Pasatiempo - It's a Family Affair: The 10th Santa Fe Independent Film Festival view website
Since its inception in 2009, the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival (SFIFF) has always been a homegrown shindig. Moreover, under the auspices of sibling cinephiles Jacques and Liesette Paisner, it's also a family affair. The Paisners, former programmers at the Jean Cocteau Cinema, have nurtured a lifelong love of movies. Although Jacques, the festival's founder and executive director, was born in Minneapolis, he was raised in Santa Fe and his sister was born here.
"We've always loved films. Our whole lives, growing up, we went to Video Library and checked out all the films we could and attended all the theaters in Santa Fe. Film and art has always been instrumental in our lives," said festival director Liesette. Liesette joined SFIFF right out of high school after working for a nonprofit organization that ran writers' conferences. She credits that experience with helping her co-organize the annual festival. "That was mainly literary, but with the film festival, it's really about cinephiles, celebrating filmmakers, and creating a space for people who love film to be able to explore and express it," she said. "We both gravitate towards independent films. Our significant others will drag us to whatever the next big Marvel movie is, but it's not necessarily by choice."
Jacques Paisner's passion for cinema led him to take some film classes in college. "My introduction was on an independent picture as part of the creative team," he said. "I've been doing the fest pretty strong and haven't been on too many other projects other than consulting." However, last summer Jacques produced the upcoming Jon Moritsugu film Numbskull Revolution, which is now in post-production.
In 2009, Jacques started out with the intention of showing just a handful of films at a local coffee shop and at Warehouse 21. When he put out a call for entries, the response was overwhelming. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the festival, which runs from Wednesday, Oct. 17, through Sunday, Oct. 21, and has grown to become the most well-attended film festival in the state. For five years running, the quarterly trade publication MovieMaker Magazine has named SFIFF one of the top 50 film festivals worth the entry fee. A dedicated staff has helped it achieve that status, along with New Mexico's steady film industry and the rise of art house cinemas in Santa Fe. "We're blessed with more screens than most cities of this size," Jacques said. "We're one of the greatest small-theater cities on Earth. You'd be hard-pressed to find another in the world. The fest grew in response to that."
This year, the festival is host to around 35 films that include documentaries, narrative features, and animated features, along with the annual program of shorts. The festival's focus is international, but New Mexico-made productions and projects by filmmakers from the state, even if they were made elsewhere, are also prominently featured. "This year we have The Long Dumb Road, which is a film that premiered at Sundance and stars Taissa Farmiga," Liesette said. "People know Taissa from American Horror Story. This is her second film that she did in New Mexico, because she did In a Valley of Violence with John Travolta, the Ti West film, in 2016." The Long Dumb Road is the opening-night film. The festival is also showing a few movies by Santa Fe directors that have made a recent splash on the independent film circuit, such as Alexandria Bombach's documentary On Her Shoulders, about a young woman's story of genocide and sexual slavery under ISIS. The film's subject, Nadia Murad, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this October for her efforts to bring justice to victims of sexual violence.
In addition, SFIFF screens Meow Wolf: The Origin Story, a film directed by Jilann Spitzmiller and Morgan Capps that documents the challenges faced by the Santa Fe-based art collective Meow Wolf in the wake of their rapid success, along with co-directors Hunter Baker and Jordan Fein's New Mexico-made film The Blessing, which took the Grand Jury Prize for documentary feature at the Dallas International Film Festival this year. The Blessing follows the struggles of a Navajo coal miner to protect sacred land from irreversible destruction while raising a daughter on his own. Santa Fe-based documentary filmmaker Glenn Silber's Oscar-nominated 1979 film about resistance to the Vietnam War in Madison, Wisconsin, The War at Home, is also showing in a brand new 4K restoration. Silber's Atomic Artist, a 1983 documentary short on New Mexico sculptor Tony Price, also screens along with local filmmaker Adam Jonas Horowitz's 2011 documentary feature Nuclear Savage, which details the United States government's decades-long top-secret human radiation experiments on Pacific Islanders.
SFIFF is its own success story. Since 2015, attendance has peaked at over 10,000. "Last year it reached critical mass, where it was a lot harder to get tickets to anything," Jacques said. "People were ringing the phone off the hook. I went over to CCA and there were two cars backed into each other in the parking lot. I was walking around that Friday or Saturday and thinking, 'Wow, this feels a little different than it's ever felt.'" The 2017 festival featured some major productions, including Hostiles and Only the Brave. "That's a $100-million studio picture and a $72-million independent film," Jacques said. "Wes Studi was presented by George R.R. Martin at the Violet Crown for Hostiles. That was only the second U.S. screening. The festival has become this chance for Santa Fe audiences to see these movies six months or a year before they would otherwise. That's been pretty special for us. I think the audience has responded in such a way that they expect certain movies to be at the fest. They're showing up to buy their passes earlier. They're picking them up earlier. They're buying early tickets. Everyone wants to have these chances to see the movies."
The Paisners may be the faces of the festival, but they don't go it alone. Actor Gary Farmer (Powwow Highway, Smoke Signals) has served as chair of the advisory board since its inception. A restoration of the Jim Jarmusch cult movie Western Dead Man (1995), in which Farmer plays the role of a Native American guide called Nobody, also screens this year. Derek Horne, an alumnus of the Sundance Film Festival, curates selections for the shorts program each year, and a screening committee led by the Paisners choose most of the feature films from a selection of submitted entries.
Like other big festivals, SFIFF also honors worthy productions with awards in several categories. "We do best documentary feature, best narrative feature, best New Mexican film, audience choice for best doc, and best narrative feature," Liesette said. "For the shorts, we do best short documentary, best short narrative, best animated or experimental short, and best New Mexico short. Then we do an audience choice for best short overall." The jury is usually made up of about three or four people to cover each category who review and rate all the competition films and submit their scores. Past jury members have consisted of Independent Spirit Award winners, Emmy winners, Oscar nominees, and people who've had careers in the film industry, including festival alumni who have submitted their own films in previous years. The jury pool changes annually, although a few members have served for several years in a row.
The festival also honors independent filmmakers and indie stars with lifetime achievement awards. This year's honoree is animator Bill Plympton; the fest is showing his 2016 film Revengeance, co-directed with Jim Lujan, and his new animated short The Modern Lives. Previous lifetime achievement award-winners include director John Sayles and his partner, producer Maggie Renzi (2017), actress Jacqueline Bisset (2016), and actress Gena Rowlands (2015).
Because their focus is on independent films rather than movies produced at major studios, the Paisners have picked up on trends. When a certain country is experiencing a renaissance in independent filmmaking, for instance, that trend is reflected in the festival submissions. They've also noted increased submissions from women filmmakers, which, by happenstance rather than by design, has marked SFIFF as a showcase for women directors. "It's never something we set out to do with our program, it just always ends up that way," Liesette said. "We appreciate the female view in filmmaking, which is often lost. I think there were only three big studio films made by women this year. It's kind of a cool thing to look at our program and realize that 60 percent of our films were made by women." What the Paisners are seeing is perhaps akin to the early days of cinema, when, particularly during the silent era, a lot more films were made by women than in the decades that followed. "I think it kind of changed in the '30s at some point," Jacques said. "But there was a time when 50 or 55 percent of directors were women. I think that's coming full circle."
By Michael Abatemarco
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