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"I pay attention to a lot of film fests," says Allison Koehler, pictured here in SFF's education classroom. "I think the quality of our festival is right up there with Sundance and SXSW."
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Apr. 6, 2011 10 years ago

Sonic youth

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

A 6-year-old Jack Russell terrier named Turk is the unofficial guard dog of the Sarasota Film Festival’s outreach and education department.

If you’ve visited the Cocoanut Avenue office recently, you’ve probably met the high-strung pooch and its laidback owner, Allison Koehler.

Over the course of the last three years, the 24-year-old tattooed outreach and education director has turned the 1920s Florida cracker shack into a functional live/work space.

That’s right. From January to May, Koehler lives where she works. You would too if your office was as homey as Koehler’s.

There’s a small lobby furnished with bookshelves and reading materials, a classroom with one wall freshly covered in chalkboard paint, an editing suite filled with filmmaking equipment, an office, a bedroom, a kitchen and a fenced courtyard.

“Three-quarters of the building is for working and one-quarter is for living,” laughs Koehler, a New Jersey native who splits her time between Sarasota and Brooklyn, N.Y. “We basically work 18-hour days, so it’s pretty convenient.”

By “we,” Koehler means she and George Denison, the office’s production manager and other 24-year-old inhabitant.

She and Denison were film students at the University of Tampa when they began working as SFF volunteers four years ago.

Now full-fledged employees, Koehler and Denison run youthFEST, an arm of SFF that provides more than a dozen film-related programs to Sarasota and Manatee County students.

More than 5,000 students participate in youthFEST each year. According to Koehler, it’s the largest youth program of any film festival in the United States and the only one that offers its curriculum and equipment to students for free.

In addition to collaborating with community organizations, SFF’s outreach and education office runs youth screenwriting and cinematography workshops, film analysis classes, field trips and filmmaker lectures.

Students serving on youthFEST’s “Junior Jury” even assist in selecting the winner of SFF’s “Best Family Film” at the end of the festival.

“Working with kids is definitely not something I planned on doing,” Koehler says. “But now that I’m here I feel like it’s a win-win situation on every level. There’s no other youth fest I’d rather be working for.”

She breezes past photos of teen filmmakers posing on last year’s red carpet. The snapshots serve as reminders of her hard work.

In the off-season, Koehler works as a website copywriter, freelance video editor and event planner in Brooklyn. As much as she enjoys the break, she says she’d love to see SFF turn its education and outreach programs into a year-round endeavor.

“I think a lot of people forget that we’re a nonprofit organization,” Koehler says. “Yes, we have amazing and fabulous parties, but we have this giant youth component that requires constant fundraising. We rely on the community to keep us functioning.”

‘The Land Before Time’
“This movie still makes me cry. I had a Petrie puppet growing up.”

‘Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer’
“I’m talking about the original stop-motion animation. I’ve got five nieces and nephews, and all they know is the digital version. It breaks my heart.”

‘The Little Mermaid’
“I was a big singer as a kid, and the songs from ‘The Little Mermaid’ were the best for singing.”

“I have a special place in my heart for ‘E.T.’ I think I always sympathized with the kid seeing something and the parents not believing him.”

‘The NeverEnding Story’
“It had that awesome dragon.”

youthFEST family features include “Circus Dreams,” “To Be Heard” and the German stop-animation import, “The Sandman and the Lost Sand of Dreams.” For a complete list of outreach and education events, visit

Contact Heidi Kurpiela at [email protected]


Koehler takes us on a tour of SFF's outreach and education building (aka her apartment).

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