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The Sarasota Film Festival: Sun, Fun, and Herzog

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By Mark Rabinowitz

IFC News

I just got back from the 2006 Sarasota Film Festival and boy is my liver tired!

I tell you, when they invite you to a festival, they never tell you that you might end up at 5am drinking and smoking in a hotel a room full of gay, lesbian and transgendered MCs and filmmakers! Four days and not once did I get out of the room early enough for the maid to tidy up — I’d like to extend a personal apology to whoever had to clean my room…I left you an extra large tip. But lest you think the fest is just one, long party…

When my friend Tom Hall took over as programmer of SFF two years ago, I knew the fest and the city were in for something special. If there’s anyone who could take a small on-again, off-again festival and bump it up a few notches, programming-wise, it’s Tom. To paraphrase the Bard, I don’t mean to bury the pre-Hall fest as much as I mean to praise the current incarnation — executive director Jody Kielbasa, Hall and the active members of the executive board have worked tirelessly to raise the festival to its current level. It’s even more amazing when one is reminded that only two years ago, SFF’s jury refused to award a prize to any of the competition films, opting instead to seed a fund for emerging Florida filmmakers.

By way of introduction, let me point out that I am a festival addict, having been to 80-some events in the past 13 years. I seen festivals so badly organized and programmed that my colleagues and I decided not to write about them at all in order to give the event a chance to grow, and I have been to festivals so fantastic that I intend to be a lifelong attendee. While I won’t go so far as to firmly place Sarasota in the latter category, it’s certainly in the running for hall of fame status and I’m putting the organizers on note that next year I am going down for the duration!

The city of Sarasota is small (I mean small — I was sleeping in my hotel when my airport driver called and woke me up at 9:52am, and by 10:16am I had checked in my bag at the airport), but is a haven for the arts, both performing and visual. I’ve never attended a festival with the level of community support shown to the SFF — not only in audience attendance but also in cold, hard cashish. The fest board and community is forthcoming in helping the organization meet its financial goals, which allows the festival to throw a few lavish parties and to charge relatively low prices for them. For example, $60 got attendees a raucous six-plus hour street party with several bars and dozens of food stations serving the best that Sarasota restaurants (another high point of this Gulf Coast locale) had to offer, in addition to a fantastic Latin band and a demonstration of Polynesian and Hawaiian dancing in authentic costumes. And on top of all this, they had Werner Herzog receiving his World Cinema Master award.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a playground for rich film snobs. The SFF has its financial problems, just like almost any other not-for-profit arts endeavor in the US, but it’s nice to see some of our wealthier citizens put their money where their…you know.

Oh…you want to hear about some films? How about the Florida premiere of Cristi Puiu’s festival circuit hit “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (Tartan Films) or the East Coast premiere of Michael Cuesta’s “Twelve and Holding” and John Hyams’ “Rank” (both IFC Films), the East Coast premiere of Michael Tully’s well-received (and Florida-shot) “Cocaine Angel” and Rotterdam Golden Tiger winner (and SFF 2006 Narrative Feature Competition Award winner) “Old Joy” by Kelly Reichardt? Not enough? How about a retrospective of 14 of Werner Herzog’s non-fiction films, including some rarely seen medium-length docs, and the chance to chat with the maestro? Ever gracious, Herzog took time out during the two speeches I heard to make sure the audience thanked the festival staff and volunteers, pointing out all the hard work that goes into making events like the SFF come off. Nice guy.

All in all, Sarasota knows how to put on a great show, for filmmakers, audience and industry, alike. The climate is perfect, the locals friendly and appreciative of both arthouse cinema and mini-major releases and there’s enough going on that boredom is not going to be a problem. Hangovers, fatigue and sore feet from dancing, maybe, but never boredom. Bring on 2007!

2006 Narrative Feature Competition Award: “Old Joy,” directed by Kelly Reichardt, and starring Daniel London and Will Oldham.

Special Jury Prize: “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” directed by Cristi Puiu, and starring Ion Fiscteanu and Luminita Gheorghiu.

2006 Documentary Feature Competition Award: “Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, OR,” directed by Peter Richardson.

Special Jury Prize: “Black Sun,” directed by Gary Tarn.

The 2006 Independent Visions Competition Award: “Find Love,” directed by Erica Dunton.

Special Jury Prize for Screenwriting: “Somebodies,” written and directed by Hadjii.

Special Jury Prize for Originality: “Wild Tigers I Have Known,” directed by Cam Archer.

2006 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature: “Neo Ned,” director Van Fischer.

2006 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature: “Abel Raises Cain,” directors Jennifer Abel and Jeff Hockett.

2006 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best In World Cinema: “Lady Vengeance,” director Chan-Wook Park.

2006 Sarasota Film Festival Audience Award for Best Short Film: “Dammi Il La,” director Matteo Servente.

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