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Sarasota Film Festival celebrates its 25th anniversary

Indigo Girls' Amy Ray and Emily Saliers and "Angel" star Roma Downey will be honored and attend the festival.

Indigo Girls Emily Saliers and Amy Ray star in "It's Only Life After All" and will receive the Maestro Award at the Sarasota Film Festival.
Indigo Girls Emily Saliers and Amy Ray star in "It's Only Life After All" and will receive the Maestro Award at the Sarasota Film Festival.
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“The more things change, the more they remain the same." That's the tagline for the 25th Sarasota Film Festival that graces its silver anniversary poster designed by Maria Elena Diaz.

Things have changed a lot since the festival's 1998 debut. Back then, President Bill Clinton was blessed with a booming economy, driven by the spread of the internet.

On TV, Roma Downey was starring as Monica in “Touched by an Angel,” dispensing heavenly advice to troubled Earthlings.

On the big screen, “Titanic” was a monster hit, sweeping the Oscars with 11 awards before ultimately raking in a staggering $2.25 billion at the box office worldwide.

Fast-forward to the present: Not even seven Oscars will propel “Everything Everywhere All at Once!” anywhere close to that level, thanks to couch potatoes who got used to streaming movies during Covid.

Even though attendance at other arts events in Sarasota is down as much as 30% from the "Before Days," Sarasota Film Festival Chairman and Board President Mark Famiglio thinks this year’s festival is going to be a blockbuster.

Lifting Famiglio’s hopes is a compelling mix of premieres, features, documentaries and shorts programmed by festival vets Tom Hall and Holly Herrick. He's also banking on the star power of Downey, who will receive SFF's Lifetime Achievement Award, and Indigo Girls band members Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, who will pick up the Sarasota Maestro Award.

“I’m ready to be surprised [by the numbers],” Famiglio said in a telephone interview. “We’ve printed 45,000 programs. We’re being inundated.”

Dawn Porter's "Cirque Du Soleil: Without a Net" will kick off the 25th Sarasota Film Festival on Saturday, March 25, at The Circus Arts Conservatory.
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Virtual programming rolled out for an exclusively online festival in 2020 accompanies this year’s live event, which opens Saturday, March 25, with a screening of Dawn Porter’s “Cirque du Soleil: Without a Net.” The film, which takes viewers behind the scenes to see how Cirque rebounded from the pandemic, will fittingly unspool at The Circus Arts Conservatory.

The festival will close Sunday, April 2, with a screening of Sean McNamara’s “On a Wing and a Prayer.” The true-life story of a passenger who unexpectedly is forced to land a plane stars Dennis Quaid, Heather Graham and Jesse Metcalfe.

TV's long-running angel Downey is the film’s producer and will attend the screening and accept her award. The day before, she will host a conversation and sign copies of her latest book, “Be An Angel,” at Bookstore1, 117 S. Pineapple Ave.

In addition to angels, the SFF shines a spotlight on a saint. Cinephiles will appreciate the newly restored version of Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 classic, “Passion of Joan of Arc,” about the French heroine who was burned at the stake.

Along with death-defying acts and spirituality, music is a thread that runs through the 25th edition of the SFF, which includes a sidebar dedicated to the topic as well as programs focused on African Americans, female directors, LGBTQ issues and Judaism.

In some cases, films span categories, as in the case of the East Coast premiere of “It’s Only Life After All." Alexandria Bombach’s documentary centerpiece about the 40-year collaboration between Indigo Girls’ Ray and Saliers will also screen three sidebars — music, directed by women and LGBTQ focus.

The documentary "Love to Love You, Donna Summer" will make its East Coast premiere at the 25th Sarasota Film Festival.
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Another film in the music program, the East Coast premiere of “Love to Love You, Donna Summer,” is sure to be a crowd pleaser, thanks to the disco queen’s ties to Florida. Directed by Roger Ross Williams and Brooklyn Sudano, “Love to Love You” mines an archive of previously unseen film footage, photos, artwork and recordings to tell the story of the multifaceted artist.

Audience members eager to put on their dancing shoes and get their hustle on won’t want to miss the SFF disco street party on Friday, March 31, near the intersection of Cocoanut Avenue and Fourth Street. Famiglio expects the shindig to draw more than 1,000 revelers.

“You never know who’s going to stop by,” he said, remembering the year the festival got a call from the road manager of the rock band Aerosmith. “At first, we thought it was a hoax, but it turned out they were coming to support their sound engineer,” who was involved in the film festival.

Rounding out the music program is “Little Richard: I Am Everything,” which also appears in the African American and LGBTQ sections of the festival. Using archival footage and interviews with family members, musicians as well as Black and queer scholars, Lisa Cortés's documentary rips away the whitewashed veneer of the musical superstar Richard Penniman.

In terms of boldface names, the SFF’s documentary lineup doesn’t disappoint. In addition to “It’s Only Life After All,” the program features “Being Mary Tyler Moore,” an intimate portrait of the groundbreaking actress; “Judy Blume Forever,” a Prime Video release about the trailblazing author; Barbara Kopple’s “Gumbo Coalition,” about a crusade against the resurgence of white supremacy and “Invisible Beauty,” which profiles model-turned activist Bethann Hardison, who knew "Black is beautiful" before the fashion industry got woke.

Among the world premieres at the 25th SFF are Sam Shahid’s documentary, “Hidden Master: The Legacy of George Platt Lynes,” about a fashion photographer who found fulfillment celebrating the male physique; “Losing Grip,” which follows Shane Wiskus’s obstacle-filled journey to the Olympics and “Perfectly Good Moment,” Lauren Greenhall’s erotic revenge fantasy.

Lena Olin stars in Lasse Hallström's "Hilma," the tale of an artist that will screen at the 25th Sarasota Film Festival.
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Films making their East Coast premiere at the SFF include “Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection,” about the pop superstar’s fatal struggle with eating disorders; “A Small Still Voice,” which profiles a soul-searching chaplain wrapping up a yearlong residency; and Lasse Hallström's "Hilma," starring Lena Olin as an artist able to connect with people of varying backgrounds.

Like its counterparts around the country, the SFF offers festivalgoers the opportunity to interact with those behind some of its featured films. For instance, after the March 31 screening of the animated documentary “The Conspiracy” directed by Maxim Pozdorovkin, producer Caroline Hirsch and local leaders of the Jewish community will participate in a panel discussion.

Unspooling in the Jewish focus program along with “The Conspiracy” is Matthew Mishory’s “Fioretta,” about genealogist Randy Schoenberg's search for the gravestone of his oldest known ancestor, who died in the 1600s in Venice, Italy.

It's nearly impossible to live in coastal Florida without being aware of how extreme weather can wreak havoc on everyday life, and the SFF has a lineup of films addressing environmental issues. Among them is the world premiere of Joshua Bryan McLawhorn’s documentary “Unfiltered: The Truth About Oysters.” In “no ways ‘preachy,’” according to the festival's program notes, the film takes an honest look at the ecological reality of Florida’s waterways.

Also focused on Florida’s environment is Eric Bendick’s “Path of the Panther,” which follows efforts to protect the wild cat and other species in Florida’s Everglades.

The SFF isn’t just an event that presents films and brings together the community’s cinephiles; it is a competition as well. The jury for narrative films includes IndieWire Executive Managing Editor Christian Blauvelt and documentary filmmaker Bombach. 

Serving on the documentary jury are Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz partner Victoria Cook, Hamptons International Film Festival Executive Director Anne Chaisson and veteran film public relations executive Katie Martin Kelley.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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