In the grand and ongoing scheme of SBIFF, 2013 is nothing numerically special, a mere 28 years in the trenches, in the line of becoming an important west coast festival in the global festival spectrum. The 25th year is past and the 30th lurks on the horizon.

But from another vantage, 2013 does mark an important festival milestone, being the 10th year the event has been under the enlightened tenure of artistic director Roger Durling. He may have begun the gig, his first such position, with some hesitation a decade ago but has turned into the best person for the job among the handful of directors in the festival’s history, and has been huge boon for the festival in terms of vision, translating his passion for cinema to insiders and the local ranks of film geekdom, attending to the multiple factions, and being a friendly, approachable domo.

As Durling came onstage at the Arlington Theatre on opening night, he expressed his appreciation of supportive individuals and the city along the way, and also for the grandeur of the Arlington Theatre “movie palace” itself. Most specifically, though, he expressed gratitude to Mike DeGruy, a critical figure in the festival’s recent chapter. A nature filmmaker and programmer, DeGruy spearheaded the “Field Guide to the Movies” program aimed at bringing the wonder of cinema to children, sharing the film love and passing it down a generation or two, getting James Cameron, for instance, to appear before an Arlington full of youngsters. DeGruy’s accidental death, in the field, during last year’s festival was a shock to all, and this year’s fest is dedicated to the much-admired and generous filmmaker and naturalist. A series of DeGruy tribute snippets will line the screenings, and remind us of his legacy and continuing spirit.

As for the historically mixed status of the opening night film, the good news this year is that there was good news emanating from the screen. Whereas Larry Kasdan’s, ahem, doggish film Darling Companion a year ago felt to most of us to be flat and chatty, director Henry-Alex Rubin’s intriguing and willfully nervous-making film Disconnect left a strong impression. It was anything but flat (sometimes to an overstated fault) and any inherent chattiness was usually of the speechless, virtual chatting sort, with texts superimposed on the screen.

Rubin’s cautionary tale deals directly with an ever more pressing subject–the foibles and pitfalls of life in the uber-connected era in which identity theft, cyber-bullying, and sexchat exploitation converge in dangerous ways, through three subplots teetering toward a climactic standoff, in the real world where people bleed. Things go over the top and disconnect with real life empathy in the operatic finale, a meshing of plot tendrils reminiscent of the structure of Crash (the Paul Haggis’model, not the Cronenberg classic), but Disconnect still hits home in many ways, disturbing and otherwise.

One positive effect may be a tempering of the nagging, distracting urge to text and otherwise pull out the dreaded smart bomb phone. Note to festers: keep your personal screens stowed while the big screen presentation is in motion.

Onward and forward into the SBIFF thicket, with Ben (Argo) Affleck’s “Modern Master Award” big show tonight as the first sighting of the celebrity parade to come.


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