In ways large and small, we are reminded daily that Santa Barbara is still in something of a state of shock, in the wake of what befell Montecito on January 9. One modest reminder came on opening night of the 33rd Santa Barbara International Film Festival, when the familiar annual sight of the klieg lights outside of The Arlington Theatre, normally a blissful luminous fanfare for the opening of our beloved 10-day filmic feast, seemed to have lost some of its sheen and promise. In states of mourning and confusion, old sources of comfort can become rewired.
SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling wisely addressed this condition from the outset of his introduction to opening night, which featured a lovely and moving film by Emilio Estevez, The Public, with many of its cast — including the reliably wry Alec Baldwin — in the house. “It’s been quite a journey to this point,” Durling told the full crowd. In the debris flow, he said, “we lost dear friends. People saw their houses and property destroyed and their lives displaced. The emotional toll it has taken on all of us is not quantifiable.”
He spoke of contemplating calling off this year’s festival, but realized that this kind of a community outpouring and in-gathering around the collectivist emotional power of film from around the world would be a great source of healing. Donning a turquoise ribbon intended to commemorate the victims and survivors, Durling proceeded to name-check each one of those lost in the mudslide. It was a powerful moment in public, and a perfect way to acknowledge the elephant in Santa Barbara’s room/collective psyche, before kicking off another promising-looking SBIFF.
It helped, too, that the film was one of the best festival-opening features in recent memory, as Estevez — writer-director-star-kinder-gentler-auteur — spins an engaging story of homeless people in the Cincinnati Public Library launching an action of “civil disobedience” by taking over a library floor. In fact, their main objective is to fend off the cold, a frigid, death-causing chill, and the scenario raises telling questions about humanity, morality, and economic frailties, on collective and individual levels.
To boot, it’s a refreshing and rare ode to libraries — that “last bastion of true democracy in America.” Public libraries, and intelligent film festivals such as SBIFF, are critical strongholds of culture, knowledge…and gathering.
What to See File: Of the several films I was able to catch ahead of festival lift-off — so far, so all good — the most impressive was the Czech film Kvartet (The Quartette), Miroslav Krobot’s beautifully crafted and emotionally probing study of string players in a quartet (triggering memories of the great Ivan Passer film Intimate Lighting). Their lives intersect, fragment and become spin-offs for subplot trajectories in a not-necessarily-linear narrative, best described as guided by a musical instinct rather than a traditional form.
From another place entirely, the Uruguayan film Get the Weed is a gently satirical mockumentary about a government plot to acquire mass quantities of pot as our intrepid characters traipse across America and touch base with actual figures in the Marijuana legalization effort. Lines of farce and reality keep blurring — something like Borat, but less toxic — especially given the active participation of former Uruguayan president José Mujica. In Denny Brechner’s wily fun film, the president reasons that humor is important in the maintenance of a good democracy, and idea that our own president also supports — quite unintentionally.
French films at the festival can often slip into the category of guilty pleasure froth, an important and crowd-pleasing function amidst more serious concerns and in the program. But something finer this way comes with the French film Fifty Springtimes (Aurore), directed by Blandine Lenoir, which evocatively delves into the life and times of our mid-life-approaching heroine, with warming humor and bittersweet romantic turns along the way, plus an affirmative female focus which seems right on time.
The Chinese film Angels Wear White takes on the struggles of its female characters in a vastly different and darker way, and with a stark but powerful cinematic style that pulls us into its tale from the first scene (a motif revisited in the final scene, in the deceptively careful plotting of what might seem like an ephemeral narrative). The exploitation of innocent young teens and machinations of cover-up for evil men in high places are underscoring aspects of a film which manages to be chilling and fascinating, at the same time.
Let the reeling begin, and continue.