[Eds. note: This post is the first of several from filmmakers and programmers who are asked to address the value of the regional festival experience.]

Outside of my life as a Programmer for the Sarasota Film Festival, I’ve always been heavily invested in community building. I discovered last year that my attraction to film festivals was very much an application of that interest towards film, an artistic medium to which I feel very close. Perhaps the reason I began to love film in the first place had to do with the fact that it’s a publicly available art that inspires community interaction.

My job at Sarasota requires me to bring people together in the name of film and see what results, and I’ve found that an extraordinary faculty of film festivals is that they can create perfect moments for interaction and collaboration. Many filmmakers have written us after the festival to express the invaluable connections that they made here. At the 2006 fest, Alex Karpovsky of The Hole Story (pictured upper right) met a future collaborator in Jon Hyrns, the subject of Dominic DeJoseph’s documentary Johnny Berlin, and the two are now making film together.

It’s easy to get acquainted at the Sarasota Film Festival, where all venues are housed in a single large theater in downtown Sarasota. It’s April and so the weather couldn’t be kinder: a distillation of perfect gardenia- infused balminess of the Floridian early summer. The sun and the humid breezes from the adjacent bay cool the tempo of an otherwise bustling festival; and with the outside as friendly as it is, hanging out becomes spontaneous and unhurried. Some filmmakers and industry folks disappear from the theater for a few hours in the afternoon and return a lot tanner. White sand gets in the grooves of borrowed bicycle tires and then tracked into movie theater aisles, and filmmakers that arrived alone on day one together form large mobile amoebas traveling from beach to theater to party.

I do my best not to be the harried programmer as I bounce around the theaters through shorts, features and documentaries and try to curb my unrelenting desire for a hotdog. If it wasn’t for all the skipped meals, I swear I could do this theater part all the time. I love seeing every film that we program projected, and am lucky to experience first hand the magic taking place between people and the art onscreen. It’s still unpredictable to me what 5 minutes of film will profoundly penetrate an audience member, who then approaches the filmmaker to express how he or she has been moved. I find our Q & A’s to be particularly engaging, our audiences are smart and interested and eager to participate.

We have a huge attendance for a regional film festival with 45,000 patrons over the course of ten days. Many attendees are true cinephiles, while others are taking risks and trying something new for the first time in attending a festival film. I’ve seen it happen: sometimes this experience with our festival is enough to develop someone’s interest in cinema beyond the multiplex. It’s fun to see the surprise in newcomers who discover that art and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. I’ve heard: “It was an art film, but I really liked it!” Films just seem to work here; the audience mélange of the very seriously art-oriented people (of which there are many in Florida’s “City of the Arts”) with the excited, anticipating risk-takers always hits an amenable balance. It’s a delight for me to consistently participate with such a smart and passionate group, and to engage with them about movies that I really like.

While the goal of the festival is to bring quality independent film and world cinema to our community, it’s also increasingly focused on connecting art with artists. Last year’s A Lion in the House was a hard sell for local film goers, but filmmakers were thrilled to be able to catch it at Sarasota. Filmmaker Jennifer Sharp (Boxed) sat with me outside the theater through the intermission and bravely tried to get dry-eyed before round two. Tom Hall and I work hard in the programming office, and we like to bring in diverse and engaging material, stuff that we want to see and that we’re excited to show to people who love film. We’re happiest when artists come to our festival and get inspired by work that they discover here.

After the final films of the evening, it’s party time, and Sarasota does a particularly good job of this. I don’t plan the parties but I do know how to bring my badge and attack some crabcakes. Last year’s Kiki and Herb performance followed by queer hip-hop dance party was a particularly fantastic evening. Apart from the dancing and good food, truly the best thing about the parties is that they condense the crowd; there is one major event each night centralizing festival guests at one location.

We have late nights here and early mornings for those who want to get up for the family programming. Last year on the final Saturday of the festival, actor Jason Ritter showed up in the theater at 9 am wearing a suit and jacket. He got up early to kick off his day at the children’s shorts, and opted for black tie in the morning so he wouldn’t have to change at the hotel before the evening’s awards dinner. Later that night, in spite of some jitters, he warmly introduced Felicity Huffman who joined him onstage to receive her Breakthrough Performance award for Transamerica.

While we’re the largest festival in the southeastern United States, the Sarasota Film Festival has all the enticing accoutrements of a homegrown regional festival. Guests have noticed that it seems like everyone in the city is involved, because the fest is overflowing with friendly volunteers and filmgoers eager to welcome people into the community. And Sarasota itself is a really nice place to watch film, make new friends and smell nocturnal jasmine after dark. There is more festival lore of dive bars in old Florida hotels, one-eyed cracker cowboys, Werner Herzog, and bioluminescence under ancient banyans. I’m looking forward to this year’s cinematic and other adventures.

Sarasota Film Festival runs from April 13th-April 22nd 2007 - Regular Submission Deadline is January 19th; Late deadline is February 16th.