a resurgence of sociopolitical movements challenging systemic racism and advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, SDFF’s 2020 edition champions those messages as told through the big screen in a sincere effort to unite communities. With its weeklong program reduced to four days, the fest is scheduled for Oct. 15 to 18, featuring both drive-in events and virtual screenings that can be enjoyed in the comfort of festgoers’ homes. Highlights include:

Outdoor Screenings

Embracing the revival of drive-in public screenings, SDFF will share four films at the drive-in theaters of the upscale Westfield UTC shopping mall. The outdoor fest will open with Chloé Zhao’s Sundance stunner “Nomadland,” starring Frances MacDormand, followed by a screening of “When in Doubt, Do Something,” a film that chronicles the career of singer-songwriter Harry Chapin on Oct. 16. The drive-in will also feature two British films, including “Blithe Spirit,” a comedy feature based on the 1941 play of the same name by Noel Coward.

Virtual Coffee Dates

What separates SDFF from other iterations of virtual gatherings is the Festival Village, a digital platform on which festgoers can message filmmakers and attend live, interactive Q&A sessions for films “Twice Born,” “Let’s Work” and more. Other online programs include the West Coast premiere of Brandon LaGanke and John Carlucci’s directorial debut, “Drunk Bus,” and a screening of “Before/During/After,” a dramedy from “Orange Is the New Black” star Finnerty Steeves.

Talking Politics

With Election Day looming, fest closer “MLK/FBI,” a behind-closed-doors account of J. Edgar Hoover’s relentless campaign of surveillance and harassment against Martin Luther King Jr.,
provides a point of reflection for the audience. Mantooth says, “To come together and say we can all agree that what happened in the ’60s was wrong — segregation — allows us to talk about what’s happening today and go from there.” The fest leaves time for discussion during the Activism Through Film panel, featuring filmmakers Mary Blessey and Yoruba Richen.

Foreign Fare

International films have long been a significant offering of SDFF, and this year’s event boasts foreign titles selected from more than 3,500 submissions. Mantooth adds that moviegoers have become more receptive to foreign-language films, following “Parasite’s” history-making Oscar win. “A lot of the U.S. population, they get a little put off by subtitles,” she says, “but it’s so important to see what filmmakers and what stories are being told around the world.” Foreign-language titles include “Honeymood” from Israeli filmmaker Talya Lavie and Russian sci-fi thriller “Presumption of Guilt.