Scene from "Highway One" | Credit: Courtesy

When the 35th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival wrapped at the end of January 2020, no one could have anticipated how completely transformed life would be in a matter of weeks. The festival’s suite of offices and screening-equipped classrooms at the Barbakow Family Center for Film Studies on State Street across from the Arlington Theatre was thriving, the winners of the 10-10-10 student film competition were celebrating, and the 2020-21 class of the festival’s Rosebud program was gearing up for a robust season of sneak previews and Q&A sessions. Then, thanks to COVID-19, everything ground to a halt.

Actually, that’s not what happened. Thanks to the ingenuity of SBIFF education coordinator Claire Waterhouse and the rest of Roger Durling’s dedicated staff, these ambitious programs, which now ordinarily reach as many as 14,000 people per year, kept rolling, albeit virtually. In fact, thanks to the flexibility with regard to location inherent in digital meetings, some aspects of the work even ramped up.

For example, the festival’s film society increased the number of sneak previews it offered, giving film-starved fans access to top talent through live Q&A sessions on Zoom. And almost immediately upon lockdown, the festival began publishing daily emails written by Roger Durling and Claire Waterhouse that offered detailed criticism and analysis of recommended films.

The latter undertaking has gathered numerous fans over the course of the year that it’s been in operation. Applying the same habits of productivity that have made him so successful as director of the festival and as a professor of film at SBCC, Durling has written hundreds of these not-so-little essays in just one year. It’s as though Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael were to compress a decade or more of reviewing into a single long season.

According to Durling, these articles are typically written seven days in advance, but there has to be room for improvisation, because “the writing is affected by current events. So like when Christopher Plummer died, I told everybody to stop the presses.” The same thing happened with Chadwick Boseman, and with Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

For Durling, the process of writing these essays is bound up in a long-standing routine of screening films virtually every day. “I have a regimen,” he said, “and, typically, by 6:30 in the evening, I will be at home in front of the TV watching something that I feel will help get me through the day, or that I am planning to teach.” Most significantly, and like any good teacher, Durling never writes about a film from memory. When he sits down to compose his recommendations, “it’s always from a fresh viewing that night, or the night before.”

In upcoming weeks, you can expect to receive many more of these film recommendations, along with news of the 10-10-10 competition, which has continued virtually, and all of the SBIFF’s other educational programming.


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