Credit: Jean Ziesenhenne

If there was an operative principle and manifesto-like maxim best describing the experience of the 36th annual SBIFF, it filled the screen countless times over 10-plus days, in previews before each screening: “THE SHOW MUST GO ON.” And so it did, bravely and admirably, in the face of pandemic shutdown provisions. When the pandemic going got tough and threatening to such a complex event with a highly public interface, the festival did go on, in a mostly virtual way.

SBIFF ’21 opened on a bold, illuminating note, with the doc Invisible Valley, about the gross socio-economic realities in the Coachella Valley. The screening was preceded by a few words from longstanding SBIFF exec director Roger Durling, in lieu of the traditional gala opening night rituals, which usually includes a moment when Durling invites the audience to briefly converse with a stranger. This year, Durling told the car-bound crowd, “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.”

Enter the two drive-in screens in the SBCC parking lots and a large stone’s throw from the Pacific Ocean, with multiple, free-to-the-public screenings. This year, we missed the human touch of Durling and such programmers as Mickey Duzdevich and Audrey Arn introducing and interviewing filmmakers, but said humans did show up at the drive-ins, for scaled-down but reassuring appearances.

After the opening, it was off and running — or hunkering down as we’ve learned and been doomed to do for the past year — watching from a list of 100-plus films on our own schedule, or occasionally heading to the sea for drive-in encounters. Suffice to say, it was the most non-linear, non-real-time SBIFF in its history.

Despite the inherent hermetic distancing of the home-bound aspect of this festival, there were moments of serendipity and solidarity, sometimes at unexpected turns. On the final day, the twin drive-in screens — across from Leadbetter Beach — showed the charming sister surfers in Tahiti doc Daughters of the Waves, while the opposite screen hosted Coast, a pleasing teen awakening film with a “should I stay or should I go” theme, the small town in question being the north county township of Santa Maria. While I was at the surf film, Coast ended, inspiring an admiring honkfest across the way (this year’s surrogate for crowd applause) buzzed in the sea-kissed air along Cabrillo.

Another unexpected shout out to the 805-rootedness in this otherwise, by nature, remote festival, came at the end of Bill Murray’s often woozy “Modern Master” award evening, when he oozed respect for La Super Rica’s delectable #16, now the official dish of the SBIFF ’21. Ok, maybe not official

Once again, as has happened every year from festival #1, the best films traveled from the farthest distance. Of particular note this year were all of the films in the Nordic quarter (especially Erna at War, The Last Ones, and Backyard Village) and some innovative cinematic ventures in the Spain/Latin America corner (e.g. the rough poetries of The Ghosts, We Will Never Die, and Fortitude, and the powerfully emotional, Ken Loach-ish family-versus-the-system portrait, Listen). Several docs stood out, including the opening night fare, Fellinopolis, and Six Angry Women.

CLOSING NIGHT: Capping things off on closing night was an inspired tradition-in-the-making, possibly, a collection of impressive Santa Barbara films, which once again not only showcased regional film talent, but held up a mirror to the wonderland that is this place we live. I dug into my take-out #16 and thoroughly enjoyed the ride, opening with a slice of cultural life going back to Santa Barbara’s origins: Nick Zachar’s Homecoming: Journey to Limuw beautifully chronicles the annual Chumash tradition of channel-crossing in the indigenous tomol canoe, winding up in Limuw, an ancient Chumash village on Santa Cruz Island.

Michael Love, who last year brought us a fine doc on the popular “parking garage” guitarist Bruce Goldish, returned this year with Dist-Dance, an insider’s report on the resourceful pivoting of the normally indoor weekly Ecstatic Dance Tribe meet-up to outdoor spaces under COVID, at Ellwood Bluffs, a remote corner of East Beach, and White Rock by the Santa Ynez River. It was one of a few timely treatments of life in the pandemic at the festival, including the doc Last Call: the Shutdown of NYC Bars, and the darkly comic Romanian short film Remdesivir.

Greg Kroes gave us a sensitive and intimate report on a veteran Santa Barbaran’s battle with lymphoma, Hospice of SB presents, Manuel Figueroa’s Story. Abigail Fuller’s Shepherd’s Songtouches our hearts and reminds us of Santa Barbara’s natural and sustainability-minded agrarian life, on the subject of Jenny Schneider and Jack Anderson’s Cuyama Lamb Project.A much more controversial topic is addressed, with a fairly even-handed forum, in Benjamin Goedirt’s Santa Barbara Weed Country.

Young filmmaker Casey McGarry came through with two fascinating films on quirky avenues of Santa Barbara history and culture: Vuja De is an aptly compact portrait of the miniaturist tableaux of artist Michael E. Long, whose Canon Perdido Street studio was once the site of a thriving early ‘60s folk club, Rondo. McGarry dug into historical annals again with his affectionate, kinetically-charged Electric Lady, about the local celebrity Ana Coffey, an African-American woman who roller-skated along Cabrillo Boulevard from 1975, for 27 years, and made a brief return last year.

McGarry’s slices of Santa Barbara life are more than just trivial pursuits, but valuable and well-crafted tributes to niches of local life extending beyond and beneath the shimmery tourist bait profile of what this city is about.

As a possible secondary maxim for SBIFF ’21, we only needed to bend an ear to Delroy Lindo, who uttered his motto at the end of his Outstanding Actor” award tribute: “Can’t stop, won’t stop. Onward and upwards.”

See you next year, on the streets of Santa Barbara.

MY TOP TEN: My Top Ten top memories from this year’s program: Fear (Strah), The Last Ones, Fortitude (La Fortaleza), Erna at War, Listen, The Pit (Bedre), Poppie Nongena, Ladies of Steel, Backyard Village, Invisible Valley.

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