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Santa Monica Film Festival:

With film festivals popping up in cities around the globe, it seems only fitting that Santa Monica, home to many stars, production companies and filming locales, should host one of its own. And so, the first Santa Monica Film Festival was held the weekend of August 3-6. In addition to an opening night party at Bergamot Station and a closing awards party at Makai Lounge, the Festival featured a day of film programs at the Aero Theatre on Saturday, a screenwriting seminar from Writer’s Boot Camp and a film preview presented at the Main Library on Sunday.

For this reviewer, the outstanding film was Allen Durand’s documentary, Willie Francis Must Die, originally made for PBS. Narrated by Danny Glover, it tells the harrowing story of a 16-year-old black youth in 1940s Louisiana who was convicted of murder, survived a botched electrocution and waited through a long legal battle to save him from a second electrocution. Suspenseful and sad, the film was ultimately a lesson in the miscarriages of American justice and offered a strong argument against capital punishment.

Also top notch were Ramsey Denison’s Somewhere In The City, a moving story about a formerly homeless man trying to help other homeless people improve their lives, and Lauren Wagner’s The Counter, a realistic portrayal of the risks taken by 1960s civil rights activists.

For comic relief (needed after these necessary but sobering films), Mike Standish’s Fortune Hunters was a delightful tale of a young Chinese-American who works in his father’s fortune cookie factory and is having girlfriend problems. This film showed how fortune cookies are machine-folded (in case you wondered) and seemed to have potential to be a Hollywood feature.

David May’s Itsy Bitsy was also a chuckle, with a young couple battling both a spider and the man’s fear of proposing marriage. Harry Kellerman’s The Little Gorilla, about a little boy’s attempt to overcome his fear of climbing a set of jungle bars, avoided being cloying and turned out to be better than expected.

In the evening, the films seemed less experimental and more entertainment-oriented. Tony West’s Dartsville was a crowd-pleaser with its humorous treatment of the sport of dart throwing and the male bonding issues behind it. John Norris’s The Election offered a scenario of how politicians cover up scandals, with a touch of Macbeth in its cynical portrayal of the politician’s wife. Sean Hanish’s Real Men countered the macho role-playing of some of the program’s offerings with an anecdote about two guys who kiss to see if one of them “might” be gay. And there was a return to social consciousness with Jose Luis Orbegozo’s Proof of Birth, about a Mexican immigrant’s struggle to obtain documentation.

The Festival also incorporated a preview screening of the Leonardo DiCaprio-produced documentary, The 11th Hour, which opens August 17. Directed and written by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners and narrated by DiCaprio, the film looks at the deterioration of the world environment, its causes and possible solutions. Comparisons to An Inconvenient Truth will be inevitable. The 11th Hour covers much of the same ground with less footage of nature and more talking-head experts, at times overstating its case. But given our environmental crisis, one probably can’t have too many films on this subject.

Festival director David Katz is hoping the Santa Monica Festival will provide more networking for filmmakers, as well as feedback from audiences (who were asked to vote for their favorite films). The Festival was also a “green” event with no print advertising or printed programs. While the “green” aspect may take some time for audiences to adjust to, the Festival is a welcome addition to local culture, a place in which to see films that offer a strong alternative to the multiplex.

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