Long rumored to be the big screen setting for Lost Horizon‘s Shangri-La, Ojai now wants to become a holy place for film lovers. That goal is inching closer to reality in 2008, as the Ojai Film Festival enters its ninth year and the fest’s brain trust is openly pledging to become the next Telluride. It’s easy to draw that comparison, as both towns are surrounded by mountains and focused on the artsier side of life, although Ojai’s version still has plenty of credibility-building to be considered one of the world’s top fests. Nonetheless, with Hollywood and its millions of people about an hour away, Ojai’s got a great chance to be big, and this year’s offerings show that they’re serious about being a serious place for film.
The festival, which was founded in 2000 by cameraman and film editor Steve Grumette, is an offshoot of the 20-year-old Ojai Film Society. After traveling to a film fest in Moab, Utah, in 1998, Grumette said he “started thinking that if a little community like Moab, out in the middle of nowhere, could have a successful film festival in a community no larger than Ojai, there’s no reason we shouldn’t have one here.” He met with a little resistance in the beginning, but then they asked the town, and 92 percent of the population polled was supportive. So the Ojai Film Festival was launched in 2000, with the theme of “enriching the human spirit through film.” Since, it’s grown each year, said Grumette, which is impressive considering the competition. “When we started, there was something like 300 film fests,” said Grumette. “In the last 10 years, it’s grown to 3,000.”
As program director, Grumette prides himself on the quality of films shown, claiming that about one dozen films shown here have later gone on to win or be nominated for Oscars. And he’s excited about this year, explaining “I think the quality of the films submitted this year is clearly the best we’ve ever had.”
While the fest has always been a stronghold for feature-length documentaries-one to catch this year is the intimate profile piece Garrison Keillor: The Man on the Radio in the Red Shoes-it also is offering a full slate of narrative features this year, too. Some of those to watch for include Crazy, a take on the life of Nashville rebel guitarist Hank Garland; The 27 Club, about a rock star’s druggy descent toward death; and Tru Loved, about the teenage daughter of lesbian moms. Also worth marking your calendars for is Bill Plympton’s animated feature Idiots and Angels, a mind-bending examination of good, bad, and mostly in between.
The festival kicks off on Thursday, November 6, with a celebrity golf classic hosted by Malcolm MacDowell and featuring numerous film and music stars at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. That night is the free and family-oriented opening night screening of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights-with a new soundtrack made by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra-on the lawn of the Ojai Valley Inn, followed by an opening night party. Film screenings go all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at various venues, and Saturday night will also include tributes to Ray Bradbury and producer Lauren Shuler Donner and director Richard Donner.
The Ninth Annual Ojai Film Festival runs Thursday, November 6, through Sunday, November 9. For tickets and more info, see ojaifilmfestival.com or call 640-1947.