Film and television posters hang along the walls in the offices above the Jean Cocteau Cinema on Montezuma Street. A massive model of the Iron Giant from the 1999 movie of the same name stands guard at the top of the stairs. Deeper inside, Liesette Paisner Bailey and her brother Jacques Paisner work on programming for the theater downstairs (their day jobs as program directors hits its first full year soon). Simultaneously, they're putting the finishing touches on the upcoming ninth annual Santa Fe Independent Film Festival. Paisner Bailey's gargantuan dog Gonzo snoozes on the floor, and Paisner leans back in an office chair, phone in hand, with DVD screeners, spreadsheets and various stacks of paper encircling him. They both look tired, but we've hit the tail end of their massive undertaking here. The festival is right around the corner.
Paisner and Paisner-Bailey cobbled together the first iteration of the fest a mere nine years ago. Since then, it's morphed from a handful of films screened at Warehouse 21 into a jam-packed weekend featuring 100 (give or take) independently produced full-length, documentary and short films—plus filmmaker appearances, guest speakers, panel discussions and parties. The advent of more theaters (such as the famously George RR Martin-revitalized Jean Cocteau and the arrival of Violet Crown Cinema) helped, but Paisner says he always had a feeling it would be well-received.
"I do think that, in the last several years, we really have started to realize the vision we thought it could be," he tells SFR. "We have more theaters now, we're giving achievement awards—this year to John Sayles and Maggie Renzi and N Scott Momaday—and we're doing things like bringing John Waters back to Santa Fe and … I think we always looked at the event and thought, 'This could be so great!'"
In Paisner's estimation, this fest is the largest of its kind for hundreds of miles in any direction. "Not just in the number of films shown," he adds, "but in the quality of the films, in the number of filmmakers who attend—we're about people, we're about stories you wouldn't otherwise see." Paisner Bailey expands, saying that despite its youth, she doesn't think it's inconceivable that the fest might soon be mentioned in the same breath as some of the brand-name versions across the country. "Think about it," she says. "We're only nine, but we're really stepping up there to where we are being recognized more nationally."
And it's a glorious time for such events. The Telluride Film Festival, for example, has become one of the most star-studded events on the circuit over the last 44 years. The Tribeca Film Festival, New York City's relative newcomer founded in 2002, has expanded to include cinematic cut scenes from video games and interactive VR experiences in their programming. Palm Springs, Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, New York—the list goes on and on, and it seems we may be closer than ever to adding our own offering to their ranks.
"One of the challenges a film festival faces is how big to go," Kirk Ellis says. The former journalist, current screenwriter (Sons of Liberty, John Adams) covered these things for industry publications once upon a time, now he's a mainstay at various festivals across the country and a constant moderator at SFIFF panel discussions. He also served as the chair of the Santa Fe Arts Commission until he termed out after three years (tktk SFFF website says 4?). He is the consummate film buff.
"The tendency most festival organizers have is to say, 'Hey, we've got this great fest, let's keep expanding it! Let's have larger studio representation!'" Ellis has seen other festivals buckle under their own weight, but doesn't think SFIFF is in any danger of doing so. "Jacques and Liesette seem to have found the sweet spot and how to maximize that," he tells SFR. "The thing that makes this festival distinct is that it's not so much about the celebrity of filmmaking as it is about the craft."
Meanwhile, Lensic Performing Arts Center Executive Director Joel Aalberts braces himself for what will likely be packed house events—the bestowing of lifetime achievement awards on Native American author N Scott Momaday on Oct. 19, on filmmaker John Sayles and his wife and creative partner, producer/actress Maggie Renzi, on Oct. 20, and John Waters' "This Filthy World: Filthier and Dirtier" on Oct. 21.
"One of the things I think is so wonderful about these events being at the Lensic is that it echoes back to what the Lensic's original purpose was," he says. "When you have what the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival does—a consistent and strong festival where people know it and, over a number of years, you get out of your sphere of family and friends—you've expanded your sense of community. People are brought together; it's a touch point that's wonderful to have."
Over and over again, the organizers and participating theater officials use that word: community. It's what sets SFIFF apart in a sea of similar events, and is a distinctly Santa Fean facet. But for Center for Contemporary Arts Cinematheque director Jason Silverman, it goes even further.
"There are all these heroic, unaffiliated collectives and individuals who use the form for love and connection and meaning," he says. "Filmmakers who we're seeing at CCA or in an independent film festival are part of a resistance movement, whether they know it or not."
Silverman previously served as the creative director of the now-defunct Taos Film Festival and produced the critically acclaimed 2015 documentary Sembene!, which has since enjoyed international screenings and events. Put simply, he knows what he's talking about. "I love that [SFIFF] was created by a family, and I think that familial energy is part of its identity," he explains. "This is a film-lover's town; it's a feast year-round, but there's more on the table for the [festival] weekend, and I'm grateful for that."
Back in the Railyard, Violet Crown Cinema general manager Peter Grendle emphasizes the importance of such an event to the overall Santa Fe cultural gestalt. "Half the joy of living and working in Santa Fe is that you get to be around all these wonderful people and organizations that want to do these things," he explains. "But if you're not supported by the community, if you don't keep that in the front of your head, you're doomed to fail, and it all goes back to dedication."
According to Grendle, Paisner and Paisner Bailey have proven such dedication time and time again. Violet Crown has wanted to be involved with the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival "since the very second we opened," he says. "I come from a place where serving the community is vital to my experience, and this festival does that."
If Not the World
Jacques Paisner is nothing if not effusive about his home cinema turf. "This is a city with the greatest art house theaters in the country," he says. "Even in a larger city, there aren't multiple independent art house-type cinemas like we have, and I think it's because Santa Fe is a savvy audience." Paisner points to recent trends that find indie films receiving more buzz (and sometimes more money) than mainstream movies, but also notes that Santa Fe has always been on the forefront of such things.
"I think we're really about to break as the place to see a film beyond Los Angeles or New York," he says. "Just look at what happened in Telluride, and that's a small town." According to Paisner Bailey, roughly 25 percent of SFIFF ticket holders hail from outside Santa Fe and, she says, "We're hearing from a lot of people who are visiting town specifically for the festival."
But what really lies at the heart of the matter? Why work such long and arduous hours for very little in return? "Santa Fe is special to us, and not just because we grew up here," Paisner Bailey says. "We're bringing people to this special place to experience this greater independent film community."
With 100 films screening over the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival weekend, it might not be possible to catch as many as you might like (though organizers point out most movies will be shown twice to reach a broader audience)—but how do you choose? Jacques Paisner and Liesette Paisner Bailey pick a few of their favorites to help you decide. Visit santafeindependentfilmfestival.com for specific screening times and more information.
SFIFF hosts the North American premiere of this comedic tale about a young gay woman who must move back in with her judgmental mother. Co-producer Ara Woland will attend at least one screening and take part in a Q&A.
Becoming Who I Was (2017)
This documentary follows a young Buddhist who learns he is the reincarnation of an ancient Tibetan monk and must investigate his past alongside his godfather.
On a Knife's Edge (2013)
Filmed over a five-year period, this documentary focuses on a Lakota teen named George Dull Knife who becomes a tribal leader at a young age and must come to terms with all that that entails. The film culminates with Dull Knife's journey to Standing Rock.
Atomic Homefront (2017)
A doc that might hit close to home, this film looks at the corporate entities behind improper radioactive material storage in and around St. Louis, Missouri.
Most Beautiful Island (2017)
Winner of last year's South by Southwest Grand Jury prize, Spanish director Ana Ansensio's thriller examines the inherent dangers of an undocumented immigrant who must go to extremes in order to survive while attempting to escape her past.
Maya Dardel (2017)
Lena Olin (The Devil You Know) stars in this drama about a writer with no family who announces she will commit suicide just as soon as she can find a male writer to take over her estate.
The Cage Fighter (2017)
Visual effects creator Jeff Unay (Avatar, King Kong) sits in the director chair for this documentary about a former fighter who longs to get back in the cage despite promising his family he never would.
Arthur Miller: Writer (2017)
The closing-night film, this documentary from Miller's daughter Rebecca looks into the life and times of the Pulitzer-winning playwright known for The Crucible. Rebecca will be in attendance for the screening.
What's a film fest without the offshoot events, panels and discussions? The Santa Fe Independent Film Festival knows this, and here are the best of this year's non-screener highlights.
Opening Night Toast, Screening and Party
Food and music, beer and wine, a screening of the opening night film (Ruben Ostlund's The Square) and the chance to hobnob with filmmakers, festival organizers and other movie buffs? That's what we're talkin' about.
6 pm Wednesday Oct. 18. $25. Violet Crown Cinema, 1606 Alcaldesa St., 216-5678
John Sayles and Maggie Renzi Lifetime Achievement Award Bestowment
Perhaps best known for 1996 award-winning indie Lone Star, this creative husband-and-wife team receives recognition for their many years in the industry and their dedication to the field.
6:30 pm Friday Oct. 20. $30. Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W San Francisco St., 988-1234
John Waters' This Filthy World: Dirtier and Filthier
Waters is, of course, a veritable titan of indie cinema and a champion of lowbrow movies and bad taste from films like Pink Flamingos and Cecil B DeMented to works of musical genius like Hairspray and Crybaby. Waters returns to the fest for the second time courtesy of Meow Wolf, and we cannot wait to see what he has to say.
7 pm Saturday Oct. 21. $28-$100. Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W San Francisco St., 988-1234
Writer's Panel with Edward Khmara, Maura Dhu Studi, Joan Torres and Lee Zlotoff; moderated by Pen Densham
Writers of such celebrated projects as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and MacGyver come together to talk about the craft of screenwriting which, let's not forget, is pretty vital to making a film.
11 am Sunday Oct. 22. $6. Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E De Vargas St., 988-4262
Closing Night Screening of Arthur Miller: Writer
The whole shebang comes to an end with this new doc from Rebecca Miller, the famed playwright's daughter.
6:30 pm Sunday Oct. 22. $13. Jean Cocteau Cinema, 418 Montezuma Ave., 466-5528