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By Diana Colson

How much adventure can you jam into ten days? A ton, if you went to the 15th Sarasota Film Festival. It proved to be a 10-day cultural expedition, filled with surprises and amazing samplings of lives utterly different from our own.

Between April 5th and 14th one could choose to travel in armchair comfort to Denmark, Japan,  Mexico, China, Pakistan, Slovakia, Columbia, France, Canada, U.K.,  Italy, Israel, South Africa, Switzerland, Norway, Belarus, Russia, Austria, Ecuador, India, Spain, Australia or Latvia.

Between April 5th and 14th one could choose to experience the lives of beekeepers, apple pickers, beauty queens, band members, transvestites, whiskey distillers, drug dealers, snowboarders, speed skaters, stoners, guitar-makers, NASCAR drivers, cowboys, circus performers, tennis players, or nuns. One could also enter the magical world of animated films to share the often dark and sometimes comical fantasies of their creators.

My husband and I saw as many as three films in a day plus several groups of shorts. These were interspersed with dazzling parties and fascinating presentations by some of the brightest names in cinema who discussed their careers, their lives, and their craft. The experience was so remarkable it had all the impact of going on a trip around the world.

Amid the vast selection of 223 films, a huge range of subjects were addressed. Keynote films dealt with such serious issues as the consequences of keeping orcas—or “killer whales”—in captivity (Blackfish); making a life for oneself in contemporary New York City (Frances Ha); and dealing with the legacy  of depression and suicide (Mariel Hemingway in Running from Crazy.) These powerful films and their creators were all well publicized, so I will concentrate on a few of the lesser known aspects of SFF.

Sarasota Film Festival1
UN Women’s Sarasota Art Center Reception. (l-r) An Fries, Artistic Director, Carol P Buchanan, Nat’l Board Member, Carol Green, Film Committee

THROUGH WOMEN’S EYES was a “festival within a festival”. Here the Gulf Coast Chapter of UN Women addressed the worldwide struggle for women and girls to live free from violence, poverty and inequality. Thought-provoking films in this category had all been made by women filmmakers, with the goal of expanding awareness of the lives of women throughout the world—a goal in which they brilliantly succeeded.

Another sub-group of the festival was YouthFEST, and Maidentrip was one of their spectacular offerings. Staring at an enormous movie screen, we witnessed 14-year old Laura Dekker set out on a voyage in pursuit of her dream to become the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone.  Born on a boat in New Zealand, she and her father fought a protracted legal battle in their home country of The Netherlands before that government would let this teenager sail. Finally, the courts gave Laura permission to embark in her 40 foot red sailboat named The Guppy on a solo expedition that was to take two years. (She was 16 by the time the journey came to an end.)  Vivacious and resourceful, the teenager shot all her own film while at sea, and amazing footage it turned out to be.  A portrait emerged of a remarkably confident and capable young woman who, at the end her expedition, decided to settle in New Zealand where she currently plans to enroll in a maritime college.

A personal favorite of mine was a quirky film called Towheads, which was entered into the Independent Vision Competition. An extraordinary talent by the name of Shannon Plumb directed, created, and starred in this film. It depicted a loving mother of two beautiful blonde-haired sons overwhelmed by the restraints of being a stay-at-home mom. It was comic. It was sad. It was totally off the wall.

In real life, Shannon is a video performance artist, her work inspired by the style of slapstick comedy developed in silent films by such legends as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Check out her website at www.shannonplumb.com . She is a truly original performer!

Perhaps the most important part of the Sarasota Film Festival was its showcase of work created by talented young filmmakers.  “Hollywood Nights” was a red carpet event that featured screenings of films made by local kids ages 10 through 18.  We attended the High School Screening and emerged astounded at the quality of the entire group of student productions. Most were only minutes in length, but the scripts were fresh and unique. It was clear that the Education Department at SFF had worked long and hard with these students year-round, for the films were informed and sophisticated.  Thanks to this SFF program, students all over Sarasota and Manatee Counties have been empowered with critical thinking skills and the tools to express themselves, and all at no cost to the kids.

Under the upbeat leadership of Allison Koehler, Director of Education, SFF EDUCATION inspires, educates and entertains students by promoting creativity, collaboration and community involvement. It operates both in and out of area classrooms, reaching more than 10,000 students through year-round filmmaking, film review, screenwriting, movie screening programs, and festival participation. From elementary school through college, SFF EDUCATION is committed to having local children receive a rich cinematic experience.

Well, that’s it. The festival was big, and I have only described the tip of the iceberg. I will say this, however: if you can possibly pull it off, plan on sticking around for the Sarasota Film Festival in April of 2014. Save up for one of the SFF ticket packages, attend a party, and embark on a splendid armchair adventure.

If you are lucky enough to already be a resident of Sarasota, this is guaranteed to be the best “staycation” in the world!

Siesta Sand
Author: Siesta Sand

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