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Ojai-Ventura International Film Festival: A Regional Fest Expands and Thrives

By Kathy McDonald

A festival that promises to "enrich the human spirit through film," the Ojai-Ventura International Film Festival, based 75 miles north of Los Angeles, swung into its 10th year November 5 through 8, opening with a sold-out celebrity golf tournament, hosted by actor Malcolm McDowell. Engaging audiences and 6,000 ticket holders, the festival programmers offered an ambitious slate of 62 films, including three special screenings, 13 feature docs and four documentary shorts, animation and narrative films. Screenings were shown in five different venues ranging from Ojai's downtown theater to classrooms at the Ventura campus of the Brooks Institute to the opening night, free outdoor screening of Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, held on a resort green.


From Judith Ehrlich and RickGoldsmith's The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.


While other regional festivals have faltered, the Ojai-Ventura Festival has expanded, by partnering with the City of Ventura (and showing films in the seaside town) as well as securing major sponsorship from the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. The festival headquarters was housed in a cottage at the sprawling resort aptly named the Shangri-la, which boasted  a fine view of the town's famous pink moment, when the setting sun bathes the valley's Topa Topa Mountains in shades of taupe and rose.

But the bucolic setting in the scenic rural community did not mean the festival shied away from difficult or thoughtful programming. The aforementioned opening night screening drew an overflow crowd of more than 250 people and inspired a standing ovation and a post-screening Q&A that had to be halted after an hour-and-a-half.

Ojai is known for its many festivals: The Ojai Music Festival celebrates its 64th year in June 2010, and the annual Wine Festival, Art in the Park and studio artists tour each draws thousands to the quaint town with a reputation as a New Age haven. The film festival's artistic director, Steve Grumette, was instrumental in helping found the festival 12 years ago, as an offshoot of the Ojai Film Society. After a stint as a juror at the Canyonlands Film & Video Festival in Moab, Utah, he proposed a three-day festival in Ojai.

"We offer the same combination of physical beauty and cultural atmosphere," says Grumette of Ojai. After almost two years of planning, the festival launched in 2000, and continues to pattern itself after Cayonlands and Telluride--festivals that are also held in select settings replete with natural scenery.

For the first time, all films were screened digitally, making the festival more accessible, contends Grumette. Of the approximately 400 submissions, 60 were selected, a process that began in March and ended in July. Three programming committee members rate each submitted film. Those with the highest ratings are considered foremost. Weight is given to those that incorporate the festival's theme, "Enriching the human spirit through film," which Grumette contends works well and is interpreted broadly.

Over the decade, the festival has developed a solid reputation for showing exemplary documentaries, including past Academy Award nominees Daughter from Danang and The Collector of Bedford Street.

By partnering with industry organizations such as BAFTA/LA and Panavision (which awarded the prize-winning student-made narrative short Acholiland a $60,000 camera package), festival organizers hope to sustain the festival in today's tough economic climate. "It is hard to support a film festival even when times are good," explains festival chairman and president David H. Shor. "We put together an expansion strategy to create a destination film festival." The opening-day golf tournament, organized in part by actor and Ojai resident Malcolm McDowell, raised more than $25,000 for the festival.

Additional expansion efforts included increasing the festival's regional imprint by partnering with the Brooks Institute in Ventura, which includes film and video production programs among its curriculum and has the only motion picture soundstage in Ventura County. A filmmakers reception was held on campus as well as numerous screenings and seemed a perfect match for the festival. Student attendance at the festival was underwritten by a grant.

The festival presented its Lifetime Achievement Award to cinematographer and documentary filmmaker Haskell Wexler at the closing night ceremony held at the Ojai Valley Inn's resplendent ballroom. His 2006 film Who Needs Sleep? also screened and Wexler was the focus of the festival's only panel, which looked at the collaborative relationship between cinematographer, director and editor. Actress and Ojai resident Diane Ladd also participated.


Haskell Wexler,accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Ojai-Ventura International Film Festival.



Several juried documentary awards were presented: Mai Iskander's Garbage Dreams won the Festival Theme Award; Best Documentary Feature went to American Outrage by George and Beth Gage, and Ojai resident Rich Reid received the Best Documentary Short award for his film Watershed Revolution, which depicts efforts to protect and restore the Ventura River.

Fifty-two filmmakers attended the festival; their accommodations ranged from resort stays at the Ojai Valley Inn to private homes. Documentary filmmakers in attendance included HomeGrown's Robert McFalls and New York-based director Anne Aghion, whose story of Rwandan genocide and reconciliation, My Neighbor, My Killer, screened. "The audiences were really informed, and asked some surprising questions," notes Aghion. "There were some seriously involved people at my screenings."


From Anne Aghion's My Neighbor, My Killer.



At the sold-out, standing-room-only, second screening of The Most Dangerous Man in America, the audience was slightly older than typical festival audiences; many had driven south from Santa Barbara to attend. A standing ovation was an emotional and energizing moment for Daniel Ellsberg and his wife. During the lengthy Q&A, as befitting a former Pentagon analyst, Ellsberg sharply analyzed the current situation in Afghanistan and Iraq in detail. When asked if he would he leak the papers now to The New York Times or The Drudge Report, Ellsberg advised that he recently purchased a scanner and that he'd put them on the Internet himself.


Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles-based writer.