About 90 miles northwest of Los Angeles is the city of Santa Barbara, California, which claims to be the American Riviera. The nickname has connotations of the rich and famous lounging about in the sun and surf, but that only captures one aspect of its personality. It is a beach town along the Pacific coast nestled west of the Santa Ynez Mountains, combining for great views. The main drag is State Street, lined with many restaurants and bars, the latter which no doubt help fuel UC Santa Barbara’s reputation as a party school. The streets are filled with music day and night as many of the homeless play instruments.
I had previously attended the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in the mid-'90s when it took place in March and the event had a charming, small-town feel to it. It was mostly screenings by unknown filmmakers with a few discussion panels. Those idyllic days are long gone, as is the entire business of film festivals with so many cities competing with each other. Here, business has replaced art, made evident by the breakfast talk of discovering a new film giving way to PR flaks on cell phones working to get into the biggest parties.
SBIFF runs through the end of January and the beginning of February to take advantage of the celebrities in L.A. for the plethora of award shows and all the politicking and marketing that requires. To assist in getting the stars to come up north, they are given awards for being themselves and showing up. This year’s honorees were Forest Whitaker, Helen Mirren, director Bill Condon, and Will Smith, who received the Modern Master Award for his career accomplishments. The talk of the town on February 2 was the screening of An Inconvenient Truth at the Arlington Theatre followed by the presentation of the David Attenborough Award to Al Gore and director David Guggenheim. It was the place to be.
The number of films presented and theaters used has grown, but they're all well within walking distance; however, there are so many choices and so many attendees that it makes it near impossible to see a lot of films in a day unless you stick to one theatre. Part of the overcrowding is due to the line-up featuring international blockbusters and Oscar-nominated films alongside the small, struggling independent filmmakers. I understand a film like Brian Helgeland’s director’s cut of Payback being shown, but why are Borat and Blood Diamond taking up valuable screen time when they already have wide releases? How can the little guy compete? How can you expect an audience member to gamble on an unknown when proven successes in the business compete next to them?
The first screening I was able to attend was a series of short films by indigenous filmmakers. The stories told unique tales from fresh perspectives. The best of the bunch was The Fighting Cholitas. It was entertaining and illuminating as it showed indigenous Indian women of Bolivia who participate in Lucha Libre. Another standout was I Sing To You, the story of a young woman meeting her half-brother for the first time on a reservation. Although enjoyable, at less than four minutes there is only so much that can be done. It felt like it was part of a much larger story, and left the viewer wanting a lot more.
Soy Pedro was a documentary of an illegal immigrant from Oaxaca who worked on the farms in California. His story was intercut with the reaction of white Americans. It was a tad heavy-handed in its point of view. Everyone can feel sympathy for Pedro’s plight and would most likely make the same choices he did to better his life, but there wasn’t a balance to the issue of immigration, which is much more multifaceted than the filmmaker presented. Lye was a collage of many different images and didn’t have an obvious cohesiveness. It tried to cover so much that it stretched itself too thin. Conversion told the story of the effects Christian missionaries had on one Navajo family. It was a good metaphor, but the story has been presented many times before and through other cultures.
A Thousand Roads was the big closer. Financed by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian and directed by accomplished filmmaker Chris Eyre of Smoke Signals, it tells the story of contemporary Native life. It went on too long and appeared clichéd in parts. A very interesting panel discussion and Q&A with some of the filmmakers took place afterwards as they discussed bringing their visions to life. While I enjoyed seeing these films and I’m sure that the filmmakers were happy with any type of exposure, I did find it odd that they were grouped together and apart from the festival’s series of short films.
After a great dinner at Holden Steaks & Seafood, where I enjoyed good wine and a great steak served encrusted with blue cheese and horseradish spread, I attended the festival’s most controversial film, Hounddog. It has been getting a lot of attention and outrage from right wing radio because child actress Dakota Fanning’s character Lewellen is raped in the film. She plays a twelve-year-old girl growing up on the South in the ‘50s, who is obsessed with Elvis. Her strict grandmother raises her because her mother has died and her father is struck dumb by a bolt of lighting. She has a young friend named Buddy. Early on in the movie, she kisses him and wants him to take off his pants, but it’s unclear if this is just childish curiosity or if it speaks to something larger about her character’s history.
Later, she catches the eye of an older boy, maybe sixteen to eighteen. He uses Buddy to trick Lewellen into meeting them with a promise of Elvis tickets, the deal for which starts with her having to sing and dance. She loves doing that, so it’s easy. Then she has to take off her clothes. Since she made Buddy do it, she seems okay with the idea. Then the older boy pushes her down and rapes her. We don’t see the act on screen, but we can see its after effects on her. The story continues from there with the possibility of Lewellen getting away from this life.
At the discussion afterwards, the rape scene understandably stood out and troubled some people. There was even a man who had yelled out, “Child porn!” when the scene played. The producers explained they wanted to bring the issue of rape to light. There are many women and girls who are raped every day and have to live with the aftermath. While uncomfortable, the film was fictional.
If Hounddog can shed awareness on the issue in the long run it might be okay if it offends some sensibilities. Unfortunately the film isn’t as good as it should be to handle the backlash it is going to receive if it ever gets released in the U.S. The story is melodramatic and some characters are clichéd. The older boy is only seen as bad. If he had other facets, it would have more impact to the story. Charles is a stereotypical “magical Negro,” saving people's lives throughout and always offering sage advice. There was nothing else to his character other than filling the archetype's role.
The film is also filled with false suspense because the pivotal event has been so well publicized. Every man becomes a suspect and the scenes have an extra tension that the film doesn’t install. The anticipation doesn’t work to the benefit of the piece because it creates a dynamic in the relationships that isn’t present.
There was no time to get into anything so I headed to a huge party that was taking place. Plenty of free drinks and food helped insure the place was packed. There were a few rooms lit with different colors, music loud enough to drown out the people sitting next to you, not much really going on unless you already knew somebody. I left after 30 minutes and the only celebrity I saw was actor Anthony Zorba, a few notches of fame down from my previous brush with greatness in Santa Barbara — perusing Arthur Miller plays next to Steve Martin at a local bookstore.
On the whole, the SBIFF has a lot to offer if you have a few days to immerse yourself in it. Coming out just for a day might not be worthwhile unless there’s something you have to see. There are plenty of movies for fans of different tastes, and best of all, there is still room for the independent filmmakers here, but they really have to hustle and market to compete for the audience’s attention.