It was one of last weekend’s many illuminating “only at the Film Festival” moments when Haskell Wexler screened his rough-hewn but lovable documentary Who Needs Sleep? at the Lobero Theatre. The venerable cinematographer and activist, a frequent visitor to the Santa Barbara International Film Festival throughout the years, turned his camera on film crews and colleagues, in a film advocating saner and more humane working conditions and hours. The behind-the-behind-the-scenes project gave us a rare peek at the workers in the industry too rarely considered, even at a film festival, and also struck a chord for overworked Americans. The sentiment of sleep debt hits home with many of us in the workaholic nation, and also with the Film Festival-goers.
Thankfully, the SBIFF, in its ripe old 21 years now, continues to be a good excuse to miss sleep. In the first several days of the festival, continuing through this weekend, the Film Festival is shaping up beautifully.
High hopes notwithstanding, SBIFF has not achieved the prestige level of Sundance or Cannes on the film fest circuit, which has grown by leaps and bounds around the country and world since our festival began in 1986. One can’t expect to find celebrity swag on eBay received at this festival—a new Sundance phenomenon—or the kind of film-world buzz of Cannes. But it does have a lateral relationship with both festivals, in that it screens films that have visited those towering festivals. SBIFF is very much on the film festival map, and the radar, a boon for film lovers in town.
What you can find, however, and what makes this a priceless opportunity, is its reliable wealth of fine and eye-opening films—mostly from the international cinema world—attesting to the health of the enterprise. Celebrity and insider encounters are part of the intricate machinery of SBIFF, but the real heat comes from its film programming, the stuff of flickering images projected in dark rooms.
For actual star content, last weekend brought to town the likes of George Clooney and Naomi Watts, both engaging in their own ways. As for Clooney, whose Modern Master Award ceremony hit the Arlington on Friday, it would have been a ludicrous joke, considering his status as a pretty face whose work put him in the category of a Ted Danson-type. Everything changed in 2005, with his remarkable film Good Night, and Good Luck—which he described on Friday as “a passion piece”—and his work in the important Syriana. Master or not, Clooney has abruptly become important in the last year. He’s famously self-effacing and down-to-earth, to boot, as when he told Leonard Maltin, “If I get hit by a bus tonight, I win. Otherwise, I’m on Hollywood Squares in a few years … it’s all about when you die.”
The next night, Watts settled in for her “this is your life” moment at the Marjorie Luke Theatre, even though the bulk of her work has taken place in the last few years, after years of making the auditioning grind. “I guess I grew up with a survival instinct,” she said. For many of us, Watts’s shining moments have been her schizoid twofer role in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. and her tortured turn in 21 Grams, whose director Alejandro González Iñárritu was in the house that night. Of that shoot, Watts said, “I fear that I’ll never have as good an experience as that.”
Opening the festival, Robert Towne’s new film Ask the Dust got mixed reviews, some questioning its clichés and moodiness, and others (present company included) admiring its sweet, atmospheric, and enjoyably pulpy romanticism. Frankly, it has been a long time since this festival had a strong opener. Even last year’s kicker with a Woody Allen film proved less that thrilling, given the fact that Melinda and Melinda was an idea whose realization thudded. But there are always plenty of high points within the schedule.
Among the jewels seen so far: the Mexican film Duck Season, a dryly funny, Jarmusch-esque day in the life of an apartment in the strange clutches of adolescence; Iran’s startling Turtles Can Fly tells of resilient and maimed children in Kurdistan on the brink of the U.S.-Iraq war; the festival’s most surreal, trippy film so far—the Quay brothers’ The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes, blending live action with animation, and linear narrative with the dreamtime logic. The Quebeçoise C.R.A.Z.Y.(JeanMarc Vallee) is a hiply made dysfunctional yet “normal” family dramedy, Canadian-style.
Several features in the program are nominated for this year’s foreign film Oscar, all with a social and historical conscience. South Africa’s Tsotsi (Gavin Hood) is a hard-edged but humanized tale out of the mean streets of the township. Germany’s Sophie Scholl (Marc Rothemund) gives a focused, compelling read on the martyr of the anti-Hitler group “The White Rose,” and France’s Joyeux Noël (Christian Carion) is a sentimental but iportant anti-war film, chronicling the self-appointed truce—a brief flash of intra-national sanity—on Christmas Eve in the WWI trenches.
Two films from Korea turned out to be senses-bugging festival highlights, in different but related ways. The disarmingly powerful Woman Is the Future of Man juxtaposes a hypnotic, meditative filmic style with the brute crassness of its characters, while the arty spin on the gritty revenge genre, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (from Chan-wook Park, of Old Boy fame) spares neither blood, grit, nor elegance in the visual department.
On the documentary front, Sisters-in-Law (a film arriving with the imprimatur of Cannes approval) brilliantly recounts, without the distraction of narration or mannered politicization, the efforts of female lawyers to champion women’s rights in Cameroon. Belzec (Guillaume Moscovitz) is an unusually cool and haunting Holocaust documentary, for the fact that this lesser-known Polish concentration camp, razed and made to disappear by the Germans after a deadly year in operation, becomes a vehicle for a study in memory, the indifference of nature, and the importance of remembering. Werner Herzog’s slyly brilliant Grizzly Man—although it has already played in town and been televised—is clearly one of the greatest films in the festival. Cleverly disguised as a “nature film” (and programmed as part of the nature-film sidebar), the film chronicles the rise and fall—especially the fall—of the late, self-appointed grizzly-bear advocate Timothy Treadwell. But it is mostly classic Herzog: a meditation on humanity’s strained and delusional relationship with nature, everyday madness, and a virtuoso assembly of “found footage” that reflects on the elusive magic of the film art. It’s the most filmic film of the festival.
Where else but at our festival could you see, late on a Sunday night, a film like La Tragedia de Macario? Pablo Veliz’s moving example of vernacular cinema is about a victim of the 2003 suffocation of 19 would-be illegal immigrants in a train car, at the cruel hands of a “coyote,” but told as a personal tale. Shot in four-and-a-half days, with a budget of $7,000 ($4,000 of which went to buy the digital camera), the humble project reminds us that heartfelt guerilla filmmaking is alive and well, and providing us with important stories Hollywood could care less about.
This is one reason we go without sleep this time of year.