One of the stronger components of the illustrious Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) is its senses-awakening reality fixes, imparted via documentaries, which have gained increasing significance in the fest’s overall cinematic agenda. From Friday, September 28, through Thursday, October 4, SBIFF’s documentary cause increases its foothold thanks to the compact new Call to Action Film Festival, held at the Riviera Theatre. Like the Wave Festival, held twice per year, the brief but substantial Call to Action aims to showcase films focusing on social, environmental, political, and other real-world causes and to include community-engaging panel discussions with artists and community leaders in the mix.
The mini-fest has been on the drawing boards for some time, according to SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling, roughly inspired by the 2016 elections and the frightening rise and rankle of Trump. “Natalie Orfalea [of the philanthropic Orfalea Foundation], Lynda Weinman, and I met with the staff [after the election] and felt that it was important to do a social-justice-film-driven festival,” he said. “[We] hoped to have launched sooner, but the Riviera renovations last summer took longer than expected. We all agreed from the beginning that it needed to be more than just a display of films. We want to create a dialogue; we want audiences to hear from local nonprofits that are dealing with the subject matter. We understand well that film has the strength and power of creating a community, and we feel that a healthy discussion after each film can help an audience understand how we can all be involved and help with each pressing subject.”
According to programmer Michael Albright, all of Call to Action’s film selections “address timely social justice issues and offer ways to confront and overcome various forms of discrimination and injustice. We hope to connect these filmmakers with audiences so that we can discuss these issues together and can gradually make positive changes in our own communities.”
The inaugural fest’s seven films are diverse: Stephanie Soechtig’s sharply crafted, sobering The Devil We Know is about DuPont’s duplicitous “contamination of the world” with chemicals used to make Teflon. Robin Hauser’s Bias examines the prevalence of “unconscious” prejudice — based on gender, race, and other factors — in the work world and beyond, while Sally Rubin and Ashley York’s fascinating hillbilly delves into the perpetuation of pejorative stereotyping of Appalachia in media and television, while carefully respecting diverse viewpoints during the 2016 election. Robert Greene’s artfully made Bisbee ’17 focuses on an obscure copper-mining labor strike and deportation in early 20th-century Arizona, and Crime + Punishment takes on the illegal practices, as well as legal action against, officer quotas in the NYPD. Roll Red Roll by Nancy Schwartzman deals with rape culture, and its screening is offered in conjunction with Standing Together to End Sexual Assault — formerly the Santa Barbara Rape Crisis Center.
A local angle emerges in The Pushouts (as in at-risk youths being “pushed out” of school, rather than “dropping out”). Directed by Dawn Valadez and Katie Galloway, the film follows tenured UCSB professor Victor Rios, a gang member as a youth in Oakland, who returns to guide young, would-be “pushouts.”
The festival format, with a live audience watching in a theater and then engaging in discussion, can be a key part of the experience of socially aware documentaries. “In some ways, it has become easier for indie/documentary filmmakers to reach an audience through streaming services,” Albright noted. “However, there is also more content than ever for viewers to choose from, and it can be difficult to make your film stand out from the others. Film festivals are more relevant than ever because we help connect a filmmaker with an audience who wants to know more about these issues. These seven documentaries, in particular, need to be seen and discussed with other people.”
In this era of extreme discord and indignation — both nationally and globally — timing also plays a key role with this festival. “The divisiveness in our country that has been heightened since the latest elections were indeed the inspiration, and historically, artists and filmmakers have been consistent about giving a voice to difficult subject matter,” said Durling. “A film festival is an ideal platform to dive deeply into pressing social and political subjects.”
SBIFF’s Call to Action Film Festival takes place Friday, September 28-Thursday, October 4. See sbiff.org/cta.