Now in its 17th year, the Sarasota Film Festival kicked off this past weekend. With a reputation for programming that puts as much stakes in unknown talent as it does high-profile films, Sarasota’s is a mixture of both festival favorites and gems that have yet to premiere. The lineup is always eclectic.
What makes this year special, though, is that the festival has programmed 100 features by women filmmakers. These choices include Barbara Kopple’s (Running from Crazy) Hot Type, as well as Apartment Troubles, City of Gold and Honeytrap—encompassing everything from comedy to melodrama, from full-length narratives to documentaries and shorts. The sheer amount of content, coupled with the rapidly growing prominence of movements led by female filmmakers, makes it an extremely exciting—if not exceptionally overdue—time for women in the filmmaking world.
But, as President of the Board of Directors, Mark Famiglio, told Paste, “The board is not interested in especially pursuing women filmmakers, we’re just interested in pursuing great films.” And 100 of them happen to be made by women.
The SFF started in 1999 with eight independent films and six actors—Jon Favreau, Marlee Matlin, Jonathan Silverman, Penelope Ann Miller, Peter Sarsgaard and Samantha Mathis—but now tops over 200 films. This year also marks another transition for the big festival: Paste’s own Michael Dunaway signed on as the new Director of Programming. Dunaway previously served as a juror for the 2012 Independent Visions competition, has moderated some of the “In Conversation” talks and has covered the festival for Paste, in addition to being a filmmaker himself, his documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater opening in late 2014 with Breaking Glass Pictures.
Dunaway said in a discussion with SRQ Backlot, “I have always heard from literally every filmmaker that has been to SFF rave about how well the filmmakers get treated and what a good time the festival is.”
Sophia Takal, star of festival pick Devil Town (and whose Wild Canaries premiered last year), agrees with Dunaway: “Sarasota is totally dope! It’s so much fun and it’s sunny and the movies are always very exciting and adventurous.” She added, “It’s not just [your] normal programming, where they pull every single title from Sundance and SXSW. They also have a lot of world premieres of movies that are exciting or cutting edge.” Josephine Decker, who won the SFF Independent Visions and Tangerine Entertainment’s Juice Award for Thou Wast Mild and Lovely last year, sees Sarasota’s focus on female directors as both significant and exciting. “When we have a diversity of voices, we have a diversity of content. We need to be seeing work that comes from the full range of classes, races and genders in order to live up to the equality that America defines itself with.”
In an interview with the Bradenton Herald [Editor note: The article incorrectly states that Dunaway works for Slate Magazine.], Dunaway is open about emphasizing that “full range” amongst his programming team. He stresses that SFF “is known as one of the strident supporters of women in film”, and quotes Famiglio, “He calls it ‘the unintended consequence of doing things right.’”
Famiglio explains too how the SFF works closely with a number of award-winning educational programs, saying, “Geena Davis came a couple years ago and we initiated ‘See Jane,’ [which] deals with media stereotypes.” The SFF has “adopted the curriculum that she was working with into our education program” and will be “focusing on more of that in the future.” Decker is similarly passionate about equal opportunities for all kinds of artists’ voices; providing this spectrum of perspective is, she thinks, the responsibility of storytellers: “We as media-makers and presenters have a big part in defining our country’s culture, so the more we can share a wide mix of styles and types of stories, the better.”
For the past six years, the SFF has partnered with Through Women’s Eyes, a two-day festival showcasing films that increase awareness of the lives of women internationally and an arm of the U.S. National Committee for UN Women. Founder Terry Brackett reveals that they’re not just about filmmaking: “We as an organization want to empower women in all aspects—in education, politically, socially.” SFF has given them a platform of exposure and awareness in the film community, and Brackett sees that there may be a “different kind of passion” between activism or non-profit work and filmmaking, but that ultimately “it’s wanting to make a difference.”
That feeling of support is the common thread in Takal’s—as well as in Decker’s, Dunaway’s and Brackett’s—experiences with SFF. Takal recalls, “Audience reception was awesome! It was actually at Sarasota that we realized our movie played very, very well with older audiences. It was an unexpected treat to see audiences who grew up watching screwball comedies get a kick out of Wild Canaries.” Decker was “amazed at how many people were active supporters of the festival.” She admits, “I particularly loved [talking with] the female filmmakers—a really insightful, deep way of getting into a meaty conversation about filmmaking with a bunch of women filmmakers. Honesty reined, and I learned so much about my peers and also about ways we can position ourselves to succeed in this industry.”
That’s exactly what SFF’s focus on female filmmakers is aiming to do: provide a platform for exposure and opportunity to permeate the industry. Takal reveals, “I want the Hollywood machine to morph and change so that it exactly fits what I want to do.” Brackett also admits that working both inside the Hollywood system and outside of it is beneficial. “I think it’s important to infiltrate the system and to become a part of it because that’s how you make change,” she claims. “Working on your own within the female circle and doing good work is equally as important.”
Although Decker is known for her low budget, experimental take on filmmaking, she relents, “I absolutely would love to be making movies that have wide audiences and happen on a large scale, but my main goal in film is to push the genre forward: to take on beautiful, engaging stories that challenge both me and my audience.”
SFF’s line up is evidence that they, too, are interested in taking risks and telling important stories. Dunaway is passionate about the progress SFF has made, but doesn’t see women existing in a different realm, requiring special treatment: “Women filmmakers don’t need special opportunity. They only need equal opportunity.” In other words, the only goal of the Sarasota Film Festival is to expose the world to new voices and visions. As Decker puts it, “If you take a chance on your film, Sarasota will take a chance on you.”
The Sarasota Film Festival runs April 10-19.
Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and freelance contributor for Paste, Flaunt, Complex, Nylon, CraveOnline, Press Play on Indiewire and The Script Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed Shakespeare nerd. You can follow her on Twitter.