With more than 200 films, tributes, and panels over the course of 11 days, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival has no shortage of cinematic stardust to keep filmgoers entranced. Shuffling up and down State Street, clutching marked up pocket guides and battling the winter elements (two days of rain in a week!), to catch their favorite films — not to mention enough celebrity wattage to power up the city’s grid. The festival has long held court as the highlight of the season.
But look beyond the star clout and red-carpet fever and you’ll discover that the charm of SBIFF continues to be driven by the vast array of filmmakers in attendance, where an international perspective and first-person account of the madness behind the method of picture making can be had for little more than the price of a movie ticket. Invest a bit more, and once the credits roll and the Q&As give way to the next programmed screening, these artists can be found lingering over cocktails and tunes at one of the festival’s many scheduled receptions, warmly available to chat about their beloved projects.
As of press time, I had attended several of these gatherings. Read on to discover the bliss and camaraderie that flourishes when people from all walks of life unite over celluloid dreams.
Opening Night Gala — 10:30 p.m.
A steady din of chatter fills the Paseo Nuevo Mall’s narrow passageways as guests amble toward the nearest bar, a sharp evening breeze whipping dresses around in a shimmering frenzy. It’s day one of the festival, and the city’s open-air shopping center is playing host to the hundreds of revelers who’ve flocked downtown in celebration. Area restaurants line the corridors with platters of signature fare, and at the Isabella Gourmet Foods table, a crowd of filmmakers is marveling over Hippy Pop flavored popcorn and debating the merits of garlic over onion seasonings. Among them are Marc Carlini, Oren Skoog, and Kevin Cognetti of She’s in Portland, a buddy road-trip flick peppered with clever dialogue and breathtaking cinematography. We chat about the movie’s connection to Santa Barbara and the impact of three-dimensional female characters before sliding toward the dance floor and hopping around to an OutKast song. Dizzy with glee, we promise to reunite at their opening screening.
Festival Pavilion Happy Hour — 5 p.m.
For two hours every afternoon, the Lobero courtyard is jam-packed with thirsty filmmakers and weary moviegoers as they pause for a brief respite under the warmth of an intimate canopy, exchanging the names of favorite films over glasses of vibrant, strawberry-scented rosé from Folded Hills. I spot Vjosa Berisha of The Flying Circus in a corner and make my way over to gush over the Kosovar film that she and her fellow director/husband Fatos Berisha will be premiering later in the week. As the country’s first and only female producer, she is a study in passion and perseverance, sharing insightful details about politics informing the arts and how important humor is during the most pressing times. Her hand is tightly wrapped around her phone as she awaits word from her husband, who’s being held up over a visa delay and might not make it in time for their U.S. premiere. We order a second round, and as the conversation flows effortlessly, I get the sinking sensation that this might be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Lobero Studio Party — 11 p.m.
Thanks to the design prowess of superstar event planner Jill Remy, each year the Lobero Theatre’s stage is transformed into a cool weekend lounge for filmmakers and platinum-pass holders to boogie it up post-tributes well into the witching hour. Tonight’s crowd seems raucous and restless — fueled, I suspect, by fortified cocktails from Belvedere and the absence of the event’s usual passed hors d’oeuvres. Gregoire Gensollen of Papicha and his wife, Melissa Pinto, are beaming over vodka tonics at the rousing response they received to their arresting and heart-wrenching Albanian film — screened only moments earlier and nominated for an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. Gensollen and Pinto talk candidly about the challenges of raising a family while on the hamster wheel of press junkets, and how cultural barriers are quickly dissolved when the arts are culturally prioritized. She’s in Portland’s Carlini and Skoog join in the conversation, and when Berisha rushes over to announce that her husband has safely landed at LAX, our motley crew quickly decides a celebration is at hand.
The Press Room — 1:30 a.m.
The party train heads over to one of the festival’s most beloved late-night hang spots, where sassy bartenders pour stiff drinks to a soundtrack of British Invasion classics. Festival stragglers huddle closely together and cackle over filmmaking mishaps and preposterous adventures. As the last-call bell rings out in the night, promises to reunite over future screenings and happy hours are confirmed under a convivial blanket of film and friendship. This, everyone solemnly agrees, is what the power of storytelling cultivates, and we’ll all have cinematic hangovers come morning to prove it.