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One of California’s leading film festivals returns with a full slate of live screenings, industry panels and starry tributes, offering movie lovers a ray of sunshine in the gloom of COVID. The Santa Barbara Intl. Film Festival (SBIFF) unspools March 2-12, for its 37th year via an in-person program. Although the fest adapted in 2021 to COVID health safety protocols and hosted drive-in screenings and virtual Q&A sessions, “This year will be closer to way things used to be,” promises executive director Roger Durling, who’s marking 20 years as the prestige West Coast fest’s executive director.

In all, the 200-film festival will host 95 U.S. premieres (62 features and 33 shorts) and 48 world premieres, including 21 feature films. “Being back in person, being at the festival, congregating and sharing opinions, it’s something we desperately missed,” says Durling of the SBIFF’s reawakening.

Festgoers will notice a major change to the festival’s downtown Santa Barbara location: State Street, the main thoroughfare and home to the festival’s first-run theater venues, is car-free and pedestrian-only. “It adds to the festive atmosphere,” says Durling, who notes in a shift from the past, the festival will have two outdoor lounges for receptions and daily filmmaker events.

Veteran film critic and festival programmer Claudia Puig led SBIFF’s programming team for the 2022 edition. “I have left her to drive the car this year (pun intended),” says Durling. Puig’s task wasn’t easy: the festival received a record number of submissions, in part due to cancellations of other film fests. This year’s showcase incorporates films from 54 countries. “That’s a lot of films from countries that weren’t represented here before,” she says. “The themes and storylines cover a wide range.”

Opening night film, “The Phantom of the Open” (starring Sally Hawkins and Mark Rylance), was selected to set a celebratory mood for the re-energized fest.

“Because it’s heartwarming, escapist, fun and highlights the bonds of family and it’s sweet, we thought, ‘Let’s start off on that note,’” explains Puig. “We all need that, we need something that’s uplifting.”
Catering to Santa Barbara’s diverse audience and their array of tastes is key to the festival’s popularity and to maintaining its prominent place on the city’s cultural calendar.

“Santa Barbara is a very unique community with multiple interests. The festival always is a reflection of our identity here,” says Durling.

The region’s Latino culture is well represented, he notes, and Santa Barbara filmmakers are showcased on equal footing with other invitees.

The programming dovetails with the audience’s interests. “They love documentaries, they love films about social justice, nature, the ocean, music and a lot of broadly interesting topics,” says Puig. And they’ll get up early and stand in line for 8 a.m. screenings, she’s discovered.

Puig highlights some of the SBIFF’s feature documentary lineup, including the theme of female empowerment in “Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest” directed by Nancy Svendsen, about the first female Sherpa to climb Mt. Everest, and “Nasima (The Most Fearless),” directed by Heather Kessinger, a profile of the first female surfer in Bangladesh. “Our Words Collide,” from directors Jordan W. Barrow and Matt Edwards and produced by Rosario Dawson, is about teenage spoken word poets from Los Angeles (who will attend the festival). It promises an exciting post-screening experience, as does the look back at the long-running career of former Plimsouls singer/songwriter Peter Case, “Peter Case: A Million Miles Away” directed by Fred Parnes. Case is set to attend and perform. Acclaimed music bio doc “Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over,” directed by Dave Wooley and David Heilbroner, will close the festival at the historic Arlington Theatre.

Tributes and panels will be available via virtual access in addition to on-site attendance; festival screenings are in-person only. “It’s really heartening: we have people coming from all over the world, as far away as from Nepal, from Europe, Asia, India and Australia,” says Puig, reflecting the multiplicity of filmmakers and the cross-section of international films repped at the fest. The “hunger” to be together and celebrate is intense, she finds.

To ensure peace of mind, SBIFF will have numerous COVID health safety protocols in place. Theater capacities have been reduced, proof of vaccination is required for staff, volunteers and attendees and staff will be tested daily. Masks are required for indoor events at this time.

Despite the challenges of the past two years, Durling is proud of the festival and its community’s resilience and flexibility, telling Variety, “We persevered and we’re moving forward enthusiastically, that’s important no matter what.”

The festival not only spotlights local films and filmmakers but also awards circuit favorites and world cinema. The festival is also known for honoring top talent, and 2022 shines with an overload of stars. This year the honorees are:

American Riviera Award

Kristen Stewart

Stewart, nominated for a lead actress Oscar for her portrayal of Princess Diana in Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer,” will be in Santa Barbara for a conversation about the film and her career. 8 p.m. March 4; Arlington Theatre

Virtuosos Award

Caitriona Balfe (“Belfast”), Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”), Jamie Dornan (“Belfast”), Alana Haim (“Licorice Pizza”), Emilia Jones (“CODA”), Troy Kotsur (“CODA”), Simon Rex (“Red Rocket”) and Saniyya Sidney (“King Richard”) come together for a conversation. 8 p.m. March 5; Arlington Theatre

Outstanding Performers of the Year Award

Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis

Smith and Ellis account for two of “King Richard’s” six Oscar nominations. 8 p.m. March 6;
Arlington Theatre

Montecito Award

Penélope Cruz

Cruz grabbed her fourth Oscar nomination for “Parallel Mothers,” the latest from Pedro Almodóvar. 8 p.m. March 8, Arlington Theatre

Cinema Vanguard Award

Benedict Cumberbatch

Cumberbatch hits the festival with his second Oscar nomination — this one for Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” 8 p.m. March 9; Arlington Theatre

Maltin Modern Master Award

Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman

The stars of “Being the Ricardos” — both Oscar-nominated for their performances as Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in the Aaron Sorkin film that follows the course of one momentous week in the production of “I Love Lucy” — will be on hand for a conversation. 8 p.m. March 10; Arlington Theatre