“Wonder and exploration.”
Those are the two key words that Roger Durling wants you to keep in mind for the next 10 days of films, tributes, and other associated offerings of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The 29th annual affair kicked off on Thursday night at the Arlington Theatre with a screening of the documentary Mission Blue (whose ocean-saving eco-hero, Sylvia Earle, received the sort of royal fan treatment usually reserved for superstars) before taking over Paseo Nuevo into the wee hours for its ever-rocking opening night gala.
After the crowds had filed into the Arlington well past the announced 8 p.m. start time — and well beyond the number of seats available — fest prez Doug Stone took the stage to welcome all, and thanked the evening’s sponsors, which included The Santa Barbara Independent. Then came the black-clad Durling, who, as usual, made everyone in the crowd greet the neighbors they didn’t know, an annual exercise in camaraderie that he hopes set the stage for a friendly fest.
When that full-house roar settled, Durling explained the origins of Mission Blue’s selection as the opening night film, which was rooted in the fact that the late Santa Barbara cinematographer Mike DeGruy worked on the documentary. A longtime volunteer and advisor for the fest, DeGruy died in a helicopter crash in Australia as the 2012 festival was happening, but has remained a guiding light for Durling and the fest. Mission Blue is also dedicated to his memory.
“He taught everybody who would listen about exploration,” said Durling. “He wanted everybody to have a sense of wonder and have a sense of exploration. I stood here two years ago a broken man, telling you that his legacy was going to continue at this film festival, and this whole year, I have been infused with Mike’s sense of wonder and exploration. All of the choices we made for this year have been filled with wonder and exploration. I urge you, for the next 10 days, your mantra has to be wonder and exploration. Wonder and exploration.”
The film’s director Fisher Stevens hit the stage next, said his words of thanks, and introduced the short but spunky Sylvia Earle, who received a partial standing ovation. Then came the film, which the audience seemed to appreciate.
The evening continued down at Paseo Nuevo, where, for the past few years, the festival has turned the outdoor mall into a food-and-drink extravaganza. Hundreds caught cerebral and other buzzes until about 1 a.m., including the ever-approachable Earle, who was mobbed by photo-taking folks well past midnight.