<em>Family Band: The Cowsills Story</em>
Courtesy Photo

For filmmakers with ties to Santa Barbara, SBIFF’s submission deadline is a huge bull’s-eye on the calendar, an annual challenge to come up with something worth showing the community at large, whether it’s a comedy about wizards or an investigation into saving our soil.

Filmmaker and journalist Russ Spencer, who helped create this corner of the fest nearly one decade ago, called the 2012 experience “very gratifying,” explaining, “More Santa Barbara filmmakers have begun to face the reality of the marketplace and are paying much closer attention to production values, marketability, and structure. It’s like, go big or go home.” He’s also proud to note the growing “interplay” between here and Hollywood, as fostering industry exposure was why SBIFF created this section roughly 10 years ago.

“We have a good core group of filmmakers who are working at a very high level, and another group of up-and-comers who are showing great promise,” said Spencer. “The shorts programs are where these filmmakers are excelling, both in docs and narrative films, as the best filmmakers hone their talent on short-form projects, building up experience for that feature on the horizon.”

Here’s a breakdown of what your friends and neighbors have to show you in 2012.

Courtesy Photo

Full-Length Features and Docs

There are only two full-length narrative feature films this year: Shuffle, Kurt Kuenne’s thought-provoking mindbender about a man (played by T.J. Thyne) whose age-jumping existence turns out to be a mystery needing solving; and Masquerade, a 140-minute mockumentary about two child actors attempting to make it big again, directed by Nicholas Tolkien, the S.B.-based grandson of J.R.R.

Well-stacked is the only word to describe this slate of feature-length documentaries. Santa Barbaraphiles will be particularly pleased with three of these:

Santa Barbara and the Sea: The sweeping, city-produced program by Chris Bell focuses on our town’s connection to the sea, from the 13,000-year-old bones of Arlington Springs Man on Santa Rosa Island to shipwrecks, Stearns Wharf, the commercial fishing industry, and almost everything else salty in between. Powered by interviews with historians and fishermen, its screening will certainly be a reunion of sorts for the sea-going populace.

Tales from the Tavern: This musically saturated and tenderly rendered profile focuses on the intimate singer-songwriter concert series that’s bumped from Firestone Brewery to the Maverick Saloon.

The Gathering: Susan Sember’s report views a 2007 gathering of more than 40 legendary horsemen from nine states who came to a rodeo ranch in Cuyama to celebrate their vaquero heritage.

Rounding out the long docs are:

Womb with a View: An eye-opening and honest portrayal of modern women who’ve decided, for a variety of reasons, to not have children, and how that often socially controversial decision has affected both their past and present.

Painting Bolinas: Wendy Elkin’s exposé examines the tiny Northern California village that’s home to interesting artists and prefers being shut off from the world.

Family Band: The Cowsills Story: An engaging, in-depth, and fascinating look at how one of the most popular bands of the 1960s — and probably the most ambitious and inclusive family-based group — crumbled under the weight of an abusive father-manager.

Nature Documentaries

This year’s fest has separated out four “nature” documentaries, but they’re really focused on environmental concerns.

Jill Cloutier and Carol Hirashima’s The Soil Solution literally dives deep into dirt, exploring through interviews with farmers, scientists, and others from the Santa Ynez Valley to Mexico how the often overlooked soil is truly a superorganism that needs to be respected and protected, both to save our own food supply and to combat global warming. On the species front, The Non-Lead Hunter shows off California condor advocate Anthony Prieto’s efforts to inform other hunters about how lead ammo harms wildlife and isn’t safe for humans either. A mix of exciting hunting footage and field analysis of how lead bullets work differently than copper ones makes a pretty convincing argument for change. Heading across the Pacific to show positive news from Oahu is John Maienza and Gregg Wilson’s The Great Huki, a quick peek at surprisingly effective brown algae clean-up efforts in the Maunalua Bay. And closer to home in Ojai, Release Me is a 15-minute rundown by Amanda Wasserman, Darryl Mimick, and Skye Featherstone on the stalled efforts to remove the Matilija Dam, an idea more than a decade in the making.

Short Documentaries

Both Santa Barbara sagas and international affairs get covered in these short docs, from issues you’ve certainly heard of (Occupy Santa Barbara, Duffy Hecht’s look at our own 99-percent movement; Stage IV: Living with Cancer, Matt Walla’s series of interviews with those living with serious cancer diagnoses) to those you’ve either forgotten or heard nothing about, such as Jeremy Cohan’s After, about how Jesse Feigelman’s 2002 Brooklyn suicide still affects his family; and UCSB lecturer Chris Jenkins’s Mercy Beyond Borders, about a Santa Clara-based nonprofit that’s working to improve the lives of women in South Sudan.

<em>Leaving Alaska</em>
Branden Aroyan / lowtiderising.com

The most inspiring film in this collection is certainly Leaving Alaska, in which director Michael Warner follows a dozen schoolchildren from the middle of backwoods Alaska who take a life-changing trip to Santa Barbara, where we welcome them with open arms and, among other highlights, teach them to surf. It’s a great portrait of their homeland and ours, and a great look at the power of teachers and learning.

In the filmmaker-to-follow department, check out Paul Lynch’s nine-minute Pou Yon Ayiti Souvren (For a Sovereign Haiti), which gets into the heart of the intellectual scene among Haiti’s youth to describe how the ever-struggling country will never be free until international pressure and so-called “aid” efforts are scaled back. It’s the latest from Lynch’s Cage Free Productions, which will assuredly be delivering some more geopolitical analyses in the years to come.


The next generation of auteurs tends to first toil in the short, where a tighter cut keeps costs down but production values high. This year’s best are:

Charlene, a smart and quirky comedy about one grocery store bagger’s quest to lose her virginity;

<em>Wizard Heist</em>
Courtesy Photo

Wizard Heist, a hilarious, tongue-in-cheek bank robbery film starring a sorcerer foursome;

Where Moths Fly, a new take on religious discrimination when a robot on his deathbed who’s found Jesus;

The Last Broadcast, starring a radio deejay whose girlfriend leaves him on the same day the world appears to be ending;

Moving Takahashi, on the good and bad moves made by a furniture mover in a ritzy part of town;

Whispers Within, inside the mind of a coyote-skin-wearing, backwoods-living paranoiac; and

Under Water, featuring two brothers with AIDS, one who tries to spread the disease and the other who watches perplexed.

Other solid examples of short filmmaking include Stealing Kindness, showing how a mugging victim turns a life around; Blood and Water, a sepia-toned Wild West gunslinger; Fortune’s Favored, about a Golden Gate Bridge worker’s interrupted trip back to family on the Central Coast; Litmus Paper, about a woman who’s in love with another woman but apparently pregnant with a man’s baby; and Smart Phone, a weirdly comedic take on how mobile phones are taking over our lives.

Rounding out the shorts are the following films, which we were not able to screen before deadline: Over and Out, The Secret Ingredient, Go-Go Fever, and Silent Heart.


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