Among the many virtues and good fortunes at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) 2017, it has to be said that the weather outside was frightful/delightful — gray, wintry, wet, and conducive to sending us into darkened rooms where cinema reigned for 10 days (and 11 nights). The verdict on the 32nd edition: thumbs up, for the power of individual films (some more than others, natch), and the revitalizing overall aura of solidarity with a world suddenly gone vulnerable.
Fittingly, what began with the feel-good, life-affirmation tale of Charged ended with Saturday’s film-about-film Their Finest, from Danish director Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners). Dealing with the war ministry’s mission to create uplifting, patriotic films in 1940, Their Finest features Gemma Arterton and lean, witty Brit Bill Nighy, who told the crowd pre-screening,“somebody told me that you are building a wall between California and back east. Count on me to help out.” Also before the finale, festival Executive Director Roger Durling fed into the anxious yet activist spirit of the moment, commenting that “it is at times like these that we must stand together, and, of course, we have the movies to inspire us and lead the way.”
In general, the eerily auspicious timing of this year’s SBIFF — directly following the first official assault on immigrants from White House — served to amp up the politicization of a program that, in keeping with the festival’s history, showcased the healthy diversity of cultures, lives, human woes, and triumphs, across borders and in all four global corners. It was well-nigh impossible to escape the outside world in those dark rooms, without processing the info flow and considering resonances of the new regime mirrored in many of the films here. Some of us speculated whether our so-called president might gain some wisdom or compassion if he saw some of these films, but the jury’s out on whether he would have the patience or willingness to read subtitles.
To quote one of the epigrammatic wisdoms uttered during the festival, during William Hurt’s presentation of the Montecito Award to Isabelle Huppert, “This is the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, not the isolationist festival.” Hear, hear.
Our rich film festival takes on added importance at a time when cinema as such, big screened before a live audience of friends and strangers, is imperiled. Many of these films would be unavailable on big screens, though some of the Oscar-nominated titles will return. And then there is SBIFF’s inspired phenom known as 3rd Weekend, when select, popular, award-winning films are screened in a micro-afterglow festival, on a free, first-come, first-served basis. Here’s this year’s list, at the Plaza de Oro this year (while the Riviera is being renovated): Documentary Shorts: Refugees, The Constitution, Gaviota: The End of Southern California, Rebels on Pointe, The Good Catholic (preceded by It’s Been Like a Year), Sámi Blood, My Hero Brother, Given, Tamara, Angry Inuk, Strawberry Days (preceded by Confino), and Jericó, The Infinite Flight of Days. The films screen Friday-Sunday, February 17-19. Visit sbiff.org for a complete schedule.
10 THAT MATTERED: Trolling through notes and memories with sticking power, the following is this avid fest-goer’s humble attempt at a Top 10 from the 10 days in the dark: I Am Not Your Negro, My Life as a Zucchini, Sámi Blood, Afterimage (Andrzej Wajda’s final film), Indivisible, Fire at Sea, Strawberry Days, The Salesman, The Distinguished Citizen, and Land of Mine.