Screen Dreams: Local filmmakers debut work at the SBIFF

While stargazers love the “international” part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, some film lovers maintain focus on the Santa Barbara part. For many local directors, the Fest is their first experience in the thrill of the film circuit, and the first time to see their masterpiece on the big screen. For friends and family, it’s a chance to come and support the director after watching her or him go through long nights, even years, trying to complete a film.

And there are lots of Santa Barbara filmmakers and film subjects this year. The festival offers a program of five short documentaries and eleven short fiction films, as well as seven feature films. On top of that, several films have Santa Barbara connections.

For example, pro surfer and longtime Santa Barbara resident, Shaun Tomson, features in “A Life Outside,” Catherine Brabec’s documentary on the surfing culture that grew up around Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, N.J. These guys used to drop into waves, while above them, people were dropping down on rollercoaster cars.

“I think that Catherine really captured the spirit of the place,” he says. The production crew came to Mr. Tomson and filmed his segments here — he used to hang with a lot of the New Jersey guys and provides commentary in the film.

Mr. Tomson, who came to Santa Barbara in 1977 to surf Rincon and then in 1995 to live here, was last in the festival in 2008 with “Bustin’ Down the Door,” a surf feature about himself, Wayne “Rabbit” Bartholomew and Mark Richards, and how they revolutionized surfing. (Mr. Tomson also executive produced.)

A director with ties to Santa Barbara and its art scene is Susanna Vapnek. If her last name looks familiar, it’s because she’s the daughter of Dianne Vapnek, who used to head Summer Dance. Susanna’s film is “Mabon ‘Teenie’ Hodges: A Portrait of Memphis Soul,” a chance to bring out of history’s dustbin the story of the man who wrote many of Al Green’s hits, including “Take Me to the River.” She just moved back to Santa Barbara last year, after many years in New York. The movie took her four years to make, and started when she met Teenie Hodges when she was tour manager for Cat Power’s “The Greatest Tour.”

“I got a camera and started filming him,” is how she says it started. (Teenie Hodges is planning to attend the screening.) Ms. Vapnek will promote the film, but with a new daughter, she’s also going to return to her painting and enjoy Santa Barbara.

T.S. Meeks grew up in Solvang. His parents started the Bulldog Cafe, although they’ve since sold it. He moved to L.A. eight years ago, but returns once a month to see family, and now he’s returning to screen his first, self-funded short, the dramatic, wedding-night film, “To Us,” a tale of a couple breaking down after a simple question unravels their security.

“I’m hoping each person who sees the film has their own opinion on the events,” he says. This year marks his first-ever film festival. “I’m excited,” Mr. Meeks says. “It should be a great week.”

Local producer Lindsay Branham graduated from Laguna Blanca High School in 2001. “I made one atrocious experimental piece on VHS that I hope is burned and gone forever,” she laughs, talking about her one film class there. She went to USC and then worked at CBS for a while, when the Rwandan genocide anniversary really woke her up to international issues — particularly Africa’s ongoing civil wars.

“Santa Barbara is beautiful, but also a bit of a bubble,” Ms. Branham says. “It took traveling to really open my eyes to the rest of the world.”

That led to freelance, broadcast journalism, and living for a while in the Congo. Eventually, that produced her short, playing this week: “They Came at Night,” a tale of forgiveness between a refugee from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and a villager who wants to help him, against the wishes of the village leader.

Yes, the project is a product of the charity Invisible Children, which is still dedicated to bringing down warlord Joseph Kony. But after the meltdown in 2012 of the viral video’s director, they’ve changed tactics. “Instead of films for us, ‘They Came at Night’ is ‘a polar opposite, a mirror’ of the viral ‘Kony 2012’ film,” she says. “It’s not even meant for us. This film is being shown village to village, to teach people how to deal with refugees from the Lord’s Resistance Army. And it’s working,” she says, “with villagers walking miles to see the film, wherever it’s shown.

“Originally, we made this for a Central African audience, but in the back of my mind, I wanted it to appeal to a mass audience,” Ms. Branham says. “I’m just surprised and thrilled that it translates back across borders.”

Kara Rhodes has produced and directed her first feature doc, “Bridgewalkers” and after four years, it’s going to be premiered at SBIFF. Fittingly, in one of her previous careers, she was a doula. “This movie is like delivering triplets,” she says. Her film explores the various indigenous tribes around the world as they all gather at a special ceremony in Greenland. There’s a 20,000-year-old prophecy coming true, they say, as the ice of Greenland melts.

She moved here 16 years ago, raised a family, and Santa Barbara feels a better fit than the crowded Laguna Beach, where she was raised. “I came to this (film) versed in the material world … but let’s just say I’ve always been on a spiritual path.” This first-timer kept shooting and shooting, and only stopped when she wound up with footage of a younger generation. “We had come full circle,” she says. But she’s been editing since, right up to the last minute. That’s the way it goes for filmmakers, especially when the film festival is down the road.

There are many more local filmmakers to celebrate and support this week, so check the SBIFF schedule at for special, sidebar screenings.

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