From April 13 to 23, the San Francisco Film Festival takes over the city. Ahead of the longest-running film festival in the Americas, SFFILM Executive Director Anne Lai and SFFILM Director of Programming Jessie Fairbanks opened up about this year’s program, what it takes to put together a festival and more.
What does the planning of each year's festival look like for you, and how does it feel when it all finally happens?
Anne Lai: Planning honestly begins while in the midst of the previous year's festival. Engaging with audiences and filmmakers on the ground constantly fuels new ideas for what to try at the next festival.
Jessie Fairbanks: Planning begins as soon as the previous festival ends. The Screening Committee and Call for Entries work begins over the summer and the curation begins in earnest in September. We are attending festivals throughout the summer and fall and actively track new projects as well. We work through February to finalize the festival line-up, usually from around 5,000 titles, and begin inviting filmmakers, tributes and producing special programs. Then in March, we hand it back to the audience! It is so exciting to share the stories with them that inspire and motivate our work.
What does the experience of this festival/watching films mean to you? How do you describe its magic and impacts, both for individual viewers and for the city as a whole, especially with recent times in context?
Anne: We all got better at watching things at home during the pandemic, which was necessary, and validated how important film is in all our lives. And, we also got starved by not being around others. Sharing a space in the dark with friends and strangers, being told a story… this is one of the most primal experiences of human civilization. Since our return to theaters over the past 18 months, we have seen audiences grow steadily. San Franciscans are culture-vores, and the more we can create opportunities to gather, be in conversation, and share different perspectives and appreciation of films they see, the more we revitalize our beloved city.
Jessie: I live for the moment when the lights are down and the audience is responding to the images on-screen. One of my favorite things to do is watch a filmmaker absorb the reactions, particularly because this didn’t happen for several years and because that moment is so intimate and precious to storytellers. Also in this moment, we put aside our daily cares and differences, and are suspended in another world together. This might sound cheesy, but it is a special moment of community that sustains me year-round. I can’t wait to see everyone in theaters again this year.
The Festival has a more centralized format this year with CGV. How do you expect this to be more efficient for viewers?
Anne: We're delighted to have our hub at CGV San Francisco this year! With two screens running each day that we are there, our official Festival Lounge, a box office, and our press lines, we hope to create an easier experience to jump from one film to the next and also the chance for our visiting filmmakers, audiences, and industry to see old friends and make new ones by being in proximity throughout the festival. The energy of running into some of the same people every day is part of the charm and seduction of a festival—you bond and are part of creating the special experience for absolutely everyone there.
This year there are several World Premieres occurring, how special is it to host these in San Francisco?
Jessie: The Bay Area has such an incredible history as a place of cinematic creation and as an iconic backdrop in films. This region has long been a center for artistic expression, counterculture dialogue, and innovation. These factors, combined with SFFILM’s rich legacy as the oldest festival in the Americas, make the SFFILM a unique platform for world premieres. Our audiences have celebrated the world premieres of quintessential films like Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense, Sydney Pollack’s Bobby Deerfield, Wayne Wang’s Center of the World, Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, Helen Hunt’s Ride, and Stephan Eliot’s The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. So it is very special when a filmmaker chooses to debut their work with us. Come out to the Festival and you can say you saw it first!
For a third year, half of the filmmakers featured are female or non-binary identifying. How does this reflect SFFILM's mission and identity?
Jessie: At SFFILM we believe in the transformative power of cinema and the inspiration global film can provide. To support this we collectively work year-round to provide resources and a place of community to filmmakers of all identities and backgrounds through grants, fellowships, education programs, residencies, year-round exhibition, and so much more. While our industry is still going through many shifts related to representation, it remains a priority at SFFILM to achieve parity both in our day-to-day work and especially in our curation.
What have been some of your favorite/rewarding memories at the festival?
Anne: Being able to greet movie-goers walking into theaters and finding their favorite spot to sit is always such a happy place for me. So many people—longtime Festival attendees and first-timers—have expressed genuine gratitude to be back together again. We have both young (teenagers!) and experienced filmmakers present their work at the festival each year. But the common touchpoint for them, no matter their experience, is a little bit of nervousness and excitement to see their work play in front of an audience. Seeing their unguarded response to audiences watching their film is incredibly gratifying.
Jessie: So many big and little moments. At my first SFFILM Festival in 2021, I loved our drive-ins! It was the first time so many of us had gathered and it was gratifying to view work with others and applaud with horns and drive-through the red carpet. I remember the first time our festival trailer for 2022 played and audiences were cheering, which made me tear up. It takes months of preparation to get festivals across the finish line and it is the love and support from our audience that sustains the work. Big moments like Michelle Yeoh and Sandra Oh dancing to Whitney Houston are of course special, and I love our fall festival Doc Stories where I get to sit down for meals with filmmakers and hear about their work. That doesn’t happen as much during the festival but I love meeting the artists who inspire me with their films.
What are different ways citizens can get involved or further support SFFILM throughout the year?
Anne: SFFILM is incredibly lucky to not only have wonderful supporters and advocates—from Members to our sponsors and donors, and our tremendous Board of Directors—but also to have an incredible array of volunteers, seasonal staff, alumni of our programs, and partners throughout the city and country. We love to welcome new folks to be a part of our organization, in whatever way speaks most to you. As a nonprofit, we strive to continue to evolve and grow, and nurturing both funding and engagement resources is critical. One of the most important ways someone can support SFFILM is to show up at one of our events! If the inspiration strikes you to donate your time or money to us, we are deeply appreciative.
Photography by: Courtesy of SFFILM