For most of the year, Erin Murphy and Greg Bortnichak are on the road, touring with their band. But the most exciting 10 days of their year are offstage, working for the Sarasota Film Festival.
At any given time, it can be hard to track down Erin Murphy and Greg Bortnichak. More than likely, you can find the couple on the road, touring with their band Teach Me Equals.
The heavily touring project takes them across the country, performing in bars and venues from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Portland, Ore., and everywhere in between.
Each spring, however, one needs look no further than the Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20 to find the couple. For the past six years, Murphy and Bortnichak have immersed themselves in the Sarasota Film Festival, a 10-day celebration of cinema they’ve come to love.
They got their start in 2012, when an old schoolmate of Murphy’s asked if she and Bortnichak would be interested in volunteering at the box office.
“We were both doing music and working in the food industry, so we had a lot of free time during the day,” says Bortnichak. “At some point, you run across the gems of filmmaking from friend recommendations, but neither of us were especially versed in film. This really exposed us to wonderful works of independent art. We’d get together every night and watch the films to better be able to talk with customers. We loved it.”
From volunteers, they grew to be more involved. Today, they’re operations managers, where they oversee the volunteers in the box office, helped create the ticketing software, assist in producing and envisioning the film guide and any number of other unpredictable tasks to ensure the festival runs smoothly. This year, they even helped book bands for the festival’s new outdoor block parties, Sea and Be Scene and the closing-night wrap party.
“We see a lot of parallels between the two communities,” says Murphy. “Some of the coolest films are nothing more than a great idea and guerrilla tactics to make it happen. It’s really similar to the way we approach our music. So many of these are first-time filmmakers bringing a new perspective, and being able to work on the support side of the arts and help them showcase their work to a built-in audience is amazing.”
“As an outsider, Sarasota is one of the most vibrant arts communities I’ve seen,” says Bortnichak, who moved to Sarasota from New Jersey in 2011. “It’s not pretentious; there’s high-brow art and underground art; it’s ever evolving and multifaceted. The Sarasota Film Festival is a place where all of those things come together. You might bring in a circus performer or a local band, but it’s all under the umbrella of celebrating film.”
Usually working out of the theater, a constantly bustling hub of moviegoers, filmmakers, actors and producers, Murphy and Bortnichak have a front-row seat to the action — even if it means sacrificing time actually watching movies.
“We pick our top three movies each year and make sure we see those,” says Murphy. “But it’s a lot of popping in when we find a slow moment to catch 10 minutes of a movie.”
But for them, it’s grown to be about more than simply watching movies. It’s about showing support to an arts community close to their hearts.
“We always come back,” says Murphy. “It’s a great time to reconnect with my hometown and see family and friends, but it’s also about switching roles, artistically. We get to be on the production side of showcasing artists, which gives us a whole new sense of appreciation when we’re performing.”
“There’s something beautiful about that,” adds Bortnichak. “The filmmakers are all here; the lobby is buzzing. Once it gets running smoothly, it’s got legs of its own. From there on out, it’s a wild ride, fueled by adrenaline and love of the arts. It’s the most exciting 10 days of our entire year.”
The Sarasota Film Festival provides opportunities for local filmmakers to showcase their work, as well as put our city on the silver screen. This year’s festival features projects from the Veterans Filmmaking Academy, Booker Film Academy and more. Here are just a few of the locally tied films in this year’s festival:
‘Abacus: Small Enough to Jail’
Playing 3:30 p.m. April 1 and 7:30 p.m. April 3, at Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20
For more than 25 years, Tom Sung did what he set out to do in banking: provide financial services for fellow Chinese-Americans and others in and around New York’s Chinatown.
“I founded a bank and did a lot of good for a lot of people,” says Sung, who has had a Longboat Key residence for a decade. “If you want your life to be meaningful, you have to have a worthy cause.”
From 1984 to 2010, that cause was Abacus Federal Savings Bank and its customers. But from 2010 to 2015, Sung spent $10 million defending himself, his family and his bank against charges of mortgage fraud.
After five years and a lengthy trial, a New York City jury dismissed the charges. Sung’s story is now a documentary by filmmaker Steve James, director of “Hoop Dreams.”
— Mark Gordon
‘The First Time Club’
2:30 p.m. April 2 and 1:45 p.m. April 4, at Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20
Director KT Curran, of SOURCE Productions, makes her feature-film debut. Funded through the Community Aids Network and executive producer Planned Parenthood, the film follows a group of four teens who took a childhood blood oath to experience all of life’s formative moments together as the First Time Club. But they discover a world of betrayal and risk that threatens to tear the group apart.
The film was shot with a crew of 10 and cast of four at 41 Sarasota locations that Curran calls “uniquely Florida.” Driving her intentions is the fact that Florida ranks among the top states in the country for new HIV infections.
“I wanted to reflect reality and show the places where this risky kind of behavior happens,” she says. “I’ve dedicated my life to sharing the stories of young people.”
— Nick Friedman
‘Sarasota Half in Dream’
5:30 p.m. April 1, and 1:15 p.m. April 2, at Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20
There’s more to Sarasota than meets the eye. Just ask Derek Murphy and Mitchell Zemil, director and producer of this experimental documentary that challenges moviegoers to take a closer look at the seemingly sleepy town they call home.
“When you start delving into some of Sarasota’s more obscure or secretive places, there’s this almost palpable feeling of energy,” says Murphy. “It’s like a wellspring that manifests itself in these little phenomena. Our goal was to try to document that.”
Influenced by the subculture of urban exploration, Murphy and Zemil filmed in locations around Sarasota, which they discovered through word of mouth. Locations include abandoned boxcars, golf courses and factories, as well as isolated areas, like a portion of Lido Key where a colony of hundreds of fiddler crabs greeted them every time.
— Nick Friedman
For a complete listing of films, events and information, visit Sarasotafilmfestival.com.