Whether delivering inspiration on a surfboard, temptation on a trip to Paris or peace through a mission of self-discovery, the stories on screen at the Sarasota Film Festival this year almost eclipsed the lineup of stars in town. As the Gulf Coast once again enjoyed a 10-day period serving as the epicenter of the independent film world, a greater concentration of stars than seen here in years walked the red carpet in front of the Sarasota Opera House. From the moment documentarian Rory Kennedy introduced the Opening Night documentary, Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, to when legendary actress Diane Lane stepped out to grab a cocktail at the President’s Dinner after the Closing Night Film Paris Can Wait, cinephiles enjoyed an array of content this year in formats short and long, subjects fictional and non. Nearing two decades of existence, the event once again brought spectacle into the streets and onto the screens.

1.Fresh Perspective

While audiences may know Aisha Tyler best for her role on Criminal Minds or her voice work on Archer, she arrived at the Sarasota Film Festival this year for the world premiere of her feature directorial debut, Axis. The film tells the story of a Hollywood actor, played by Emmett Hughes, entirely through his phone conversations while he travels Los Angeles. A serious film about addiction, fame and other dark parts of the soul, Tyler says the movie is ultimately about redemption. “All people are redeemable, but they have to redeem themselves first and foremost,” she says. SRQ spoke to Tyler about the film and her career. —JO

How did setting the story in a car impact the filmmaking process? It solved a lot of problems. This is, for all intents and purposes, a single location. The movie does move around the second larger set—Los Angeles—but with a small budget and limited time, shooting the movie on one set removes a lot of variables. The challenge was: how do we make this one set feel open and expansive and vibrant and dynamic? 

Any temptation to star in your directorial debut? Definitely not. I did a few shorts where I was the primary actor, but I wanted to focus on filmmaking. My voice is in the movie; that’s mainly because I was free. When you are director, every single question about every single thing all day is up to you, from direction for the actor and framing for the DP to where we’re going to eat lunch. It’s great to not have to worry about acting. 

The Sarasota Film festival has a reputation for celebrating female filmmakers. Do you feel you have a different perspective to bring to movies? We can make diversity about fairness or about equality, but really, diversity in filmmaking should be about telling great stories, and you just can’t tell great stories if there is not diversity in perspective. When you look at Hollywood now, where they keep rebooting dead franchises and adapting old television shows, it seems like creativity is dead—there is a very narrow slice of culture telling the same kinds of stories over and over again. Everybody who has done something interesting in Hollywood right now is somebody who has been told 1,000 times it’s not going to work. Their perspective came from outside the customary sphere of influence.

2. Beyond the Beach

While documentarians Derek Murphy and Mitchell Zemil now live in New York, their hometown of Sarasota remains a huge part of their identities. It also provided the setting for their surreal visitor’s guide, Sarasota Half in Dream, which premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival. “It’s my personal view of Sarasota, and the view of my friends,” Murphy says. The focus of the film was to show a side to this city not found in official marketing videos. “We hear this one phrase over and over: ’35 miles of white sandy beaches,’“ recalls Zemil. This duo’s film would suggest none of that. Instead, they filmed in decaying buildings in blighted areas of town, and went to the beach to film dead sharks washing ashore. Murphy says the spirit of “urban exploration” drove the narrative of the film. “We both love Sarasota,” he says. “In my opinion, if I had never been to Sarasota and I watched this, I would be more interested in seeing Sarasota than I would from any of these tourist films.” —JO

3. "We had the pleasure of watching six of the most depressing films ever." — David Edelstein, New York magazine film critic, SFF Narrative Feature juror.

The film critic for New York magazine has made Sarasota a regular stop each year as he hunts down great new films. A juror for the Narrative Feature competition, he cracked jokes about somber material at the festival. “This is first time I have given an award to a film named for genital mutilation,” he joked. The Wound, about a savage practice in tribal Africa for men to prove their virility, ended up snagging the award after the acerbic presentation. —JO

4. Film Therapy and Method Madness

For writer/director Mike Melo, his latest film served as almost therapeutic exploration. In limbo between projects and recovering from both the reemergence of his social anxiety and the loss of his close grandmother, Sunny Side Up was a chance to explore the grieving process and work through his inner thoughts on film. For the movie’s method-acting star, Hunter Davis, the shoot was a little more anxiety inducing. Mirroring his character’s month-long self-imposed exile, Davis lived on the set in said character’s apartment, leaving only once in the span of the 20-day shoot. Sleeping in the character’s bed, eating food brought by the crew and weathering a blizzard, it made the final performance more natural, says Davis, but had its side effects: “Reality and fiction really started blending together.” —PL

5. Lifting Spirits

Women don’t just have different experiences to share as filmmakers; in sports, where most attention turns toward male athletes, the tales of women have important and constant differences as well. When New York documentarian Jessie Auritt first heard about weightlifter Naomi Kutin, a preteen making her name in weightlifting, she knew there would be a story there. Supergirl follows Kutin as she goes though changes in her body and the various anxieties all girls face as they grow into women, but she does it with giant weights on her shoulders. “She had to adapt to all those changes and still be able to do her sport on a regular basis,” Auritt says. The filmmaker came to Sarasota as part of the Through Women’s Eyes program celebrating female filmmakers. A director who learned her work in the field rather than in school, Auritt says the festival circuit has been her own exciting tournament schedule. —JO

6. Russian Superman

Along the Moscow skyline, a subculture of teenage urban explorers thrive. Called “roofers,” the kids spend their days breaking and entering and clambering over abandoned rooftops, taking snapshots of each other in precarious poses over precipitous drops. The most fearless of them all, a 19-year-old named Kirill, they call the Russian Spiderman. For his documentary short, The Hanging, director Geoffrey Feinberg flew to Russia to find Kirill with nothing but a tourist visa, a DSLR and a good friend fluent in the language. “Everything was a surprise,” he says. Each morning, Feinberg would receive a text directing him where to go—which awning, which subway, which alley—to meet up with the roofers and head out on the day’s adventure. Snapping locks with impunity, the concrete jungle becomes their playground, Feinberg says, “They basically have the key to the city.” —PL

7. Service at Home

Audiences saw veterans in front of and behind the camera this year with the world premiere of Returning, a documentary film about Sarasota’s Veteran’s Treatment Court produced, shot and edited by four local veterans from the inaugural class of the Veterans Filmmaking Academy. Working with Shaun Greenspan and Edward James Fagan of Triforce Pictures and director/producer Jason Benjamin (whose HBO documentary, Suited, played last year’s festival), the veterans met for weekly seminars on filmmaking technique and theory, screening films, analyzing them and brainstorming ideas before going out into Sarasota to make their own documentary. Left to their own devices, the four vets gravitated towards the tasks that suited them best. For Eddie Cacciola, a motorcycle mechanic who signed up for the Marines one week after 9/11, that meant director of photography. “Everybody fit their position because of who they are,” he says. “The camera reminded me of a weapons system or a motorcycle.” With no set leader or “commanding officer,” as Cacciola puts it, the team traded off taking point as they interviewed subjects and laid bare their own stories. It helped having instructors less familiar with the veteran experience, says former Marine Rae Chapman, who discovered a knack for screenwriting through the project. “They challenged us to bring the part that’s sensitive to us, that makes us not want to share,” she says, “but realizing if we don’t share that the audience won’t understand what’s in our heads.” For Benjamin, a non-native who flew into town throughout the months leading up to the festival to work with the class, participation was a no-brainer. “We owe a debt to these people,” he says. “I am as proud of this film as any film I’ve worked on.” —PL

8. Star Light, Star Bright

The film festival always brings stars to the streets of Sarasota, but its no secret some years have more dazzle than others. Festival staff beamed this year as call sheets were handed out to waiting media on the red carpet before the Closing Night Awards. Actor/producer Stanley Tucci, actress/director Aisha Tyler, actress Rosanna Arquette and retired NBA star Kenny Anderson would all take their turns in front of the flash bulbs. But even against a night back-dropped with stars, Diane Lane stood out as the brightest light. Here with Closing Night Film Paris Can Wait, a movie that features the actress in every scene, Lane also picked up the Sarasota Film Festival Award for Cinematic Excellence. Before presenting the award, Arquette called Lane the “greatest actress we have going on screen today.” Attending at a festival known for celebrating female filmmakers, promoting the narrative feature debut of Eleanor Coppola no less, Lane spoke with SRQ about the importance of the camera peering at last through women’s eyes. “Women’s perspective without being filtered through the male lens or filter is timely,” says Lane. “Anything that is ‘average’ or ‘normal’ being filtered through the female experience is now going to suddenly be an a-ha moment, whether you are a lion tamer or an astronaut.” Lane held multiple public engagements at the festival this year, including an In Conversation event moderated by SFF Co-Creative Producer Joe Neumaier, where she joked about the weighty artifice living as a well-known actress from the time she was a teenager. “I’m playing a confident Hollywood actress on stage right now,” she said. The award this year honored not just her work in Paris Can Wait, but a career that includes Academy Award-nominated work in Unfaithful, independent treasure Trumbo and animated film Inside Out. Through the day on Sunday, Lane rode through a swath of wardrobe changes that would make an awards show host balk, wearing a summer dress to a the Florida Studio Theater event and an evening gown on the carpet before changing into a new outfit again for the after-film Q&A and President’s Dinner. As the festival entered its waning hours, Lane could be spotted in the Opera House courtyard conversing with Arquette and Tyler as partygoers begged for selfies and staff photographers rallied the women together for group shots. —JO

9. IPad Antidote

In a converted house on an unassuming street in a small town in northeast Pennsylvania, they make the antidote to child addiction to iPads and other digital devices. It’s called Highlights—a family owned, advertisement-free children’s magazine dedicated to the creative and curious—and it’s been around for decades. But only recently have documentarians such as Tony Shaff taken a closer look into how this little-print-magazine-that-could not only survives, but thrives, with more than 2 million subscribers, all looking for a way to free their young ones from their digital prisons. Following the magazine staff from start to finish as they create the 70th anniversary issue, Shaff’s latest film, 44 Pages, goes behind the scenes. —PL

10. Part of the Picture

Writer/director Michael Jackson brought Harlem to Sarasota this year with Brian Mickler, the story of a desperate young man posing as a doctor to convince a nurse to help his ailing mother—and just one part of a larger experimental project of intertwining stories to capture the soul of Harlem. Titled Harlemites, the series of self-contained short films can be consumed in any order, and each brings the viewer deeper into the complex world of Harlem. “Michael has a way to thoroughly capture characters and people,” says actor Wesley Spencer, who plays the titular Mr. Bickler. “The lens through which he was looking at Harlem held true.” Jackson quietly agrees: “The more you investigate something, the more is revealed to you.” —PL

“To have these writers join us at the festival is a true honor, and their contributions to our growing artistic community really make a difference. The Sarasota Film Festival thrives off of our relationships with other organizations.” 

—SFF President Mark Famiglio on the Screenwriters Colony

11. Radical Filmmaking

The call of the ocean rings familiar to many of us living on the Gulf Coast, whether beach bums, boaters or divers. Still, Oscar-nominated documentarian Rory Kennedy’s Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton showed there might be no waterman on the Eastern Seaboard as serious about the waves as Hamilton. The film focused on the pioneering surfer, still perhaps the most important board rider alive at age 53; Kennedy also demonstrated her own authority in her chosen field with a show-stopping final shot to her documentary. A small helicopter carrying Kennedy and a small crew flew out into the deep ocean with Hamilton as he rode a custom foil for well over 10 minutes. After the screening at the Sarasota Opera House, Kennedy spoke to audiences and revealed that helicopter came as close as half a foot from Hamilton while he surfed the wave, a testament to the insane lengths all involved would go to get the moment on film. “It was a magnificent moment,” Kennedy said of the shoot. “We would be underneath Laird looking up at him.” Audiences may have felt their attention captured in a similar way, and SFF Co-Creative Producer Michael Dunaway says the presence of filmmakers like Kennedy helps ensure the whole film world continues to look up at Sarasota. This was Kennedy’s third Sarasota screening and second time with an Opening Night Film. “A festival really thrives on not only championing up-and-coming artists,” Dunaway says, “but also on being championed by established legendary figures.” He spotlighted both Kennedy and Barbara Kopple, an Academy Award-winning documentarian in town with centerpiece film This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, for showing that top-notch work will be found in the Sarasota program each year. —JO

12. Oh, Rosanna

Rosanna Arquette’s decades-long career has been one marked by prestige and bold choices. But for her latest role as the neurotic and manipulative mother in writer/director Max Heller’s comedy Born Guilty, Arquette faced a different challenge—middle age. “I thought it was time for me to take the leap and do a real character that’s not necessarily sexy or any of those things,” she says. And though the film is about a mother who can’t let go of her son, it was mid-production with a blizzard hitting New York City when Arquette’s daughter appeared at her doorstep, heartbroken and homesick. Arquette remembers that night—helping her daughter drag her stuff through the snow, tripping over the luggage in the once-secluded room, lying in bed together—and laughs, though it meant sharing the place for a week in the middle of filming. “I’m a mom,” she shrugs. —PL

13. Pathos Passé

“Emojis do not make up for looking someone in the face and saying a hurtful thing or a nice thing and watching them react,” says producer John Yost, attending the festival with the world premiere of the 11th short film from writer/director and SFF veteran Frank Mosley. Titled Parthenon, the film presents a largely nonverbal exploration of the power of empathy and presence through the story of a young woman in a painful relationship who experiences an unexpected and unspoken connection while modeling for a class of aspiring artists. “Stickers don’t make up for saying I love you or telling someone exactly how they’ve upset you,” says Yost. “And texts and emails can’t make up for that.” The modern digital world feels disconnected, but it’s nothing that good art can’t handle. “Everybody loves vinyl now,” he says. “We’ll bring back emotions as a vintage thing.” —PL

14. Sunrise Story

Kasha Sequoia Slavner was only 16 when she started traveling her mother taking pictures of sunrises around the world. As she travels the festival scene with her documentary about the experience, The Sunrise Storyteller, she hopes to show not only the beauty found around the globe but expose audiences to challenges people face far from here. “I found a thread of resilience in the people I met,” Slavner says. Following cancer survivors, human trafficking victims and peace activists, the greatest inspirations were in the humans, not the horizons, according to Slavner. Now 18, the young director just graduated high school and is taking a gap year before entering film school. Her first project was commissioned through the UN. Her next project remains a mystery, but she’s sure she will be back behind the lens soon. —JO

15. Look at Mr. Chibbs

“I’m still a work in progress.” It’s almost a mantra for former NBA all-star Kenny Anderson, who came to the Sarasota Film Festival with Mr. Chibbs, a documentary from first-time director Jill Campbell that chronicles Anderson’s journey through dark times and redemption post-NBA. “Kenny was so open, so vulnerable and searching,” says Campbell, who spent three and a half years, on and off, shooting Anderson as he reflected on his past and shared his life with students and young athletes as a motivational speaker. The audience ranges from middle schoolers to grown adults, from athletes to not—the basketball career is a platform, says Anderson, but the message is universal. “Maybe I can help a kid,” he says. “That’s all.” The film gets its title from a nickname given to Anderson by his mother when he was only five days old. From then on, whenever he made her proud, she would say, “Look at Mr. Chibbs.” When she passed in 2005, Anderson finally had the courage to move forward with the documentary. “She would want me to pay it forward and give back,” he says. “I know she’s smiling at me.” —PL

16. Sustainable Sarasota

As part of the year’s focus on science and sustainability, which included screening such films as Citizen Jane and Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo, the festival hosted a panel at Florida Studio Theatre to discuss efforts towards sustainability in the local community. In between Karin Murphy of the Urban Design Studio cautioning against auto-centric growth and promoting indigenous flora by singing Lorde’s “We’ll Never Be Royals” to her cabbage palms, and Sarasota Sustainability Manager Stevie Freeman-Montes talking climate change adaptation and mitigation plans for the city, tangible connections were made as the Sarasota Climate Justice Coalition, in attendance, caught the eye of Emily Gorman of the St. Petersburg Sierra Club. “We have to talk about local solutions to local problems,” says Gorman. —PL

“They all wanted to know more about Felix (the fox), and about how he could go from a stuffed animal to a kid in fox pajamas.”

—Into the Who Knows! Director Micah Barber on child audiences

17. Row On

The sport of rowing became important to filmmaker Adam Reist first as a father. His daughter never considered herself athletic until she got a row in her hand and soon found herself competing with collegiate level crews. Mixing his documentary flare and newfound love of the water, Reist shot Dare To Be about the impact of rowing on young, female athletes, a story that inevitably brought him to Sarasota to shoot competition events at Nathan Benderson Park. “A couple pivotal scenes took place at the park,” he recalls. And with the World Rowing Championships here in the fall, Sarasota proved the perfect place to world premiere the documentary. Walking the red carpet with rowing coach Abbie Young and with Scully, mascot for the world event, he hopes next to get the film in front of an ESPN audience. And he also anticipates more screenings in this area closer to the games, when he plans to shoot more footage for upcoming work. —JO

18. The Power of Film

Take it seriously when Amy Berg says a documentary can change the world. Her film Deliver Us From Evil helped shed light on sex abuse in the Catholic Church. The famed documentarian was in Sarasota this year to serve on the documentary jury for the festival and told SRQ some powerful films will likely make waves long after filmmakers leave town. “I think a movie like Last Men in Alleppo tells an important story about what happening in a dangerous part of the world,” she says. Last Men picked up the trophy for Narrative Feature Competition this year with Berg’s vote of support. —JO

19. Looking to Buy

For the past several years, Factory 25 President Matt Grady has used the Sarasota Film Festival not just as place to catch great films, but also as a chance to pick up business. His company offers a distribution deal to the winner of the Independent Visions competition, for which he serves as a juror. While filmmakers sometimes get other deals, he ended up bringing last year’s winner—Ma—to a much wider audience. The fest provides a better way to see films than screeners. “I will watch a screening, sometimes twice at the same festival, to see how different groups react,” Grady says. For his money, the competition in Sarasota this year seemed as fierce as he’s ever seen it, and he says four films at least were worthy of a deal. Look to see if California Dreams, which won the competition this time, gets some more attention thanks to a new deal with Factory 25. —PL

20. The Confidence of Youth

With a $2,000 budget and fewer than 40 years between them, writer/director Spencer King and composer Josh Cowdrey did what any pair of best friend California dudes would do—they made a movie about a water crisis in Detroit. Called Black Petunia and enjoying its world premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival, the project actually predates the Flint water crisis, going beyond the ordinary horror of municipal water systems and into the more comfortable world of government conspiracies. An ambitious debut, underneath the radical trappings lays an emerging artist. “This is a character piece,” says King. “At it’s truest, this is about how people will handle certain situations.” —PL

21. This is Everything

The festival this year devoted a segment of programming to promoting diversity, and Academy Award-winner Barbara Kopple helped with her movie This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, a documentary about a transgender woman whose life evolved in front of a YouTube audience over the course of years. Bringing a film to Florida with an LGBT focus, Kopple agreed to dedicate the screening this year to Eddie Sotomayor, a Sarasota man who died in the Pulse massacre in June. Kopple also visited the festival in recent years with other biographic pictures on Muriel Hemingway and Sharon Jones, but this film was different—rather than scrounging for archival footage, Kopple could look through hundreds of hours of YouTube videos. The film can be viewed on YouTube Red, but Kopple wants as many people to see it in a theater as possible. The filmmaker hopes sharing the story of Gorgeous helps others live their life in as true a fashion as possible. “She is really open and honest,” Kopple says of Gorgeous. “She wants people to know who she is.” —JO

22. Familiar Faces

In 2010, writer/director Brett Haley premiered his debut feature film, The New Year, at the Sarasota Film Festival, taking home the Audience Award. In 2015, Haley came back with Blythe Danner for the Closing Night film I’ll See You In My Dreams, also starring Sam Elliott. This year, Haley returns for the third time with his third film, The Hero, which sees the director reunite with Sam Elliott for a role written specifically for him. “There’s no one else like Sam Elliott,” says Haley. And there’s no other place like the Sarasota Film Festival, and Haley plans to keep coming back as long as he’s making films. —PL

23. Familiar Faces

“If you can’t treat one human being like another human being, then you’re the one with the problem.”

—Liz Cardenas Franke, Writer/Director, Imago.

24. Fishy Pants

If you’re in the market for new blue jeans, producer Lisa Mazzotta recommends Canepa, an Italian manufacturer incorporating chitin from the crushed exoskeletons of shellfish as a binder for dyed denim. That may seem odd, she admits, but it’s better than flooding river ecosystems with untreated wastewater full of chemical dyes and binders. Visiting the festival with the documentary Riverblue: Can Fashion Save The Planet?, Mazzotta is full of odd facts from the place where fashion and environmentalism collide. Traveling with acclaimed river conservationist Mark Angelo and co-directors David McIlvride and Roger Williams, the crew of Riverblue traveled through India, Bangladesh, China and Indonesia over the course of three years, conducting themselves as much like investigative journalists as filmmakers. “We had to work with a fixer in each location,” says Mazzotta, as the crew went behind the scenes to see who dyed the river blue and why the villages along the bank are now designated “cancer villages.” Jean production can be fishy, just not the way you think, says Mazzotta. —PL

25. Fishy Pants

“The arts aren’t a luxury. They are a necessity.”

—Stanley Tucci on the National Endowment for the Arts