Sarasota Film Festival spotlights the Florida community's diversity


The 19th edition of the Sarasota Film Festival continued to draw a mix of local movie lovers and industry professionals from across the country to what some might consider to be a second-tier Florida city. After all, Orlando has the amusement parks, Miami has the nightclubs, and even Tampa has its own football and baseball teams.

With a population of roughly 50,000, Sarasota is very much a retirement community to the point where the local paper’s weekend section proclaims itself to be “your guide to life after work”...and they don’t mean the nine-to-five grind either. It’s also best known for being the birthplace of the famous circus-founding Ringling Bros.

The festival’s jovial chairman and president, Mark Famiglio, was on hand to greet local film enthusiasts to the nearly 80 films on display, both in competition and out, a diverse mix of narratives and documentaries.

The festival kicked off on March 31 with Rory Kennedy’s portrait of legendary surfer Laird Hamilton, Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, an apropos choice for a festival whose motto is “Sea and Be Scene,” due to the city’s location directly adjacent to water and surrounded by a number of smaller keys. This was also the theme of the festival’s annual block party held at Sarasota’s J.D. Hamel Park with a wide variety of VIP guests.

Three of the festival’s special guests who took part in the “SFF in Conversation” series, included Diane Lane, star of this year’s closing-night film (see below); Rosanna Arquette, who starred in Max Heller’s Born Guilty; and Aisha Tyler, the hard-working actress who somehow found time to make her directorial debut with Axis, which had its world premiere in competition at the festival.

Sarasota once again partnered with the 18th annual Through Womens Eyes International Film Festival for two days of films written, directed or produced by women. All the funds raised by this Sarasota partner go to the United States National Committee for UN Women to help end violence against women and promote gender equality. Sarasota also presented a number of features focusing on the SFF LGBTQ community, with a panel discussion of “LGBTQ & Black Identities in Media” that included Miami-based Moonlight producer Andrew Hevia, who was also on the festival’s shorts jury.

Furthermore, the Sarasota Film Festival’s education program is showcased at “Hollywood Nights,” promoting local young filmmaking talent, while the Booker High Film Academy premiered their student film Redirection, a movie about the rehabilitation program known as Teen Court. In a similar sense, this year’s film fest also premiered Returning, the first-ever film made by the SFF Veteran’s Filmmaking Academy. The program helps to rehabilitate and reintegrate military veterans back into civilian life by teaching them filmmaking techniques. It is one of the many ways that Sarasota gives back to its community.

Another one of Sarasota’s distinctively unique offerings was a “Sensory-Friendly Screening” of Micah Barber’s Into the Who Knows!, presented in a way to be sensitive to those with cognitive and developmental disabilities. Lights are turned up and the sound is turned down to create a positive stress-free environment for those with special needs.

Beyond the community outreach, Sarasota screened a slew of festival favorites like Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Brett Haley’s The Hero and Joshua Weinstein’s Menashe, as well as Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats (in competition) and Michael Almereyda’s Marjorie Prime, starring Lois Smith, Jon Hamm and Sarasota vet Geena Davis.

Another film receiving its local premiere was Mike Ott’s California Dreams, which received an award in the Independent Visions competition that entitles the movie to receive distribution through New York-based Factory 25. (The company’s founder, Matt Grady, was on that jury.) Fraud received a Special Jury Prize for Narrative Innovation in this category, while the seventh annual Terry Porter Visionary Award was awarded to Menashe for its spirit of independence and experimentation.

On a more personal note, I had an opportunity to be on the documentary jury for this year’s festival, getting to view six fantastic docs, along with Indiegogo’s Aaron Hillis and filmmaker Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil). (Berg’s son Spencer King also premiered his directorial debut Black Petunia at the 2017 festival.)

Out of the six docs in competition, we selected Firas Fayyad and Hassan Khattan’s Last Men In Aleppo for the jury prize, following a similar win at the Sundance Film Festival three months ago. The film—which will open theatrically in New York via Grasshopper Films on May 3—offers a stark portrait of three founding members of Syria’s White Helmets, who have remained in the country’s city under siege to help rescue those struck by the  frequent bombings. Aleppo also won Sarasota’s Audience Award in the doc category.

We also awarded a Special Jury mention to Dan Sickles and Antonio Santini’s Dina for “Honesty and Humanity,” due to its look at a couple on the autism spectrum trying to deal with their intimacy issues. (Dina also received a doc jury prize at Sundance.)

Two other impressive docs in our category included Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s The Cinema Travellers, a glorious embrace of cinema through the story of a struggling Indian movie company needing to change with the times to keep up with the competition. Also worth looking out for is The Force, a doc about the troubled Oakland Police Department, which won an award for director Peter Nicks out of Sundance.

Basketball great Kenny Anderson was also on hand to help promote Jill Campbell’s documentary Mr. Chibbs, which will be released by Abramorama on May 3. It looks at Anderson’s attempt to adjust to normal life ten years after retiring from basketball, and it was shown as part of the festival’s “Sports in Cinema” section.

Other docs of note at the festival included Matthew Heineman’s City of Ghosts, another film about the situation in Syria, that was picked up by Amazon and IFC Films for a July release, and Steve (Hoop Dreams) James’ new doc Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, about Chinatown banker Thomas Sung, who was one of the few bankers to be indicted after the financial crisis of 2008. Sung and his family, who have a house in the Sarasota region, were in attendance.

Barbara (Harlan County USA) Kopple’s This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, about the transgender YouTube star, was another one of the festival’s Spotlight Films, as was another New York-centric doc, Matt Tyrnauer’s Citizen Jane: Battle for the City—which will be released later in April. Lastly, Luke Korem’s documentary Dealt about blind card magician Richard Turner, screened shortly after premiering at South by Southwest (SXSW) where it was picked up for distribution by Sundance Selects.

The festival ended on Saturday night with the awards ceremony and closing-night film, Paris Can Wait, at the Sarasota Opera House. Directed by Eleanor Coppola (Francis’ wife), the fest closer is a light, romantic jaunt through the French countryside with Lane playing a married woman partnered for an awkward road trip with an amorous acquaintance, played by French actor Arnaud Viard. Highlighting the beauty of the region and the food found there, the movie is like a cross between It Happened One Night and a more romantic version of Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip series.

After a brief Q&A with Lane, special guests of the fest were invited to a gala dinner on the stage of the Sarasota Opera House, a wild, raucous night with highlights including Kenny Anderson and Diane Lane having a free-throw competition that was closer than some might suspect. Out of respect to actor and filmmaker Stanley Tucci—one of Sarasota’s advisory board of directors—we will not mention his attempt to shoot hoops that evening.

It’s fairly clear the organizers of the Sarasota Film Festival are taking a different approach to getting local movie lovers into theatres to see films that might not normally get a release in the region, as well as bringing guest filmmakers from across the nation to meet possible future investors living in the Sarasota community.