Thanks to a new programmer, Lauren Wissot, who covers festivals for Filmmaker and contributes to this site, the selection of films at this year’s Santa Fe Independent Film Festival was arguably as piquant as any of the local chile-centric food. Culled from her trips to other festivals, Wissot’s programming was eclectic and provocative, and even though many of the films had already run the larger festival circuit, most were obscure enough to pass as premieres, which had the effect of giving audiences the unmediated sense of discovering what turned out to be quite a few gems. Executive director and co-founder Jacques Paisner and company have done a great job at bringing the community together—even luring in corporate sponsors like Whole Foods and Ace Hardware—to conjure up this festival, now in its fourth year, out of a budget as dry as a Southwestern desert.
Fitting for a city dominated by creative types who lean heavily toward voting Democratic, Wissot’s slate featured a slew of lefty political documentaries on everything from brave gay-rights activists in Uganda (Katherine Fairfax Wright and Malika Zouhali-Worrall’s amazing, and festival-winning, Call Me Kuchu) to an Iraq war vet who strives to help Iraqi allies find refuge in America in the face of government bureaucracy and indifference (Beth Murphy’s The List). And because it’s Santa Fe, there was definitely plenty of local flavor: a red-carpet gala screening of a rather bland adaptation of local writer Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, which sold out, and, fitting in more with the above films, Adi Lavy and Maya Stark’s Sun Kissed, an eye-opening doc about a Navajo couple who learn not only that their children have an unbelievable genetic disorder known as XP that makes sunlight exposure fatal, but that their people are susceptible to it because of a past forced mass evacuation by Americans that Native Americans refer to as the Long Walk.
And given New Mexico’s history with uranium mining, which is planned to start up again, there were at least three films dealing with the subject of nuclear energy: Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, about a nuclear waste site being built deep underground in Finland that’s supposed to last 100,000 years (a fact that prompted a woman to crack the dark joke at me afterward that she was going home to slit her wrists); the informative doc The Atomic States of America, which goes into the health hazards of past nuclear accidents in order to make us doubt the safety of a supposedly clean energy that’s starting to regain political support in this country (New Yorkers should look up the alarmingly close Indian Point Energy Center); and the short Tailings, a look at the residents of the nearby town of Grants who are suffering from cancers due to an insufficient nuclear waste clean-up.
That such prickly films would never get shown by the more established Santa Fe Film Festival is no surprise, and that’s where the SFIFF fills an ostensible niche. To be fair, underground/independent film festivals, perhaps by design, never pull in the attendance numbers as their big-brother counterparts, but I was still somewhat surprised by how often I found myself one of the only people in the theater for many of the smaller screenings at Warehouse 21, a graffiti-splattered community space used by the local youth (that also neighbors the not-to-be-missed contemporary art space SITE Santa Fe). I saw several films of note there including the stand-out Into Eternity, This Ain’t California, a faux skating doc set in Berlin in the ’80s, and a series of apocalypse-themed shorts programmed by the resourceful, L.A.-based Derek Horne, who, with his strong selections, made a case for shorts, which unfortunately tend to frequently be a festival’s weakest link. It remains to be seen whether there really is just a lack of interest in such subject matter or if perhaps the festival needs to amp up its marketing efforts.
I really got a sense of Santa Fe’s strong film community after attending some of the workshops the festival offered. Being first exposed to Jon Moritsugu’s work some eight years ago through an old friend from Albuquerque who owned a video store that I worked at in Chicago, I was excited to see the former enfant terrible of art cinema, who I hadn’t thought of in years, speak and learn that he just finished wrapping up Pig Death Machine, which was shot locally (and, as I learned from his fellow panel member, Jon Hendry, a straight-talking member of the local IATSE 480, without permits, which are, astonishingly, mostly not required in Santa Fe). And to make my world smaller, not only did I learn that Moritsugu knows my friend, but the producer of Mosquita y Mari, Chad Burris, who was on the same panel, really liked my glowing review of his film, which in turn led to several good restaurant and hiking recommendations (most of which were in the nearby city of Taos, which lays claim to being both the home of a thousand-year-old pueblo and Dennis Hopper’s gravestone). But possibly my favorite festival-inspired activity on this trip—despite the warm weather, clear blue skies, and the beautiful yellow leaves from the local aspen—was watching Chris Eyre’s wonderful 1998 film Smoke Signals, which I had somehow never seen before, but found myself inspired to watch in my hotel room late one night after listening to the lively Eyre speak on a panel that also featured Gary Farmer and Wes Studi.
For what was generally a mellow festival with everyone in good spirits, it was especially shocking to learn that Russell Means had died the day after his last film, Tiger Eyes, the first of Judy Blume’s books to be brought to the screen, showed at the festival. At the very least, it was good that his son Tatanka Means won the Tamalewood Award, which honors “the best New Mexico talent of the year,” for his performance in the film. Russell’s brand of activism, with an emphasis on the environment and social justice, played an important role in American Indian history, helping to shape their image for the larger world and, like John Trudell, providing them a strong, fiery voice. Here’s to hoping that independent festivals like this one continue to live on and provide a platform for people like Russell Means to express themselves.
The Santa Fe Independent Film Festival ran from October 17—21. For more information, click here.