This March marked the second second year that I threw myself into the Sarasota Film Festival (SFF). My role: the exhilarating and inevitably exhausting job of Box Office Manager.*
The box office experience last year was … well, insane. Being completely new to SFF, film festivals, and box offices, I had a mighty high learning curve. In addition to that, I seemed to have the fortune to join in during the year of big snags—something going wrong at every turn. Imagine: it’s the first day of ticket sales, there’s a line out the door—and there goes the Internet! These were things that you can’t blame on anybody. Even with the most meticulous planning, those “What? Aaggh!!!” issues are an inevitable part of any undertaking as elaborate and ambitious as Sarasota Film Festival, with its kaleidoscope of moving parts and such a short window of full-throttle operation.
The only thing to do? Smile and plow forward. Even the good friend who’d recommended me for the job, assuring me I’d do fine despite my lack of experience, confessed afterward that she had no idea it was going to be that crazy, and was surprised that I’d made it through.
Given my experience in 2011, I might seem nuts to have said “yes” to SFF 2012. But I did. Why? And what makes me glad that I did?
First ~ The challenge. I’m a glutton for those kind of challenges that, when you get out on the other end (alive), you look back in disbelief at what you and a group of other people were able to accomplish. It gives you that “I can do anything” kind of feeling that I imagine victorious athletes and political organizers must feel.
Second ~ The festival is a fascinating and unique phenomenon. It’s magical flash-city, built, cranked into high gear and then hastily dismantled over the span of one month, once a year. Of course, there’s lots of year-round work up until the time of the festival, but the festival itself has that order-beneath-chaos, frenzied-miracle quality of a circus, or what I imagine the World’s Fair used to be like—just with many more computers, filmmakers flying in from all over the world, serious press coverage, five theaters running films simultaneously at Hollywood 20, and great big parties.
I deeply admire and appreciate SFF as a testament to human ingenuity, creativity and downright endurance whose reality I’m still not quite able to wrap my mind around.
Third ~ What Sarasota Film Festival is all about. Last year, working for the fest got me past the glitz and glamour and put me face-to-face with the fact that it runs on two ingredients: passion for film and belief in independent artists.
Many filmmakers have poured their life savings and sometimes years of their life into making a film. They arrived with excitement, appreciation and nervousness. I got to welcome them and enjoy their emotions. Sometimes, I got to congratulate them when their film sold out (like Book Club and locally-produced The Perfect Wedding) or won an award (like actress Tallie Medel of The Unspeakable Act, which won SFF’s Independent Prize Award).
I got to meet people who are doing something because they believe in it and can’t help pursuing it despite insane obstacles. They are interesting, inspiring people. As an artist, I identify with and learn from them.
I remember talking with director Craig Butta over beer after his short, provocative film While Henry Sleeps was critically reamed by what I’m convinced were a group of New College students (hey, I know my own). His perspective was refreshing: For him, their criticism was gold. He explained that it’s so rare as an artist to find friends who will be really honest with you about what they think of your work. Most of the time they only tell you the good stuff, or what they think you want to hear. Butta would much rather get that brutal critical feedback now, rather than from the critics after it’s already gone out to the world.
For me, this was a great lesson in the striving, authentic spirit every artist should have. It also renewed my appreciation for the critical voice that honestly made me cringe a little bit as I sat in the Q&A following the film, fighting back New College memories of critical analysis-overload.
I’m proud that my many, many hours of hard work—handling customers’ dilemmas with a smile, cajoling cranky ticket printers, juggling an average of five simultaneous demands on my attention nonstop for hours, days, weeks, and fighting unslept delirium—could be carried out for the sake of these people, their creative products and, of course, for the pleasure of those local film-lovers who flocked (and paid) to see them.
Fourth ~ The Festival enriches the local economy and community. I’m passionate about supporting local-level commerce as a way to strengthen our economy (local and national) and improve our individual quality of life. For that reason, it made me happy to be part of an organization that brings so much business and attention to our local enterprises. We filled many a Sarasota hotel room, restaurant and bar with visiting filmmakers and employed numerous other local services. I was especially proud to see that SFF hired my friend and highly-motivated SRQ native Austin Kowal of Clothesline Screenprinting to print our very swanky tote bags.
Additionally, there are numerous programs at SFF each year that highlight local things and people unique to Sarasota. This year’s film line-up included locally-produced SRQ Shorts, The Square Root of Love and The Show Must Go On (a documentary about Sarasota’s own world-renowned Flying Wallenda circus family). Young and aspiring filmmakers get an opportunity to showcase their work and meet with accomplished peers in the industry through programs such as Hollywood Nights and the Young Screenwriters Showcase.
Fifth ~ Golden memories, great films. The highlights:
– Hanging with Michael Dunaway of Atlanta-based Paste Magazine. Dunaway was hands-down one of the coolest people I met at the festival, and I’ll never forget his highly theatrical and genuinely emotional telling of the story of Nadja Hammermann, real-life heroine of the film Dancing on a Volcano. (Read TWIS contributor Bonnie Greenball Silvestri‘s awesome review of Dancing here.)
– A fast, impromptu dinner alone with Jordan Gelber, star of SFF’s Centerpiece Film Dark Horse, at the Cinema Tropicale Party. I heard from a staff member with many other things to do that Gelber was here, was hungry, and couldn’t find food (it was late and the food was gone). With no idea of where food could be found, I magically located some (meant for volunteers) in a side room, snagged Gelber and ushered him in. We sat down for wraps and a five-minute conversation. Grateful and gracious, he then excused himself to go back to his aunt and uncle, who live here and whom he never gets to see. Famous visitor, highly common Sarasota situation, one little thing I was able to do that made me feel, for that moment at least, heroic.**
– On the last night of the festival I got to watch the French film Little White Lies … IN the actual theater!!! It was a superbly human film with a hard-hitting critique of modern relationships, wrapped warmly in a complex, detailed and evolving portrait of a group of friends. I also saw and loved The Giants, Dziad y Baba, Cat Cam and In Our Nature.
– The final highlight? Rest … !!! The kind you get only after extreme and extended hard work: dramatic, well-earned and satisfying.
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* I shared the role of co-Manager with the wonderful Kimberly Klabel.
** A Note on “Heroism:” There’s something that always gives me a “heroic” feeling about having to make many snap decisions and take action in a fast-paced, high pressure situation—especially when those decisions result in making someone happy. I want to make clear that I don’t think of myself as any kind of singular hero in the big picture of Sarasota Film Festival. My fellow staff-members worked as hard and harder than I did. I see pretty much everyone involved in the festival as a hero for their own unique contribution to this incredible local phenomenon: the staff, the filmmakers, our generous donors and, of course, the audience.