It was one of last weekend’s many illuminating “only at the Film
Festival” moments when Haskell Wexler screened his rough-hewn but
lovable documentary Who Needs Sleep? at the Lobero Theatre. The
venerable cinematographer and activist, a frequent visitor to the
Santa Barbara International Film Festival throughout the years,
turned his camera on film crews and colleagues, in a film
advocating saner and more humane working conditions and hours. The
behind-the-behind-the-scenes project gave us a rare peek at the
workers in the industry too rarely considered, even at a film
festival, and also struck a chord for overworked Americans. The
sentiment of sleep debt hits home with many of us in the workaholic
nation, and also with the Film Festival-goers.

Thankfully, the SBIFF, in its ripe old 21 years now, continues
to be a good excuse to miss sleep. In the first several days of the
festival, continuing through this weekend, the Film Festival is
shaping up beautifully.

High hopes notwithstanding, SBIFF has not achieved the prestige
level of Sundance or Cannes on the film fest circuit, which has
grown by leaps and bounds around the country and world since our
festival began in 1986. One can’t expect to find celebrity swag on
eBay received at this festival—a new Sundance phenomenon—or the
kind of film-world buzz of Cannes. But it does have a lateral
relationship with both festivals, in that it screens films that
have visited those towering festivals. SBIFF is very much on the
film festival map, and the radar, a boon for film lovers in

What you can find, however, and what makes this a priceless
opportunity, is its reliable wealth of fine and eye-opening
films—mostly from the international cinema world—attesting to the
health of the enterprise. Celebrity and insider encounters are part
of the intricate machinery of SBIFF, but the real heat comes from
its film programming, the stuff of flickering images projected in
dark rooms.

For actual star content, last weekend brought to town the likes
of George Clooney and Naomi Watts, both engaging in their own ways.
As for Clooney, whose Modern Master Award ceremony hit the
Arlington on Friday, it would have been a ludicrous joke,
considering his status as a pretty face whose work put him in the
category of a Ted Danson-type. Everything changed in 2005, with his
remarkable film Good Night, and Good Luck—which he described on
Friday as “a passion piece”—and his work in the important Syriana.
Master or not, Clooney has abruptly become important in the last
year. He’s famously self-effacing and down-to-earth, to boot, as
when he told Leonard Maltin, “If I get hit by a bus tonight, I win.
Otherwise, I’m on Hollywood Squares in a few years … it’s all about
when you die.”

The next night, Watts settled in for her “this is your life”
moment at the Marjorie Luke Theatre, even though the bulk of her
work has taken place in the last few years, after years of making
the auditioning grind. “I guess I grew up with a survival
instinct,” she said. For many of us, Watts’s shining moments have
been her schizoid twofer role in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and
her tortured turn in 21 Grams, whose director Alejandro González
Iñárritu was in the house that night. Of that shoot, Watts said, “I
fear that I’ll never have as good an experience as that.”

Opening the festival, Robert Towne’s new film Ask the Dust got
mixed reviews, some questioning its clichés and moodiness, and
others (present company included) admiring its sweet, atmospheric,
and enjoyably pulpy romanticism. Frankly, it has been a long time
since this festival had a strong opener. Even last year’s kicker
with a Woody Allen film proved less that thrilling, given the fact
that Melinda and Melinda was an idea whose realization thudded. But
there are always plenty of high points within the schedule.

Among the jewels seen so far: the Mexican film Duck Season, a
dryly funny, Jarmusch-esque day in the life of an apartment in the
strange clutches of adolescence; Iran’s startling Turtles Can Fly
tells of resilient and maimed children in Kurdistan on the brink of
the U.S.-Iraq war; the festival’s most surreal, trippy film so
far—the Quay brothers’ The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, blending
live action with animation, and linear narrative with the dreamtime
logic. The Quebeçoise C.R.A.Z.Y. (JeanMarc Vallee) is a hiply made
dysfunctional yet “normal” family dramedy, Canadian-style.

Several features in the program are nominated for this year’s
foreign film Oscar, all with a social and historical conscience.
South Africa’s Tsotsi (Gavin Hood) is a hard-edged but humanized
tale out of the mean streets of the township. Germany’s Sophie
Scholl (Marc Rothemund) gives a focused, compelling read on the
martyr of the anti-Hitler group “The White Rose,” and France’s
Joyeux Noël (Christian Carion) is a sentimental but iportant
anti-war film, chronicling the self-appointed truce—a brief flash
of intra-national sanity—on Christmas Eve in the WWI trenches.

Two films from Korea turned out to be senses-bugging festival
highlights, in different but related ways. The disarmingly powerful
Woman Is the Future of Man juxtaposes a hypnotic, meditative filmic
style with the brute crassness of its characters, while the arty
spin on the gritty revenge genre, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (from
Chan-wook Park, of Old Boy fame) spares neither blood, grit, nor
elegance in the visual department.

On the documentary front, Sisters-in-Law (a film arriving with
the imprimatur of Cannes approval) brilliantly recounts, without
the distraction of narration or mannered politicization, the
efforts of female lawyers to champion women’s rights in Cameroon.
Belzec (Guillaume Moscovitz) is an unusually cool and haunting
Holocaust documentary, for the fact that this lesser-known Polish
concentration camp, razed and made to disappear by the Germans
after a deadly year in operation, becomes a vehicle for a study in
memory, the indifference of nature, and the importance of
remembering. Werner Herzog’s slyly brilliant Grizzly Man—although
it has already played in town and been televised—is clearly one of
the greatest films in the festival. Cleverly disguised as a “nature
film” (and programmed as part of the nature-film sidebar), the film
chronicles the rise and fall—especially the fall—of the late,
self-appointed grizzly-bear advocate Timothy Treadwell. But it is
mostly classic Herzog: a meditation on humanity’s strained and
delusional relationship with nature, everyday madness, and a
virtuoso assembly of “found footage” that reflects on the elusive
magic of the film art. It’s the most filmic film of the

Where else but at our festival could you see, late on a Sunday
night, a film like La Tragedia de Macario? Pablo Veliz’s moving
example of vernacular cinema is about a victim of the 2003
suffocation of 19 would-be illegal immigrants in a train car, at
the cruel hands of a “coyote,” but told as a personal tale. Shot in
four-and-a-half days, with a budget of $7,000 ($4,000 of which went
to buy the digital camera), the humble project reminds us that
heartfelt guerilla filmmaking is alive and well, and providing us
with important stories Hollywood could care less about.

This is one reason we go without sleep this time of year.


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