It’s called SBUFF, which kind of looks like a typo for the city’s annual international film fest. It stands for the Santa Barbara Underwater Film Fest, and despite the similarities, SBIFF chief Roger Durling salutes the pioneering spirit of the seaworthy cinema celebration opening here next Saturday. Longtime movie lovers will understand that it isn’t exactly an upstart film fest either.
“The last one I did at the Arlington was 15 years ago,” said Ed Stetson, recalling a tribute for diving rebreather innovator Hans Hass.
“He’s just now getting over that one,” laughed Richard Salas, festival friend, photographer, and Stetson’s co-conspirator for SBUFF 2013.
“This one is for Ernie Brooks, Jr.,” explained Stetson, who is not only the festival planner (he’s done smaller versions of the event at UCSB’s Campbell Hall in the interim), but also a UCSB and City College diving instructor, a private teacher, and a harbor patrol officer — when he isn’t busy actually diving himself. Brooks, for S.B. beginners, is the son of Brooks Institute founder Ernie Brooks, but more germanely, he’s a world-famous underwater photographer himself.
“He’s considered the Ansel Adams of underwater photography,” explained Greg Gorga, a publicity man for the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum, which Saturday’s proceeds will benefit, and in whose library we sat last week, thumbing through Brooks’ signature black-and-white photos of cute harbor seals and silhouetted scuba divers shot from below the ocean’s surface. The Adams comparison turns out to be an apt one.
“The thing about all of this is that film festivals are sort of outmoded things,” explained Stetson. “People nowadays peopleTK can see great underwater photography on the internet anytime. But when we first started doing this, it was the only place you could.” It will be good to see it on a big screen, but the fest functions as a reunion place too, said Stetson.
And what a reunion it will be. The program is mainly short films, slide shows, and excerpts from longer works, but it manages to bring together a history of the science of the art that got a big start right here in Santa Barbara. “Are you old enough to remember Sea Hunt?” asked Stetson, invoking a hit television show from the late 1950s starring Lloyd Bridges — whose illustrious son lives here and was invited to the fest — that featured the first widely disseminated underwater film work. Representing the show, as well as the role women played in underwater photography, will be Zale Parry, who costarred with Bridges, but also took part in real world diving, setting a women’s depth record and being the first of her sex to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. (She was in a bathing suit, but she had a tank too.) By contrast, Bridges never went in the ocean. The next milestoners are Stan Waterman, Valerie Taylor, and Rodney Fox, who were instrumental stars and producers of the 1971 documentary Blue Water, White Death, which first filmed great white sharks in the aptly-named Dangerous Reef in Australia — predating Jaws. “They didn’t have Shark Week back then, either,” said Stetson. Other big names in subaqueous cinema in the house include David Doubilet, National Geographic’s number one undersea lensperson; Howard and Michele Hall, best known for spectacular underwater IMAX photography (“The camera’s as big as a VW,” quipped Stetson); and Chuck Davis, whose credits stretch from IMAX to Jacques Cousteau. There will be a short tribute to Mike deGruy, the late, adventurous, and popular Santa Barbara cinematographer. A sizable chunk of the show has been carved out for Brooks to give a narrated slideshow, too.
“Even if it’s Ernie Brooks we are celebrating, it’s Ed here who’s responsible for all these people showing up,” said Salas. “Only he could get folks from all over the world to come.”
Our coastline is also an incentive for many of these globetrotting dive photographers. “For a long time, Santa Barbara was the hub of the international diving world,” explained Stetson, who enumerates reasons like technical advances made by early abalone divers here, which led directly to the deep-water diving used for oil exploration, another legacy of Santa Barbara’s waterfront life. Add in the research facilities and diving sports around here and, he explained, the city is a kind of hallowed ground.
And as much as Stenson and Salas are looking forward to what’s on the big screen, the big draw will be the gathering of all of these historical and accomplished players.
“To be honest, I’m most looking forward to seeing all these people,” said Stetson, even if the cinema should be spectacular. “These are true pioneers.”
“Heroes,” said Salas. “I’m going to get to see my heroes.”
The Santa Barbara Underwater Film Festival takes place this Saturday, September 14, at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.) at 7 p.m. Call (805) 963-9503.or visit thearlingtontheatre.com for tickets and info.