a shorter version of this article

first appeared in Winter, 2004

Film Festival Reporter

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Spellbound at 7,000 Feet

Santa Fe’s 5th Annual Festival is a rebounding success . . .



image from El Segundo                                                           





anta Fe’s 5th Annual Film Festival, which ran December 1-5, 2004, is apparently holding it’s own and still growing.  According to the organizers, it is actually seven festivals rolled into one jammed-packed cinematic immersion.  With ten venues and overlapping schedules, it was pretty impossible to see more than a tenth of the festival’s vast array of offerings.


Close to 200 films, chosen from over 900 submissions, were showcased throughout the five day event.  “Attendance was just shy of 20,000 compared to only 7,000 our first year out.  This is only 1,000 over last year but it’s actually a significant increase considering this is the first time we’ve had no blockbuster hit as the centerpiece of the festival like we’ve had in previous years with such films as INDIGO and RED SKY AT MORNING.”, says John Bowman, Festival Executive Director and Education Chair of the Governor’s Council on Film and Media Industries.  “Don’t get me wrong.  We’re thrilled that shows are still selling out,” he continues, “but unlike other years where we’ve had very long lines or sell-outs to only a few titles, this year the trend has reversed so much so that now we are seeing a lot more bodies in the smaller halls and attendance more evenly distributed over all the films rather than just premieres.  We’ve also had growth in the levels of sponsorship and press interest.  Entries by New Mexico based filmmakers also increased three-fold.  We’re very pleased overall.”


John Bowman is far too modest.  There is no doubt about it.  Santa Fe Film Festival is here to stay, and is helping big time to put New Mexico on the map as a powerful venue for creating films and showcasing filmmakers.  The first year snow storms discouraged people and this year it was also cold and snowy but still the people came!   And, if you found nothing to do while at SFFF, it was your own fault.   Everything was first class all the way.  There were always multiple screenings or events going on.  I was particularly impressed with the gala reception given to filmmakers and the press.  The press room and the Eldorado Presidential Suite’s Filmmaker’s Lounge were open for business, practically, round-the-clock.   Added to that, were the festival parties every night, special events, several live radio broadcasts and real grassroots down-to-basics panel discussions. 


The Milagro Awards Banquet rounded out the festival and concluded the competitions.  Jonathan Rich made the presentation of ten Milagros Awards to filmmakers.  Hosted by Jonathan Richards, the sold-out affair lauded the lifetime achievement of Luminaria Tributees veteran actors/directors Alan Arkin and Alfonso Arau.  Shirley MacLaine and Ali McGraw shared in honoring the two men through personal anecdotes.  Retrospectives of their film work played to enthusiastic audiences throughout the fest.


At SFFF’s ‘An Evening with Alan Arkin,’ the actor/director talked about his career and his many years in the business of ‘engaging’ actors.  Arkin believes that the key to defining a character lies in approaching each role as a storyteller.  He explained that, “If I’m immersed into the character, I’m not doing my job. I want the character to have some kind of agenda.  It has to make a statement and not just ‘do’ behavior.” 

Image from Paper Dove

At another event Alfonso Arau also spoke at length about his career.  Probably he’s best known as the playful villain, El Guapo in THE THREE AMIGOS and for his popular films, LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE, and A WALK IN THE CLOUDS.   He talked about the challenges of filmmaking in Mexico where funding opportunities are almost nonexistant, even for a veteran director like himself.   Arau’s Zapata enjoyed its U.S. premiere at the festival. The film, which examines Zapata’s life from a dreamy, mythical perspective has stirred controversy south of the border.  He’s choosing now to make more films in the U.S. and in New Mexico, specifically.   “This coming summer I’ll be back in Santa Fe to film a new production.” Arau teased the audience.  

In talking with various event filmmakers, I found that many were choosing to move towards more affordable HD alternatives.  THREE GENERATIONS directors Bustamanta and Gonzales used Panasonic’s DVX100A to achieve greater depth of field with 24p.   Actor/writer/filmmaker, Dave O’Hara told me he wouldn’t use anything but HD.  “I used the Sony HD-F900 camera to shoot my film, THE MOJO CAFÉ.  The quality of high definition is amazing.  It’s a shame HD players that read the higher quality formatting are so expensive.  You can actually zoom in close enough and clearly enough with an HD player to see the seams in the wallpaper,” exclaimed O’Hara.  He’d one man sold on HD.  He’ll be using Sony’s newest camera to shot his next film, PEABODY NEVADA.  Although it didn’t place competitively at Santa Fe’s Fest, O’Hara’s entry, THE MOJO CAFÉ, won Best Dark Comedy at Telluride Film Festival.  It’s an interesting piece about a Hollywood nightclub whose eerie ‘outer-worldly’ reapers will zap you away if you fail a test, and if you do pass, will make you the world’s next millionaire talk show host.  His previous work, MY NAME IS MURPHY, about a psychically perceptive dog capable of reading how long people will live, took the Best One Hour Drama Award at the Houston World Fest.

As to the actual SFFF award winners . . .   Hirokazu Kore-eda’s film, NOBODY KNOWS, took the best of festival award for his poignant piece exploring what children might do if left totally on their own resources when abandoned.   The audience choice award went to the comedy, ELEPHANT SHOES, directed by Christos Sourligas, which takes a critical but funny look at the evolution of a relationship if compressed into only 12 hours.

Best documentary went to Director Tommy Davis’ MOJADOS: THROUGH THE NIGHT, which documents the journey of four Mexicans crossing the border on foot.  Director J. Mitchell Johnson’s WORLD WITHOUT WAVE, an exposé about society's dependence upon technology, took best Southwest film.   Best Latino film went to the coming of age film set in the 80’s of war torn Peru, PAPER DOVE, directed by Bruno Boscio. 

image from Beat angel

BICYCLES AND RADIOS, a tale about two Thai strangers who meet after sharing tragedies via local talk radio, took the best short award.  The Santa Fe Natural Tobacco sponsored independent spirit award went to director, Boris Undorf for SONATA, a thriller about the tragic consequences of an overly-obsessive, sheltering mother on her prodigal only child. 

Local director Bill Rose won best creative spirit award for LOSS OF NAMELESS THINGS, his rendition of playwright/director Oakley Hall, III’s struggle to regain his life and mind after a tragic head injury ended his career and left him severely handicapped mentally. 

Jihyun Song and his animated EARTH, in which earth elements take on human form, won the award for best animation.  Another animated production RAVEN TALES won the award for best Native American film. The story, directed by New Mexican filmmaker Chris Kientz, tells the native legend of how, in the story of Earth’s creation, Raven released the moon, sun and stars from imprisonment to restore light to a darken world.  Only the first of a series of tales Kientz intends to do, it is already slated to go into production for television.

The Film Museum also inaugurated awards recognizing the service of three professionals in advancing New Mexican filmmaking.   State Sen. Shannon Robinson, had pushed legislation to provide incentives for filmmakers.  Alton Walpole was lauded for his 30 years of service to films and television.   The IATSE Local 480 was recognized for its support of the Film Museum and its efforts towards launching the New Mexico’s technical training initiative.

image from Echoes from Juniper Canyon

Spellbound at 7,000 feet was a very appropriate title for the fest this year.   There’s a lot of great talent here in New Mexico and the promise of more coming with the state’s focus on training and incentives to attract new filmmakers to the state.   Just  a few of the films from native New Mexicans included the documentary short about dance therapy, WE’RE MOVING by Silver City’s Roberto Codato, THE LANGUAGE OF SEXUALITY by Anthony DellaFlora, ALBUQUERQUE DENVER PHOENIX BY Kids on Coffee, FENG SHUI FRANK starring SFFF’s own Steve Rubin, ECHOS FROM JUNIPER CANYON by Hopi Duane Humeystewa, starring local actor Frederick Lopez, the very funny THE PASSION OF BUDDY by Santa Fean Jim Terr, NIGHTFALL by Michelle Duval, and LA PROVENICA DE NAVAJO by Dennis Chavez and Robert Valdez of Espanola.  Locally made, Hunt’s DANCING FROM THE HEART introduces Andrew Garcia and his use of dance as a means to overcome alcohol addiction.  Post-festival it was accepted into the prestigious NYC Dance on Camera Festival.  The documentary, EDUCATING MARISSA honors teenager, Marissa Mathy-Zvaifler, raped and murdered at an Albuquerque concert.  The film looks at new legislation and ways we can prevent such crimes in the future.  TURMOIL was the debut film by Santa Fean KOAT-TV cameraman, Rhett Muse.  Muse’s film has come to spark so much debate in Venezuela that cable TV channels are eagerly pursuing acquisition of broadcast rights.


Randy Allred’s BEAT ANGEL, shot on 16mm film, puts a rather interesting ‘afterlife’ slant to his tribute to real-life Beat poet Jean-Louis “Jack” Kerouac played by veteran stage actor, Vincent Balestri.  At a poetry slam celebrating his death day, Jack returns from the grave in the body of a bum to mentor Gerard Tripp (played by co-producer Frank Tabbita).  Through a series of magical displays of Jack’s genius, he brings both revelation and awakening to Gerald’s troubled mind in only one night.   Rather than destroying all his work or taking a jump from Desolation Peak, Gerald emerges a new man ready to celebrate life and write again.  Balestri has been doing shows on Kerouac since 1980 and, in his on-screen portrayal of Jack, has truly captured the spirit of the great poet. 


“We are pleased with having so many happy patrons and the chance to provide filmmakers with a forum to present their film works to the public especially when those films are ones people wouldn’t normally get to see,” said Steve Rubin, head of SFFF’s PR and programming.


And, just in case you missed something, SFFF also has a follow-up event that will bring back prize winners and audience favorites for two days of screenings.   The inaugural debut of By Popular Demand is Jan 29 and Feb 19.  


FOCUS ON KIDS IN SANTA FE AND BEYOND . . .    Since I also do writing for children, I couldn’t help noticing there was an organization right in Santa Fe that has developed a rating system which uses kids and their parents to review and rate films for other kids.  Applicants must first completed a very intensive training program specific to standards on kids’ film.   This organization, KIDS First! now has in place over 50 film festivals and school programs that regularly showcase their recommended films.  One of these films was shown during the Santa Fe Film Festival.   BLIZZARD, a yuletide treat from MGM, is not an independent but, nonetheless, is a treat for kids of all ages especially when it’s Whoopi Goldberg lending her voice to the main character in this delightful journey which suggests a real message . . . the greatest power in the world is friendship. 


image from SUBDIVISION COLORADO with actor/filmmaker, Niel Widener.

 SUBDIVISION, COLORADO is billed as ‘an adventure of neighborhood proportions.’ That it is and more!   The young writer/director/producer Neil Widener, at the age of 19, with the help of others sharing the same lofty dreams, and no budget in hand, put together this very impressive special effects laden ‘neighborhood’ adventure set in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado where he grew up.  Upon watching their finished product, complete with, talking skeletons, rock monsters and a floating arrowhead, I found it hard to believe that such a very professionally done production came entirely from a director, producers, cast and crew all under age 21 armed only with enough budget to buy an off-the-shelf 3-chip Sony mini-DV and a few supplies!!  The film was shot in 15 days back in 2002 but was in post-production over a year and a half because of school commitments, lack of funding and, of course, all the normal flack you’d get for being kids trying to do an ‘adult’ thing.  Computer animator, Kevin Wisdom and Musical Score Creator, Peter Schmidt, by the way, were the ones responsible for the perfectly-timed sound effects and seamless transitions. 


I spent a bit of time talking with Neil afterwards.  He shared with me his vision, “After seeing my native Colorado pillaged and ransacked by the encroachments of modern technology, it was extremely important to me to address the issues I saw surrounding me.  My goal with SUBDIVISION COLORADO was to paint a hopeful picture of tomorrow’s youth – a youth that isn’t responsible for the past, but is responsible for the future.   Kids should take charge of their lives instead of vegetating in front of tubes playing video games or watching television.  They should get out and enjoy all of what life has to offer . . . take time to actually live their lives and taste the thrill of adventure.”    I have a feeling about Neil.   This young man has a dream. He’s not going to stop pursuing it until it’s taken him straight to the Hollywood stars and beyond!”


For more information about the festival see www.santafefilmfestival.com


© FFR and Shirl A. Steward, December, 2004


All images are the copyrighted properties of Santa Fe Film Festival and their respective filmmakers.  Copying or use of these images without their expressed consent is strictly prohibited.


Check out my friends at Beat Angel . . . a film about poet Jack Kerouac, premiered at the 2004 Santa Fe Film Festival.