Champagne in my room
The cougars are on the prowl
In January 2001, I arrived for the first time in Sarasota, Florida. I had come with a (narrative) short film to the burgeoning film festival there (it was their third year), and I was a festival virgin. My short had premiered at the previous year's Los Angeles Shorts Fest, but that was local and, aside from my own screening, I didn't really experience the festival much. But this was something else. Flying to Florida, staying on the beach, attending glitzy parties with Sarasota's bedecked and bejeweled finest, all of it was an amazing experience. It was there that I met the filmmaker Kim Snyder, who was on the circuit with her doc, I Remember Me, and it was her experience with shooting in digital formats that encouraged me to seek out my own nonfiction project to shoot on DV. A month later, I was in New York beginning to shoot what would eventually become my first feature.
So Sarasota holds fond memories.
This isn't even mentioning the more, shall we say, eccentric moments that the Sarasota Fest has provided, such as the crush of patrons heading into a theatre that caused me to have my hand firmly planted on the ass of then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris, mere weeks after the culmination of the Florida recount debacle. Or the night that the local cover band opened for Aerosmith inside a local hotel ballroom. Or the woman who stalked me at the Night of 1,000 Stars gala party in 2001 and returned to my side in 2003 - pity I'd had so much to drink the first year that I forgot I should avoid talking to her the second.
During my four year absence, there have been some pretty major changes for the fest. Tom Hall and Holly Herrick have come on to program the festival and they've developed what turns out to be one of the best regional fest line-ups around, with two separate narrative competitions (one for the likes of Sarah Polley and the late Adrienne Shelly - whose Waitress won the Grand Jury Prize - and another, called Independent Visions, which featured many of the so-called mumblecorps films, which made a big splash at SXSW and which many are still trying to define - see recent Filmmaker Magazine piece for proof) and a documentary competition featuring some of the most visually stunning films of the year (present company included - for which I give due credit to my excellent cinematographer).
(Doc Jury Members Ryan Harrington of A&E IndieFilms and Mary Kerr of the Flaherty Seminars - who handed the Doc Jury Prize to Benjamin Niles for his film Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 - surround Sarasota's Holly Herrick at an art gallery reception on Friday afternoon.)
The second change was time of year. By moving from January to April, the fest has freed itself from the shadow of Sundance and the looming presence of SXSW and can freely program the best from both of those fests, as well as Toronto and others. And the stunning April in Florida weather (you can just sense that the horrible humidity is right around the corner) is enough to bring sun-starved northerners to the festival in droves.
Suddenly, the fest is not just an eccentric secret. It's a full on happening.
(Hannah Takes the Stairs director Joe Swanberg, yours truly, Orphans director Ry Russo-Young, the lovely and talented Jonny Leahan - in Sarasota moonlighting for indieWIRE - and Holy Modal Rounders...Bound to Lose co-director Paul Lovelace at the Night of 1,000 Stars party.)
I was mostly pleased to take in a few films that I'd been wanting to see - at least two of them since last year's Toronto fest. The first was controversial director Tony Kaye's unflinching look at the abortion debate, Lake of Fire. I'd been hearing great things about the film since it premiered and it picked up an honorable mention at the previous week's Full Frame Fest, so I was anxious to see the film. So much so that I specifically scheduled my flight so that I would arrive in time to see the film in Sarasota.
What surprised me about the film was how much of it was set during the 1990s. I'd guess that 85% of the film was shot during the last decade, with numerous references to President Clinton and the killings of abortion providers. Late in the film, when a woman seeks her own abortion, she reveals that her segment was shot in the previous decade when she reveals her age and the year she was born. It made me wonder what had caused Kaye to stop working on the project and what caused him to pick it up again. The strange thing is that the abortion debate is actually much different in 2007 than it was in 1997. We no longer have a spate of clinic bombings, we have a Republican president and we have other issues - such as terrorism, war, stem cells and gay marriage - that seem to have diluted the issue somewhat, or at least put it on different footing. Kaye does make reference to the recent bill in South Dakota that sought to make all abortions illegal, but the film isn't up-to-date enough to reveal that the bill was overturned by voters in November.
All the questions aside (and they are questions more than complaints), the film is something to see, beautifully shot in crisp black and white, with a strong (if occasionally overly foreboding) score and it does an effective job of blurring the lines in the debate.
Also stunning to look at was Jennifer Baichwal's acclaimed film Manufactured Landscapes, which takes on themes similar to one of my favorite films, Koyaanisqatsi, mainly the transformation of nature into urban/industry by man. In Baichwal's film, we see this through the lens of photographer Edward Burtynsky, who is famed for his large scale photographs of industrial settings. The film is spare, quiet and haunting, and was strangely one of the most peaceful and relaxing experiences I've had watching a film recently.
(Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa co-directors Randy and Jeremy Stulberg flank Stan, one of the film's subjects, who flew from New Mexico to join the dynamic duo in Sarasota. Off the Grid premiered at Slamdance, had a big screening at True/False and was in competition here.)
I was also glad to get a chance to see Ry Russo-Young's Orphans, a film that many were talking about at SXSW and had recently been in the news after one of its lead actresses died of a drug overdose. Because of Lily Wheelwright's tragic death, a sense of foreboding hung over the potentially doomed sisters in Orphans, and in many ways, the real life passing seemed to be the coda waiting right around the corner for the character she played. It's hard to know how I would have viewed the film differently had I seen the film at SXSW and had the actress still been around to bask in the glow of a successful indie project. But even without this knowledge, Wheelwright's performance, like the film itself, seems to be straddling an invisible third rail, and it seems strangely (and regretfully) proper that the denouement happens offscreen.
(The Rabbi Report's Mark Rabinowitz - who gave this blog post its Breakfast at Tiffany's title - along with Quiet City director Aaron Katz at the stellar Of Montreal show at the far away Minxx nightclub.)
Aside from films, the parties at Sarasota continued to live up to their reputation, with most everyone blown away by Of Montreal's glamtastic rock show on Thursday night. Strangely, when I saw Of Montreal (who hail from Athens, GA) at True/False last year, they struck me as a band more in the realm of The Decemberists than David Bowie. But whoever or whatever made them come over to glitter should be thanked. It was a great, great performance.
And if you don't believe me, check out any number of other filmmaker/bloggers who spent much of last weekend in Sarasota (most of whom are featured in photos on this page). There are in depth reports from pals David Lowery (who includes a photo of the two of us, one of us in eyeliner), Michael Tully (who has some kind and descriptive thoughts about my film), "The Rabbi" Mark Rabinowitz, James Isreal and Sarasota's own Tom Hall.
Update Wednesday - Jonny Leahan's indieWIRE report is now up.