Three things are certain in Santa Barbara: death, taxes, and the city’s International Film Festival. In spite of tragedies like last year’s mudslides and inconveniences like this year’s weather complications, the festival is an unwavering annual presence in the community that celebrates both local and international cinema.
There was no better way to kick off the festival than the opening night premiere of the documentary “Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike deGruy” at the festival’s main hub, the Arlington Theatre. The film, directed by its subject’s widow and Montecito local Mimi deGruy, chronicles the remarkable achievements of Mike deGruy, a revered documentarian who specialized in deep-sea filmmaking. The film perfectly represents SBIFF as a whole––like the festival, “Diving Deep” is both local and international in its scope, as Mike deGruy lived in Santa Barbara for many years and worked extensively with SBIFF, but also was globally acclaimed for his scientific accomplishments and exploring the depths of Earth’s oceans. The film and the festival also both emphasize education and environmental advocacy. Mike deGruy produced countless underwater documentaries, and was beloved by global audiences for his Steve Irwin-esque charisma and passion for nature. He died in a tragic helicopter accident while working on a project for James Cameron in 2012.
The opening night was electric: after brief words from Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo and festival director Roger Durling, audience members were given one minute to introduce themselves to each other, in a practice that would remind churchgoers of the passing of the peace. James Cameron delivered a pre-recorded message from the set of “Avatar 2,” praising “Diving Deep” and the deGruys, describing Mike as his “ocean brother” and a “friend and fellow explorer.” Durling then welcomed director Mimi deGruy to the stage, where she introduced her film and famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who described the late filmmaker as “an ambassador for the ocean” and instructed the audience to “do unto fish as you would have fish do unto you.” The audience burst into thunderous applause not only at the film’s conclusion, but also at numerous triumphant moments within its runtime.
The following night, the festival welcomed all five nominees for the Academy Award for Directing to receive SBIFF’s Outstanding Directors of the Year award. At the event’s red carpet, the Horizon had the opportunity to speak with two of the directors, Spike Lee and Adam McKay, who helmed “BlacKkKlansman” and “Vice” respectively. Lee told the Horizon that to him, the most stunning part of Ron Stallworth’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan was that “they could not distinguish the different voices” of Stallworth, who is African-American, and his white partner on the Colorado Springs police force. McKay, whose film details the rise of former vice president Dick Cheney, told the Horizon that “if [he] ever did a Trump movie, it would have to be animated,” due to the often ridiculous nature of the current president. He also said that it’s an “incredible time” for young filmmakers to begin their careers, and encouraged the next generation to “pick up your iPhones and start shooting!”
The actual ceremony was similarly insightful. Each of the five directors discussed their films with moderator Scott Feinberg. Alfonso Cuarón, who directed Netflix’s “Roma,” spoke first, describing his unusual directorial process on his most recent film, which is based on the story of his childhood housekeeper in Mexico City. He explained that he often gave actors “contradictory” instructions, and was the only person on set who had read the entire screenplay, so his actors were often surprised by the progression of events in the film. Yorgos Lanthimos of “The Favourite” was next, stating that the quirkiness of his historical drama was “natural,” and that he “tried to leave a lot of space fo the audience” to discern their own meanings of his films.
Lee spoke third, saying that his film “is not a comedy…the humor comes from the premise, which is absurd. The laughter comes from the absurdity of the premise,” which producer Jordan Peele pitched in six words: “black man infiltrates Ku Klux Klan.” McKay came next, praising Christian Bale’s performance as Dick Cheney by saying that “there’s no actor on Earth who goes deeper than Christian Bale,” and that “every choice he’s making is underpinned with deep psychological research.” Last up was Pawel Pawlikowski, who directed the Polish-language period drama “Cold War,” loosely based on the story of his parents. He stated that he chose to shoot in black and white because “Poland wasn’t very colorful in the fifties,” and that he’s “kind of a chaotic perfectionist. It’s a curse.” At the end of the ceremony, all five of the directors shared the stage, praised one another’s work, and received their awards. The festival also held tribute nights for Rami Malek, Melissa McCarthy, and Viggo Mortensen, and will continue this week with awards for Michael B. Jordan and other exceptional actors and filmmakers.