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Far Away, So Close: Santa Barbara Fest Maintains Its Coastal Identity

By mary moylan

The opening night address of the 28th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival, delivered by festival director Roger Durling, paid tribute to his late mentor, the great underwater filmmaker Mike deGruy. Crediting deGruy with encouraging him to take on the festival, Durling delivered a moving speech about their shared history and friendship. Storyteller, adventurer and underwater camera-master,  deGruy was celebrated for developing festival programs such as Field Trip to the Movies, for Santa Barbara County youth, as well as the Reel Nature strand of films within the festival. A career retrospective featured four of his films, as well as screenings of short vignettes prior to each film within the festival. 

Durling has often described the festival as a reflection of Santa Barbara. This festival  does, in fact, reflect through cinema what's really wonderful about the community, and, at the same time, aims to bring the world to Santa Barbara. Festival programmers screen a diverse range of films from regions around the world, and take care to spotlight work that reflects the local surf-and-turf culture. 

Within the festival's handful of strands or sidebars,  the To The Maxx series, curated by filmmaker Russ Spencer, featured skateboarding, surf and sport films, included the US premiere of Storm Surfers 3D, directed by Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius. The film has ushered in a new way to view documentaries with a visually spectacular story of how pro surfers Tom Carroll and Ross Clarke-Jones surf the world's largest, unconquered waves, off the southern coast of Australia. Just as it is the job of the documentary to immerse us in the real, 3D and documentaries are made for each other when approaching stories with a natural history element. McMillan cited Santa Barbara underwater cinematographer and filmmaker George Greenough and his film Crystal Voyager as a huge influence. "Greenough is a genius and our film would not look the way it does without him," McMillan maintained in a post-screening interview. The filmmakers built their own camera systems, and they credit their cinematographers for pulling off a miracle.


From Justin McMillan and Chris Nelius' Storm Surfers 3D


Also featured in To the Maxx was the world premiere of Signal Hill Speed Run, directed by Mike Horelick and Jon Carnoy. Jim O'Mahoney, another Santa Barbaran, is the subject of this documentary about skateboard racing. This steep and dangerous downhill race in the LA County town of Signal Hill, organized by O'Mahoney, is credited as the precursor to extreme action sports. Woven together with an enormous amount of archival footage and contemporary interviews with the heroes of Signal Hill, an incredible story unfolds of the rise and fall of an event that has gone on to influence many activities, including snowboard racing. As the filmmakers approached the City of Signal Hill for research, the city responded with a grant that enabled them to expand the production from a short film to a feature-length documentary.  


From Mike Horelick and Jon Carnoy's Signal Hill Speed Run


As for the brand of the festival—part industry, part outlier—the proximity to  Los Angeles certainly informs the celebrity tributes, such as the Modern Master Award and the Virtuoso Awards. But Santa Barbara is also a safe haven. There is a different culture here, a different vibe that lends itself to a friendlier atmosphere. "As far as programming is concerned, I would say there are almost two components within the festival," says programming director Michael Albright. "It's part of the same vision that Durling has. A lot of those celebrity events bring more attention, press and publicity to some independent films that may not get recognized in other places. So, I think the idea of having more industry, more reporters and even distributors could also funnel into the films as well."

As the programming director, Albright is in charge of curating the sidebars and competitions and, ideally, ensuring the filmmakers' presence at the screenings. "The docs in the competition within the Social Justice strand are more global in their scope," he maintains. "We're trying to pull stuff from all over the world to showcase issues or topics that may or may not be of interest in Santa Barbara, but are a really important part of a program."

Santa Barbara is an environmentally active community, so the Social Justice documentaries in particular have a resolute following. The festival works together with the Fund for Santa Barbara, the official sponsor for this competition, which underwrites a cash award for the winner and for a large-scale grassroots campaign to bring more attention to those films.

Revolution, directed by Rob Stewart, was this year's winner of the Social Justice competition. The film reflects an adventurous and educational journey through the earth's ecosystems. With powerful juxtapositions of images ranging from the remote Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, as well as featuring the inspirational voices of today's youth activists, Revolution tells a grand story. "We want the film to be seen by one billion people," said Stewart after a screening. "Once seen, people will be morally bound to make better decisions."


From Rob Stewart's Revolution


 There are a handful of other sidebars with quite a few docs. Within the festival's Screen Cuisine strand, David Kennard's A Year in Burgundy had its world premiere, and nearly 200 patrons were turned away from the screening. "The Santa Barbara Film Festival was very exciting for us," says wine importer Martine Saunier, who was the executive producer and subject of the film. "It was an education. The Q and A session was especially emotional for me. I saw such an amazing enthusiasm, from wine collectors to travelers, and even with children. I realized that this film is accessible to the general public. David was really able to capture the human side of Burgundy." Kennard describes this film as old-fashioned, depicting a kind of "Once upon a time" feel as we are taken through the seasons, as well as through the ups and downs and human foibles of winemakers.

The festival's Documentary Shorts program packed a full house as well, with screenings held at the Santa Barbara Art Museum theater. One of the film, Mr. Twister, directed by Clay Westervelt, is a character sketch about a young man dealing with the challenges of autism by making sculptures made up of twist-ties. "As a filmmaker and a communicator, I feel like the social aspect to who we are is so important," says Westervelt. "On one level, just learning stories about other individuals-that enriches us and changes who we are. And even in a very small way, that is one of the things that I take away from this movie."

Mary Moylan is a Santa Barbara-based writer and independent scholar. She has a professional background in documentary film production, and has worked with the George Lucas Educational Foundation on Web documentaries about public education. She is currently writing a book, Unstable Intersections: The Films of Lourdes Portillo. Follow Mary on her blog, "Docuthinker," at