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SBIFF 2014 Observations and Reviews!
updated: Feb 11, 2014, 1:03 PM

By Robert Bernstein

Here are some of my thoughts and picks regarding the 2014 Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF).

As always, a mix of good and not so good. I have to start by saying I am not a "film person". Other than SBIFF I rarely attend films. I have been attending the SBIFF since it began, originally mostly to see social justice and environmental documentaries. But in recent years I have gone all out with the Cinema Pass, watching over 40 films during the course of the Festival.

One observation: Some film makers seem to think if they make a film that is dark and depressing we will think it is deep. Often, not so. In fact, I have realized that some of the deepest films are the "light comedies" that people come out of saying "that was cute" or "that was fun" and don't give it another thought.

Case in point: "The Grand Seduction" this year. About a small fishing harbor in Newfoundland, Canada. They can no longer fish and they are living on welfare checks. They decide to try to woo a sleazy petrochemical company to come build a factory so they will have jobs again.

The film is laugh-out-loud hilarious. But it has a much deeper meaning. The woman sitting next to me said at the end, "It just goes to show that problems have to be solved locally."

To which I replied, "Wow, that is the exact opposite of the point I got from the film." To me, the point was that individuals and local communities cannot solve national and global problems.

To solve such a widespread problem of unemployment and the loss of meaningful jobs, we need to have a New New Deal. FDR 2.0 as it were. A big vision. Big taxing and/or borrowing to spend and invest in a better future.

So, "The Grand Seduction" was one of my top picks because of the deeper message that, unfortunately, almost no movie-goers will get.

Other picks and comments:

Noble: A true story of a poor, homeless Irish girl who grows up with a mission to save poor, homeless children in Vietnam.

My Sweet Pepperland: A similar story to Noble in a totally different context. As you can tell from the title (not), it is an old-fashioned Western movie, taking place in Kurdistan, on the Iraq/Turkey border. Similar to Noble because it shows rare idealistic people, pure of heart in a sea of evil and/or indifferent people. And both star strong women who succeed by working with good men. And men who succeed by working with strong women.

God's Slave: Follows the true story of the 1994 Buenos Aires terror bombings from the side of Islamic extremists and from the side of the Israeli intelligence service trying to stop them. A rare close and personal look at the people on each side.

The Missing Picture: A very innovative and creative presentation of the time of the Cambodia killing fields by a survivor. He carved hundreds of little figures to recreate scenes he witnessed. That, intermixed with actual original film rarely if ever seen before.

Just one problem: He did not realize how this will be seen by most Americans who know little or nothing of the history. Most Americans will see it as how horrible those damn Commies were.

Do you know how the killing fields ended? Actually, it ended when the Vietnamese (the ones we were killing) came and stopped it. And Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge doing the killing fields? Yes, they were on the CIA payroll.

And how did it all start? Cambodia was essentially the Garden of Eden of peace and joy until the US dropped hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs on them.

Roaming Wild: Excellent presentation of the issue of wild horses in the West. How sentimental animal-loving can be in conflict with environmental protection. And how innovative, creative people can come together to try to solve the problem.

The Village of Peace: A group of black Americans come together and see themselves essentially as a lost tribe of Israel. They create an actual village in Israel that follows a mix of biblical teachings as well as their own version of vegan ethics. They number in the thousands and have spread throughout Israel. These are the film gems many of us seek out to discover a small world we never heard of before.

Wadjda: Claimed to be the first film ever entirely made in Saudi Arabia. About a girl who wants to save up to buy a bicycle, which puts her in direct conflict with Saudi culture and values. It made it through Saudi censors, no doubt, because what horrifies us seems normal to them.

Code Black: Frustrating. Amazing film by doctors at the LA County Medical Center about the challenges they face. But offers little in the way of recommendations for change. At the Q&A they repeatedly brushed off questions with "we don't want to get political". Huh? Politics means policy. If you don't want to talk policy, why make the film? My conclusion: The doctors, while well-meaning, are actually a big part of the problem and they don't realize it. My solution: True socialized medicine as in France.

Ilo Ilo: About a domestic worker from the Philippines who works for an ethnic Chinese family in Singapore. A fictionalized real slice of life for millions of Filipinas. Very real for me because I have been to Iloilo in the Philippines and I have been in Singapore. Everyone is struggling to get by in challenging circumstances. It is painful to see the reality of people working so hard, struggling for dignity and having almost no rights.

Selma Rubin and Community of Life: Documentary about the amazing Selma Rubin who was on the board of dozens of environmental and social justice organizations in Santa Barbara right up until her death at age 96. Very personal for me as I knew and worked with her during many of her activist years.

Mission Blue: The opening film about the destruction of our oceans and the efforts to save them. Told from the perspective of extraordinary oceanographer Sylvia Earle who has been diving for about 60 years and has directly witnessed the changes. Mostly talked of over-fishing and overlooked the issue of ocean acidification. Overall a great film.

Even watching films from morning till night every day I still could not see every film I heard was good. And I could say more about some of the other films I did see. But, that is a sample of my SBIFF 2014 experience!

Best wishes, Robert


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