As per a Santa Barbara tradition nearly four decades deep, the klieg lights scanned the air over the Arlington Theatre last night, scraping the post-rain air and sending out the clear message: It’s SBIFF time. The perceived quality of its opening-night film, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival always kicks off with a burst of tingly excitement and expectation. This is the opening portal to 10 solid days’ worth of international cinema, celebrity galas and gawking, and other avenues of film consciousness taking over the town.
It’s the talk of the town, and the source of a community buzz filled with hopeful spirits.
And the prospects are all triggered by the loveable, kitschy klieg moment.
It’s official: This year, the festival didn’t open with a disappointing film or with a blast of showbiz glitz but with a genuinely heartwarming tale of reality in the making. The documentary Madu, making its world premiere on the Arlington big screen but coming soon to a Disney channel near you, beautifully relays the story of Nigerian ballet dancer Anthony Madu’s coming of age. In a doc tidily mixing vérité-style footage with reenactments, we follow the trek of the young dancer from his Nigerian village to a ballet school in England. In one passage, an exuberant, happy homecoming back in Nigeria precedes the culture shock of his awakened cosmopolitanism, as he expresses his teen angst to his God-fearing parents: “I need a therapist, not a prophet!”
Co-directors Matt Ogens and Kachi Benson took to the Arlington stage, thanking the healthy showing of filmmakers in the house and describing the film as a story that, as Ogens said, is about “daring to dream against seemingly impossible odds.”
Opening the night, Mayor Randy Rowse came out, offering general, genial welcome to visitors and locals alike, and paved the way for another opening-night ritual — the unveiling of the annual introductory trailer, which will be seen literally hundreds of times over the next 10 days in town. The summary: A vintage black-and-white intro, with saloon-style piano plunking out “Down in the Valley,” morphs into a full-color display of this year’s SBIFF poster, painter Angela Perko’s surreal Magritte-esque image.
In keeping with SBIFF’s habit of changing up its design motif each year, this year’s retro-plucky model is in sharp contrast with the cool, ambient effect of last year’s trailer, with its lingering rooftop-eye-view shot of the city off to the side of Chamber of Commerce–approved scenery. Fittingly, the 2023 trailer somehow tapped into an aura of post-pandemic introspection.
This year, the spirit is more along the lines of “the show must and will go on,” offering a list of possibilities inspiring both excitement and a twinge of option anxiety.
SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling, looking dapper as ever, called on a tradition on opening night, inviting audience members to introduce themselves to an unfamiliar stranger for one New York minute. He then spoke of his own induction into a life of cinema obsession, as a youngster in Panama gorging on the movies alone. Later, he discovered a broader truth about the essential cinema experience, the collective kind, which fed logically into his now 23 years as a respected head of SBIFF.
He cited the act of communal discussion, a benchmark of film festival culture, as central to what makes serious film-watching special, the act of “watching a film and turning to someone to talk about it…. I hope you let your curiosity animate the next 10 days.”
Of the advance screeners I was able to watch, I can vouch for the strength of several international titles worth watching: the Austrian down-but-not-out musician saga Rickerl; the Australian doc The Last Daughter; the Slovenian-Ukrainian docudrama Photophobia; the rainforest-focused doc We Are Guardians; the Aki Kaurismäki–focused Finnish doc Cinéma Laika; the Solvang-ian “horse whisperer” doc The Cowboy and the Queen; and the Norwegian/Sami region drama The Tundra Within Me.
Much more to come, as the 39th SBIFF unfolds around town. The dance begins.