And so the 25th Santa Barbara Film Festival came to an end on Sunday. It celebratde its quarter century with pride, but didn’t go overboard, with the usual fairly glitzy tributes – Julianne Moore, James Cameron, Jeff Bridges, Colin Firth – and middling Hollywood fare to open and close (Flying Lessons, a popular worst-of-the-festival, and Middle Men which didn’t look like being much better). But the real meat was in between.

List of winners:

  • The Panavision Spirit Award For Independent Cinema: Exam
  • The Best International Film Award: Letters to Father Jaakob (Postia pappi Jaakobille)
  • The Nueva Vision Award: The Wind Journeys
  • Best East Meets West Cinema Award: Mother (Madeo)
  • Best Eastern Bloc Award: Katalin Varga
  • Best Documentary Award: Enemies of the People
  • Bruce Corwin Award for Best Live Action Short Film Under 30 Minutes: Ana’s Playground
  • Bruce Corwin Award for Best Animation Short Film: Urs
  • The Fund for Santa Barbara Social Justice Award Sponsored by The Fund for Santa Barbara: Enemies of the People

As ever, there was plenty I missed, including the winner of the Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema, Exam. I did however see the winner of best international feature, Letters to Father Jacob which was pretty good if hardly imaginative, and the Latin American cinema winner, Wind Journeys, of which I could say pretty much the same. Recipients of awards for the East Meets West and Eastern Bloc categories Mother and Katalin Varga were richly deserving, however, the latter being my favourite of the festival, and each category boasting a particularly strong contenders in Castaway on the Moon and Slovenka respectively.

The audience favourite, and recipient of the award counted from all our ballots, was The Legend of Pale Male, a documentary about the hawk who lives on Fifth Avenue in New York. It really gets my goat that documentaries should be judged in the same category as fiction features, and it’s symptomatic of a trend that has grown over the last ten years of treating them interchangably. I like a good documentary as much as the next person, but all too often they are skimpy, lackadaisical, poorly filmed and constructed, and coasting by on the strength of an interesting or emotive subject. Take for example Charlie Haden: Rambling Boy which might have been called “rambling documentary”. Great subject, great to see him speaking, but an airy flit through his professional and personal history with a terrible lack of context and remarkably little substance.

The Legend of Pale Male may well be superb – I didn’t see it – but it’s just downright wrong that the audience’s favourite viewing experience should make no distinction between fact and fiction. At it’s most extreme, it’s like short-listing text books as well as novels for the Booker, or at least judging biographies and fiction by the same standards. Who’d want to do that? It’s not like documentaries are pushing good movies out of the theatres – bad movies have been doing that for considerably longer – but the rise of the documentary most frequently betrays a lack of critical thinking on the part of audiences unable to engage with fiction films that are constructed with not only a narrative but a form that imparts meaning, and turning instead to documentaries where the subject is taken as everything, with no regard to the construction or intelligence of its presentation.

Screening Problems:

And while I’m ranting I might as well say that it comes as no surprise at the Santa Barbara Festival, where I am sorry to report that the audiences are amongst the most disturbing I have ever encountered. Despite the nice announcer guy’s increasingly impassioned pleas to turn off cell phones, at almost every screening I attended my eye was caught by a flashing LED. But that wasn’t the worst of it: at every screening without fail there was talking, rustling and general poor manners. And you know what? I am going to put it down to most of the audience being old.

Seriously, the under 50s were sparsely represented at best, and even the middle-aged contingent was heavily outnumbered by the seniors. Old people need cough drops. Old people have trouble getting into their bags (I am talking about you, jangly purse chain lady). Or in a glossy Italian-set thriller like to point out to their partner sights which they saw together on vacation (“that looks familiar” over and over again..) Or they sigh loudly every three minutes (I think I sat next to that guy last year). Or the running commentary: “now she’s going in the bedroom” etc. Old people cannot whisper and they speak when they want because they’ve been around long enough to do what they like and they basically don’t give a shit (that goes for standing around in theatre thoroughfares as well).

Fine for them. Not fine for anyone else – including the other old people in the audience. It didn’t spoil the festival, but it did mean that not a single screening passed without by being distracted and irritated and now I’ve got it off my chest, thank you.