SBIFF kicks off its 30th year tonight with opening film “Desert Dancer”

The 30th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival opens tonight for 12 days of celebrities; world premiere films; popular panels on writing, producing and directing; and much more. In a show of its expanding success, the festival now starts two days earlier and ends nearly a week later on a Saturday, a change after many years.

SBIFF as usual has a bevy of Oscar contenders ready to be honored and walk the red carpet, events that cause Santa Barbarans to flood the street outside the Arlington Theatre for a chance to see Hollywood’s best. Honored this year are Steve Carell, Jennifer Aniston, Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, the Cousteau family, Michael Keaton and a selection of breakthrough actors in the festival’s Virtuosos Award evening.

Tonight’s opening film is “Desert Dancer,” Richard Raymond’s film based on the true story of Afshin Ghaffarian , an Iranian youth who gathers his friends and forms an underground dance company in defiance of his country’s ban on dancing.

“I connected with the idea of art freeing you from oppression, whatever that oppression is,” said the British director about his first feature. “But it’s been a long, hard road to actually direct my first film. It’s never an easy thing. If it was, everyone would be doing it.”

Mr. Raymond came across Mr. Ghaffarian’s story in a 2010 article in the Sunday Times, and said he couldn’t believe something as innocent as dance would get banned in a country.

“At first I thought, oh this is like ‘Footloose’ in Iran,” he joked. “But then I realized it was something much bigger. It was about freedom of expression.”

The two men met and spent months getting to know each other. The resulting film stars Freida Pinto, Reece Ritchie, Tom Cullen, Nazanin Boniadi and Makram J. Khoury . The first three and their director will be walking the red carpet tonight. The film has screened in Germany, Hong Kong and Italy, but Mr. Raymond held off showing it in America when SBIFF offered him the opening slot.

SBIFF also announced Saturday’s Writers Panel lineup with Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”), Alex Dinelaris (“Birdman”), Max Frye (“Foxcatcher”), Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”), Jason Hall (“American Sniper”), Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”) and Graham Moore (“The Imitation Game”) and the producers panel on the same day with Lisa Bruce (“The Theory of Everything”), Jon Kilik (“Foxcatcher”), John Lesher (“Birdman”), Robert Lorenz (“American Sniper”), Teddy Schwarzman (“The Imitation Game”) and Cathleen Sutherland (“Boyhood”).

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