New Frontiers: SBIFF opens its 29th year with an opening night first, new slate of events and more

Renowned Oceanographer Sylvia Earle and Director Fisher Stevens outside the Arlington Theatre before the nights festivities begin
Renowned Oceanographer Sylvia Earle and Director Fisher Stevens
outside the Arlington Theatre before the nights festivities begin

After a year of planning and some last-minute adjustments, the 29th installment of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival kicked off Thursday night in its usual spectacular fashion: spotlights raking the sky, crowds swarming the Arlington, the red carpet rolled out and awaiting the arriving limousines. Inside, the packed audience waited for the lights to dim and the opening night movie to play, preceded by introductory speeches by Executive Director Roger Durling, board members, and a screening of the introductory intro film that will accompany every screening over the Fest’s next 11 days.

And here’s the tally for this year’s Fest: 156 film from around the world, including 22 world premieres and 31 U.S. premieres; a bevy of Hollywood stars set to receive awards or sit on industry panels; several free screenings for area schoolchildren, and numerous film genre sidebars, including the local favorite “Screen Cuisine,” because Santa Barbarans love to watch documentaries about food and wine.

There is new stuff this year too: SXSW-style industry seminars, free to attend, and a silent movie Sunday at the Arlington, free to all who choose to opt out of the Super Bowl.

But the biggest change this year was opening night. With “Mission Blue,” SBIFF chose for the first time to start the Fest off with a documentary. And two years after underwater documentary-maker and SBIFF friend Mike DeGruy passed away, it made sense to choose a film about the state of the world’s oceans. Robert Nixon and Fisher Stevens’ film is a portrait of “Her Deepness” Sylvia Earle, a long-time diver and explorer and environmental activist. (Mr. DeGruy, by the way, is one of the many talking heads in the film, along with James Cameron)

The film started as a documentary about “Hope Spots,” the burgeoning movement to create areas in the oceans where no fishing is allowed and our depleted sea life can come back. In fact, Mr. Stevens’ was going to follow Ms. Earle on a NetGeo Explorer trip to the Galapagos Islands to do just that.

“I didn’t really know who Earle was except what I knew through making ‘The Cove,'” Mr. Stevens’ says, referring to the devastating doc about dolphin hunting in Japan. “Earle had pioneered Google Oceans and I knew her history.”

Then the BP Gulf Oil Spill happened and the doc toyed with that idea. But that didn’t work either. Instead they looked to all the archival footage of Ms. Earle. “We realized this woman is incredible and we have to make the film about her. Let’s show the problems of the world through this woman’s eyes. She’s a great example for kids and women especially.”

It was not easy to get Ms. Earle to sign on for being the main subject.

“There was a lot of negotiation,” Mr. Stevens says. “And once we changed the focus of the film (to her) she wasn’t very happy about it. But I think she understood the importance of the film and getting her message across.”

As the documentary shows, Sylvia Earle made her way through a male-dominated field to become one of the main heavyweights in the field. Old news footage shows the sexism of the time, full of nudges and winks when its shown that one woman (Ms. Earle) is going out on the ocean with 70 men. She balanced career and motherhood not always well, but she followed her dream.

“It’s a little disconcerting to see yourself portrayed in many phases of your life,” says Ms. Earle in a phone interview. Both filmmakers – Fisher Stevens and Robert Nixon – as well as their subject, Sylvia Earle walked the red carpet on Thursday night. Their composer, Will Bates, also attended. Among the Santa Barbara stars in attendance were actor Tim Matheson and SBIFF jurors Alan Thicke, Frances Fisher, Mimi deGruy, Anthony and Arnette Zerbe and Tony Award winning composer Adam Guettel.

“Mission Blue” will travel to the Berlin Film Festival next week.

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