SBIFF 2021: Day One Report

Festival Screentime Is Upon Us, by Land, Living Room, and Sea

Credit: Jean Ziesenhenne

In a year-and-change whose motto might well be “what’s wrong with this picture?,” another specific and local example reared its head on Wednesday night. The grand entity fondly known as SBIFF (Santa Barbara International Film Festival) — one of Santa Barbara’s most significant cultural events — kicked off its 36th annual edition, but without the typical fanfare or accoutrements, thanks to COVID-19’s fierce rules of conduct. 

A short list of what we won’t find in this very anomalous year: the roving klieg light beacons and general celebratory fanfare at the Arlington Theatre, followed by an opening gala party; a sense of festival consciousness evidenced by hordes of nerdy filmgoers and star-gazers at our theaters, roaming the city and sinking into multiplexes and finer venues (Arlington, the Lobero, SBMA) for 10 days, and after-parties slithering into assorted, tightly-packed spaces in town. It will be a festival in relative hiding, holed and hunkered in our private quarters, compared to those of the past.

But, on the plus side, considering the clampdown conditions, SBIFF has duly arrived, damn the impediments and crowd-phobic attributes. Folks will be forced to take in the next 10 days of events and screenings on their own private home fronts/screens, but still all the virtues are in place. The Oscar-timed celebrity showcases and tributes are in order as always: Bill Murray, Amanda Seyfried, Carey Mulligan, Delroy Lindo, Sacha Baron Cohen, and an impressive host of other Academy Award-vying bigwiggery beaming in live, even if they never leave their respective homes and may be wearing pajama bottoms beneath the semi-formal topwear.

All that said, the festival prevails and is officially open for business.

And on Wednesday night’s strangely muted gala opening, kicking off a series of screenings on two drive-in screens in the SBCC parking lots, across from Leadbetter Beach, there were glimmers of hope alighting the surreal circumstances. While we missed the annual ritual of longtime and beloved SBIFF exec director Roger Durling’s opening night speeches, alongside other dignitaries, and comments from filmmakers of the opening night film — which we traditionally hope will be one of the good ones (not always the case) — diminished expectations greeted the new, temporary fanfare with great glee and hunger for some cultural normality. It didn’t hurt that the drive-in series sponsor, Toyota Mirai, doled out goody bags to visitors, bearing artisanal popcorn, token M&M samplings and, true to pandemic form, a tiny bottle of hand sanitizer.

On Wednesday night, Durling appeared, in the dark (not sure what he was wearing), before the audience of cars for the opening film, supplying hearty honks in place of applause. As he told the vehicular throng, “There was never any doubt in our minds that would go forward with the film festival. We were not going to cancel and we were not going to solely do a virtual event. We wanted a sense of optimism with it, a sense of positivity. We wanted a sense of connectivity — even it meant being in cars, socially-distanced. At least we’re together and we’re experiencing movies.”

(For the record, Durling has kept the faith in his own way over the past year’s public film void, writing daily review/thinkpieces on films, and hosting zoom-erific Q&As with filmmakers online.) 

Ironically, on the democratic and egalitarian fronts, the 2021 model SBIFF accidentally corrects the inherent conflict of VIP pass-holders vs. hopeful single-ticket holders: it’s much easier to get one’s seat-of-choice (i.e. in one’s living room) without battling for a seat at popular screenings. And the daily drive-in screenings are actually free to the public (available via reservations on the website each morning at 8 a.m. — set those alarm clocks). 

As to the pressing question of whether this year’s opening night is something to celebrate, the answer is a resoundingly affirmative: the dazzling and socially conscious Invisible Valley not only contends with a particular locale and socio-cultural situation, in the Coachella Valley, but addresses larger issues of vast disparities of wealth and work forces in California and America, at large, while addressing immigration issues in a compelling way. 

Director Aaron Maurer, aided by a powerful visual cinematic eye throughout, takes stock of a region of both abject poverty and abject decadence, reflected in gated communities bearing vast green golf courses in this desert area. Adding to the geo-cultural mix is the added surreal touch of the annual mega-rock festival excesses of the Coachella Festival, which lands in Coachella’s midst once a year without due recognition of the realities of its home base.

The star of this powerful doc, and possibly one of the heroes of the entire festival to come, is the migrant farmworker and mother, Marisella. In the first scene, with her family in a suddenly stalled car, we sense her stoic resolve when she laughing explains to the filmmaker that their car has run out of gas. A similar sense of resiliency and can-do attitude emerges late in the film, as Marisella sizes up the ultimately leveling aspect of death on all sides of the socio-economic fence and gates: she reasons that farmworkers often find strength in family and faith, where affluent neighbors and employers may lack rootedness or happiness. In the end, she grins, “The same worms will eat us both.”

Invisible Valley was a profound high note upon which to welcome SBIFF, 2021-style. 

LAUNCHING INTO THE GOODS: Among the films pre-screened and vouched for, Thursday, the first full day of screenings is full of promise. Opening what would be the annual “breakfast club” early morning slot of the festival — although one advantage of the streaming SBIFF is the ability to customize the “start-time” of any film — director Micha Lewinsky’s fine and quirky Swiss spy-comedy-reality-checker film One-Way to Moscow is well worth a look. Beneath the narrative twist-up of an undercover investigator in a supposedly subversive radical theater production is the true story of Stasi-like surveillance tactics before the fall of the Berlin wall.

Argentine director Eduardo Crespo’s slow but steady drama We Will Never Die is a thing of unexpected beauty and melancholy reflection, about a woman and her son visiting a city where her older son has mysteriously died. It’s a tragic but never maudlin tale, contemplatively realized and with margin for spiritual and existential issues along the way. 

In the prime-time evening slot of 7:30 p.m. (or whenever you’d like), check out the strangely enticing and semi-mystifying Japanese curio The Cinderella Addiction. Director Ryohei Watanabe’s film pretends to be a straight-ish romantic tale, but sneaks off into odd narrative corners when you least expect it. BYO wasabi-flavored popcorn.


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