The spotlight was turned on more than just the stars at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival. Sure, there were camera flashes as Rosie Perez and Matthew Modine walked the red carpet, but programmers also asked cinephiles to look inward, promoting films exploring mental health and all manner of matters introspective. In addition to entertaining fare with Hollywood stars such as Josh Radnor, Treat Williams and Caitlin Fitzgerald films challenged audiences to reevaluate social understandings as fundamental as family, while programs such as Through Women’s Eyes continued to provide marginalized filmmakers a platform amidst an uneven playing field.

Mind and Soul

From an Opening Night film about the grief of losing a parent to documentaries about the personal consequences of borderline personality disorder, a number of films programmed in the festival line-up this year either explicitly or indirectly explored the mental state of individual subjects and our society as a whole. “It was important to us that this was about mental health and not just mental illness,” says Michael Dunaway, programming director for the festival. “I felt like we responded clearly to a need in the community.”

Nine films were officially tagged part of the SFF Focus program on mental health, but in truth the subject matter could be found well beyond. It wasn’t just explicitly issue-oriented films like Touched With Fire, a movie starring Katie Holmes that was set in a psychiatric hospital. It was also in the Opening Night film Other People. A lauded film that also opened the Sundance Film Festival this year, the feature directorial debut from Chris Kelly followed the life of David, a struggling comedy writer returning home to help his sick mother in the last year of her life. “I just wanted the film to feel honest,” Kelly told SRQ. The movie was based loosely on Kelly’s own life—his mother died of cancer four years ago—and taking the film on the festival circuit means a sort of extended healing process for the Saturday Night Live writer. But the film was most noteworthy not just for its raw grief but the spikes of humor that mark nearly every scene. “I remember laughing a lot,” Kelly says, “and you have to find humor sometimes when you are going through something like this.”

And some films rang close to old wounds in Southwest Florida. The screening of Kate Plays Christine, filmed mostly in Sarasota, documented actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepared to play Christine Chubbuck, a Sarasota news anchor who shot herself on-air in 1974 in what is believed to be the first live televised suicide. While not officially included in the SFF Focus program, the festival held a special panel for the film after the Sarasota premiere.

“Depression and suicide are issues that are still very much with us,” said Dunaway, taking the stage with filmmakers from Kate Plays Christine and a pair of local mental health professionals for a panel discussion on the importance of mental health awareness. “People don’t talk about it and they don’t donate to it,” said National Alliance of Mental Illness of Sarasota County Vice President Wendy Abramson, thanking Dunaway at the opening of the panel. But with director Robert Greene and his crew on one side and Abramson and Patti Ries of Mental Health Community Center on the other, Dunaway facilitated introductions but ultimately ceded the floor as Greene and the filmmakers shared stories and in-jokes from the set for more than half an hour until a woman raised her hand. “I came here to talk about mental health,” she said from the audience. She was losing her son to drugs and she came for answers she wasn’t getting.

Dunaway secured more time for the panel as Ries heard the woman’s concerns and offered what help she could. “You help as parents as much as you can, but then you cross the line to enabling,” she said. “It’s not easy, but there are many resources in this area.” The right people, she reminded, may not always be mom and dad. “I thought it was my fault when my daughter got sick,” offered Abramson. “It wasn’t.”

The conversation inevitably shifted back to the film, but even there the frustration reared its head. Was the film a documentary or a work of fiction? Audiences were unclear. How much was staged? Questioned on the purpose of the film and the meaning behind his obfuscation of the film’s truthfulness, Greene defended the film as simultaneously or alternately being about Chubbock, Chubbock’s story (“Which is a fine distinction,” said Greene), the actress playing Chubbock, depression and suicide, the blending of fact and fiction in film and the history of the fetishization of “crazy women” in film. The inquisition came to a head when a member of the audience flatly told Greene, “I had a real problem with the ending. It didn’t seem authentic to me.” If she sought any concrete answer or resolution, she came to the wrong place. “You should question every film,” responded Greene. “We think of documentaries as truth but they’re movies.”

Abramson cited moments of captivating cinema, but ultimately expressed “disappointment” with the film and Greene’s handling of the subject matter, dubbing the effort a “missed opportunity to show the intensity of those feelings.”

The Power of Grief

Director Maris Curran talks debut feature.

In Sarasota with her debut feature film Five Nights in Maine, writer and director Maris Curran has already won accolades along the festival circuit as a powerful voice and vision in film. Starring David Oyelowo (Selma), Dianne Wiest (The Birdcage) and Rosie Perez (White Men Can’t Jump), the feature explores the nature of grief and the power of human connection even at the darkest moments.

What drove you to tell this story? Curran: It’s an emotional film, but it’s also a hopeful film. That’s very important to me. I began writing it as my marriage was falling apart and even though that’s not directly the story in the film, I was facing similar circumstances as the main character, with questions in my life like: what happens when your hopes and dreams dissipate in an instant and ideas about your future and self change so radically? What’s more universal than loving someone and then losing them?  

Rosie Perez described it as being a quiet film about thunderous emotions. Curran: Absolutely. Part of the reason I made the film was that grieving in American culture is seen as something that is individual and should be done behind a closed door. We all lose people and there’s something very tragic in that, but there’s potential if you open that door to connect over these feelings of loss. That’s exactly what this film is about—two people from completely different worlds who are grieving differently and fighting to find some sense of common ground. What happens if in the moment you hurt the most, you can look outside yourself and see somebody else’s pain? There’s a tremendous amount of potential in that moment. 

Before casting Rosie Perez as Ann in Five Nights in Maine, writer/director Maris Curran envisioned someone different for the role of nurse and caregiver to the film’s ailing matriarch, portrayed by Dianne Wiest. Perez told SRQ what attracted her to Five Nights in Maine and the power of silence in performance and film.

How did you find the character of Ann? Perez: I see Ann as someone who has the ability to walk softly on eggshells covering every inch of the floor; it’s not just her medical expertise but her ability to be empathetic. During filming, the director kept saying, “Can you speak more loudly,” and I said, “No, I can’t. I’m a nurse and my patient is in emotional turmoil.”

How did you know that was the right direction? Perez: When my father was ill for several years before he passed on, he had a home attending nurse in our house in Puerto Rico. The nurse would just sit in the corner and watch, and was only attentive to my father when he needed help. The only time I saw her speak was if she was alone with my father. They developed a great friendship, yet she maintained a professionalism at the same time. 

The Psychiatrist and the Documentarian 

SRQ facilitated a conversation between filmmaker Rebbie Ratner, whose film Borderline played at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival, and Sarasota psychiatrist Christina de Guia, who treats local patients diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Ratner, who has been diagnosed with the condition herself, decided to make a documentary on the disease. The film follows Regina, another person with the disorder, and tracked how the condition impacted her interactions throughout life. 

Dr. Christina de Guia: Did you make sure boundaries with Regina were very clear or did you want to get over-involved in her life and experiences instead of trying to stay separate? Rebbie Ratner:Different people inspire different challenges in regards to boundaries. I really like Regina as a person. That meant that sometimes after we would film we would just hang out. We developed a friendship on top of it, which most people would probably advise against. I made an executive decision, particularly after the film, that I was going to have her in my life in a social way as well, in spite of the fact I knew that made the situation more complicated. She has her own feelings about the film. I always tried to keep separate our discussions. The boundaries are hard because you are showing someone in vulnerable positions. For me, I was confronting ethical issues that I didn’t become aware of until after the fact. She’d make me aware I had just done something to damage our relationship. She is very verbal, but it doesn’t always mean she is going to be direct. You can confuse someone who is articulate with being direct, and I sometimes would do that. What it meant was that we had some problems, and there were rifts I had to repair.

De Guia: Is that the choice most directors make? What would they recommend? Ratner: There is no clear line. But when you get so intimately involved with the main character, it’s truly a collaboration. And people do things to help subjects out after the film. All the time, that happens. It’s something about the human connection and that attachment that sort of takes over. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Having my own personal challenges and being attentive to my own impulses and nature, the boundaries I kept were not that different from the boundaries I would have kept with another subject.

Diverse Voices

Despite the particulars of any annual focus, a perennial theme of the Sarasota Film Festival has been the celebration and elevation of diverse voices in cinema. Partnering with the Harvey Milk Festival, the Sarasota Film Festival quickly demonstrated its dedication to presenting stories from LGBTQ perspectives with the Opening Night film Other People, starring Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad) as a gay writer returning home after a bad breakup to the cold comfort of his dying mother and unaccepting father. Also screening at the festival—and garnering much praise from Dunaway—was Kerem Sanga’s debut feature and Sundance hit First Girl I Loved, which paints an intimate portrait of a young woman’s painful coming out and her attempts to navigate a challenging experience where even the well-meaning can ultimately do harm. But other films documented the the changing face of legislation and the deeper implications of advancement of gay rights in the nation.

With The Guys Next Door, documentarians Allie Humenuk and Amy Geller follow a modern gay couple, Eric Mercer and Sandro Sechi, as they venture into fatherhood for the second time with the help of friend Rachel, who volunteered to be their surrogate mother on both occasions. Sitting with Sarasota community leader and Equality Florida Board Chair Ken Shelin, Humenuk joined SRQ to discuss the film and the impact of Eric and Sandro’s story. 

Allie Humenuk: We met Rachel when she was eight months pregnant with the second baby and all I knew was that everybody’s lives were going to change in some way. I also believe that in the most mundane situations there’s often something that is quite magical or revealing, so that was the way I went about it. Right now there’s so much contention around gay marriage and around surrogacy and we wanted to tell a very personal story that put this in a positive light and give viewers a window into what this could look like. 

Ken Shelin: I liked that there was no narration telling me what to think or what to understand or recognize. I often wondered how Sandro and Eric worked out the relationship between them and the children, because obviously Sandro was assuming one role and Eric another. On the other hand, what that tells me is that we can make choices about the roles we play in relationships. We make the choices that work for us. Overall, the film expands the definition of family. I had relationships with men back in high school and college and I know how straight people thought about and felt about gay couples. They thought of them as promiscuous, flighty and irresponsible and unstable, and what this film tells us is that we can create families that are much like any family. We’re no different.

Humenuk: Eric also spends a fair amount of time with the children and I feel like the film doesn’t capture that as well as it could. When you’re making a film you have to build in some tension and some of the tension is the work/caregiving tension, like any other couple. Eric travels a lot but then he’s also home and does spend time with the kids. I wish that was in there more, though it’s important we see that they are trying to juggle this relationship.

Shelin: But it was wonderful, the flexibility they had in the relationship. They were willing to relocate from New York City to Maine. They went to Sardinia in the summertime. They were very comfortable in a variety of environments. That’s a characteristic of gay people that people don’t recognize—how adaptable, how flexible, how tolerant we are of the situations we find ourselves in. 

Humenuk: There’s something liberating about not having the predefined heterosexual roles. You don’t have the mother and the father. You have more freedom to create who you are and there’s this elastic idea of what it means to be male. We all need to redefine ourselves when we become parents, but perhaps there’s even more opportunity for men and also challenge because of how they’re seen by the outside world.

Shelin: You have to be willing to try. There was one little thing that I caught when Sandro was in Sardinia. He was talking to the old lady who was so happy to see him and she asked him if he was married. And he said no. That hurt a little bit. The guys were doing such a wonderful job of being out and visible in the community, but they couldn’t do it in Sardinia. And it hurt me especially because everybody in my family knows about my marriage but my mother. My mother’s 97 and my stepfather is 101 and I’ve never been able to talk to her about it. I related to Sandro in that moment.

Humenuk: Do you think she knows? 

Shelin: I think she understands better than I think she does.

Humenuk: The thing about Sandro is extremely painful because it’s primarily the older people in Italy that he still can’t tell because he’s so scared. Is it threatening to tell your mother and father still? 

Shelin: I thought initially that my mother wouldn’t understand. My mother’s kind of conventional and old-fashioned. My stepfather’s Italian and very masculine. Even though he’s 101 and can barely walk, he’s in charge of the family and he makes decisions. So I couldn’t bring myself to tell them. Being gay affects choices and how we deal with those choices. Unfortunately in the past we’ve made bad choices because we’ve been afraid, but there was such honesty with Sandro and Eric that they seemed absolutely and perfectly normal. I couldn’t get over how normal they seemed.


Debate Stage

Election year brings politics into focus.

When you hold a film festival during an election year, you can expect an influx of politically informed films. The Sarasota Film Festival embraced the timing of this year’s event, re-theming its annual Cinema Tropicale party as a Cinema “Politicale” event, and set The Congressman as the Closing Night film weeks before the movie opened in theaters nationwide. Additionally, much of the big talent at this year’s event came with politics top-of-mind. In addition to The Congressman star Treat Williams, the festival hosted Matthew Modine, in town with the talk radio-scrutinizing doc The Brainwashing of My Dad, and documentarian Josh Fox, here for Gasland sequel How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change. 

The clearest overture to the political environment was The Congressman, a movie written and co-directed by former Democratic Rep. Robert Mrazek. The film, based on a real life occurrence during Mrazek’s days in the US House, tells the tale of a fictional congressman who blanches at a suggestion that the Pledge of Allegiance be recited every day. Calling it a “loyalty oath,” he refuses and scandal ensues. Mrazek recalls a Southern colleague in the 1980s making a similar suggestion, which led Mrazek to a similar response as his movie counterpart Charlie Winship. “But I got to thinking, what would happen in the media environment today if a camera caught a Congressman during the pledge propping his legs up on a desk?” Mrazek said. As he figures, nothing good. Winship ends up fleeing the spotlight for a remote island in New England as he finds his voice again. Williams, who called this film one of his favorites over the course of a career that includes Hair and The Deep End of the Ocean, says the character of Winship is the type he would want representing him. He doesn’t expect the film to change the world—“If you want to send a message, try Western Union,” he says—but he hopes viewers consider the ability that news channels have to manipulate a story.

Modine, who narrated a documentary about the impact of right-wing radio on director Jen Senko’s father, also took partisan media to task. “Don’t tell me what you think; tell me what you know,” Modine says. “So much of news media today is just opinion, and that’s really dangerous.” Taking particular issue with radio host Glenn Beck (“a circus clown”), he said the impact of stoking anger in public discourse changes society in a dark way.

Fox, for his part, came ready with facts and opinions. While he promoted a film looking at the state of climate change, he walked the red carpet proclaiming support for Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders and condemning the tone in Congress. “Republicans who deny climate change’s existence are being childish,” he told SRQ. “And many Democrats hold positions that are not sufficient on this issue.” And while Fox was arguably the most noted partisan filmmaker at the event, plenty of documentaries took close looks at politics in America today. Weiner followed the implosion of Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign in New York following a sexting scandal and Traficant: The Congressman of Crimetown studied the titular rogue ex-Congressman who served time after serving Ohio.  But at Cinema Politicale, where many guests wore pins with such apolitical slogans as “I’m for the Party,” organizers also stressed that in an election cycle—especially one as embarrassingly rancorous as this year’s—there needs to be a moment when Americans step back, laugh and relax.  

Breaking Up the Boys Club

Celebrating women in film for 17 years—seven in partnership with the Sarasota Film FestivalThrough Women’s Eyes again assembled an impressive slate for its own two-day mini-festival through opening weekend. Screening more than 20 shorts and feature-length films written, directed and/or produced by women filmmakers around the globe, documentaries dominated the selection as artists framed the world from the female perspective with stories of struggle and strength. Documentarian Elisa Paloschi’s Driving With Selvi follows a young Indian woman forced into an abusive marriage but refusing to back down, ultimately rebelling against all convention to become South India’s first female taxi driver, while Mercedes Kane’s Breakfast at Ina’s shares the true story of restaurateur Ina Pinkney, who battled the odds to build a Chicago institution. And with Daughters of the Forest, director Samantha Grant took audiences to the Mbaracayu Reserve in rural Paraguay, where a radical school in the remote wilderness empowers young women with both an education and an eco-conscious notion of progress.

“Through Women’s Eyes was very inspiring,” says Italian writer and director Silvia Cremaschi, who screened her debut short film The Room through the program this year. Sitting in the Filmmakers’ Lounge on the second floor of World of Beer, Cremaschi talked shop and storytelling with documentarian Allie Sultan. A documentary about a woman battling postpartum depression and becoming an Olympic weightlifting coach, Sultan’s Lift Like A Girl may seem miles away from Cremaschi’s surreal and experimental exploration of emotional turmoil, but the two connect over the shared experience of making film. “I’ve made some incredible friends and seen some of the most beautiful films,” says Sultan. Caitlin Fitzgerald, star of the Showtime original series Masters of Sex, joined the Sarasota Film Festival this year as a speaker for the Acting on TV panel with Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) and Jamie Anne Allman (The Killing). With the festival doing what it can to lift women’s voices, SRQ stopped to get one actor’s impression.

On the page, what do you look for in a project? Caitlin Fitzgerald: For me, and because it’s more rare than it should be, I look for women that feel dimensional and not just there to serve a male protagonist, which is 90 percent of the scripts that I read. I’m looking for a woman I recognize; someone that feels human and complex. I look for things that scare me—something that I haven’t played before, that feels like a stretch or a place where I’ll learn a lot or grow.

People call this the “Golden Age” of television. Do you see that regarding quality roles for women? Fitzgerald: Absolutely. I feel privileged to be on a show where we have at least half-a-dozen female characters that are all totally different from each other. TV has offered enormous opportunities for all kinds of reasons. In film we’re seeing derivative superhero movies over and over and usually there’s one female character. 

Do you recommend that route to aspiring performers? Fitzgerald: Yes. It’s so hard to get your first job in this business because people are reluctant to hire anyone without experience. For me, doing small parts on TV shows was the way to build experience and get a foot in the door and that still holds true.

Do you see progress being made on that front? Fitzgerald: It’s a slow process but the conversation is happening. I’m on a television show written and created by a woman and with female producers, but we’ve had two female directors over the course of four seasons. Women are still not being entrusted with storytelling in Hollywood like they need to be. We can direct indies and never make a dime, but for women to really be viable as big studio feature directors they need experience in TV; they need to be getting to play.  

Celebrating Florida Cinema

Florida filmmaking earns SFF notice.

In an effort to support local film, the Sarasota Film Festival hosted a special Florida On Film section, screening numerous shorts and a handful of feature films made in the region, including Melki Viveka’s exploration of Sarasota’s retired circus community in After Circus and Robert Greene’s film inspired by the suicide of Christine Chubbock, Kate Plays Christine. But it was Monty Comes Back, the subversive coming-of-age comedy from Bradenton writer/director Thomas Nudi and starring Brandon Tyler Jones that impressed audiences the most, earning an impromptu third screening on closing weekend and winning the festival’s first Best Florida Film award. “The recognition for Monty Comes Back from the Sarasota Film Festival and our audience is beyond belief,” says Nudi. “Most important is that we’ve proven this area is a viable place to make films. It doesn’t take much, just hard-working talent and a story worth being told. What an incredible way to kick off the start of our film’s run, and in our own backyard at that.”

What Kind of Festival Has it Been?

In the end, Dunaway says the festival plans to continue taking on a social issue every year, but noted that will never be what drives programming. “It’s tricky. We are not a political festival and we are not a sociology festival. We’re a film festival,” he says. “But I think we have an opportunity to provide a springboard into conversations. These issues and questions come up from seeing provocative films, and we want to encourage that to happen.”



The printed version of this article misquoted the representative from the Mental Health Community Center as said by Mandy Feldmann. It was said by Patti Ries, CRPS, a Peer Specialist in the PAL Program at the Mental Health Community Center.