SD International Film Festival presents cops for all palates


By Eva Trieger

Eva Trieger

SAN DIEGO – If you’re a fan of the big screen, you’re in for a treat! Lock in your calendars October 14-24 for the 20th anniversary of the San Diego International Film Festival. This film extravaganza contains a wide range of genres including narrative films, documentaries and short films. With great sensitivity to the pandemic and public safety, SDIFF offers many films virtually, while other films will be shown all around the beautiful and iconic settings of San Diego, including Balboa Park, the USS Half-way and the Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa, which pays homage to America’s most beautiful city.

Examination of the assortment of offerings proves that there really is something for every palate. Representing more than 65 countries, the 168 eligible films will give patrons a tangible glimpse into what matters and changes lives in today’s world.

In a phone interview with CEO / Artistic Director Tonya Mantooth, I caught her infectious enthusiasm for this spectacular program. Mantooth has been a film producer for her entire career, having cut her teeth in the commercial world on documentaries and feature films. Her unique journey has led her to take on and rebuild the film festival with greater empathy for the process undertaken by the filmmakers. “Knowing the process,” Mantooth explained, she was able to take all the things that looked good on paper and bring them to life. She shared that sometimes, even when there is magic, “catching lightning in a bottle” the translation of movie success is elusive. “I have immense respect for filmmakers,” Mantooth said.

I was curious to know which film had ignited the passion of the artistic director and informed the work of her life. Mantooth shared that Dr Zhivago was a film that moved her through the visuals and the music, even though she was too young to understand the film. She said she felt the power of history without understanding it as a child.

When I asked Mantooth about the key qualities of a filmmaker, I was told that observation is the key. The filmmaker must have the ability to listen and work collaboratively. The successful filmmaker is able to “see the little moments and listen and not direct, but allow the performance to unfold”. I can’t wait to see this for myself in “The Humans”.

Personally, I’m a fan of short films because I admire the magical telling of a whole story in minutes. This capture of an event or an interlude told in an instant attracts me so much. Is this true for Mantooth? A resounding “yes” answered my question, and was qualified by a few key characteristics. Tonya explained that shorts are often overlooked and for this reason they are reviewed mid-year. She loves them because they allow new filmmakers to explore a unique moment or emotion, allowing them to cultivate their creativity. They also serve as a barometer for what the world is experiencing, and they bring it to audiences much earlier than feature films. Finally, the shorts reveal a moment-in-time similarity. To prove this last point, Mantooth suggested that I watch three short films. Each revolved around a theme of isolation and loneliness. This clearly reflected our shared experience with COVID over the past 18 months. We have all experienced this disconnection, this feeling of isolation. Mantooth hopes that through these films we learn that this feeling is universal and in fact, we share the emotion, making it more impactful and bringing us together.

With that in mind, I screened three festival shorts, and while each told a unique story, an undercurrent existed that united them all. The theme of loneliness and isolation brought each of these films together under one umbrella. In Wuhan driver, written and directed by Tiger Li, produced by Alena Syvatova, we are witnessing the dismissal of an Asian man, a New York taxi driver by his rates. He is mistreated by all, and his loneliness in life is echoed by abandonment in death. In Franck and Emmet, written and directed by Carlos Fernandez Puertolas and produced by Jonathan Coria and Bryan Dimas, a grandfather (Paul Eiding) accepts his own death and tries to explain this loss to his puppet (Brian Michael Jones) and ultimately to his grandfather – daughter (Arabella Grant). The notion of loss and death evokes loneliness and lack, but the puppeteer, Frank, tells the puppet, Emmet, “I made you and you made me.” In these lines, we see how interconnected we are and how we impact each other’s lives. A disturbing film about sexual abuse, once again highlighted how society reacts to what it finds offensive or threatening. Following the rape of a young woman, the detectives respond that because she “has passed out” and her report was “inconsistent”, they cannot help her. The young woman has obvious bruises and cuts. Her actions tell us that she is clearly frustrated but does not have the tools to proceed. A friend arrives and sets the chaos in motion, bringing in journalists, strangers, trolls and activists. None of this helps the young woman cope with her abuse; this only exacerbates his isolation and loneliness in this horrific experience. This short film was written, directed and performed by Kelsey Forman and produced by Nicole Murray and Kelsey Fordham. Each of these films left me with a feeling of imbalance but of reflection, which seems perfect to me. Films must be provocative!

Speaking of provocation, I asked the CEO of the festival if she had ever been surprised by the reception or the reward potential of a film. Mantooth shared that in 2019, she put Taika Waititi’s one on Jojo Rabbit in the party. Colleagues questioned this choice, saying the film mocked Hitler and anti-Semitism. Mantooth explained that her choice was deliberate because she feared the younger generation would not be aware of the tragedies that occurred under the Nazi regime. She believes that “cinema is a catalyst for positive change” and this film lit up a dark era, creating a new awareness among young viewers.

The selection process is intimidating! More than 3000 films were submitted and a committee of 50 to 60 viewers was chosen from a group of 200. They watched films according to their personal inclinations: short films, feature films, documentaries, etc. After reviewing and rating the films, they were sent to Tonya Mantooth. The artistic director watches around 800 films a year. Tip: If you want to hang out with Tonya, I suggest inviting her to a concert, hike, or pétanque tournament.

Mantooth is particularly proud and excited by the director’s emergence in 2021. She believes that “things are accelerating in the industry.” While recognizing that parity may take a while, there is a fundamental shift. “It’s not a pendulum. It is a lasting change. As proof, Mantooth pointed to two films that reveal how women don’t need to “keep their story small.” A movie, The lost girl Directed by actress-turned-director Maggie Gyllenhaal tells a daring story. A second film and a much awaited by Jane Campion from The piano, presents Benedict Cumberbatch and offers a revolutionary story of women. The power of the dog focuses on men, and the writer sees it as the male counterpart to the female perspective of his previous film. Mantooth is thrilled that Millennials aren’t succumbing to the archaic notion that women should be submissive or ‘sweet’ and she said she was thrilled to see young female directors emboldened.

While there is no doubt that COVID has altered our ability to host a film festival like we once did, the 20th anniversary of the San Diego International Film Festival will not be quelled. The festival has rotated rapidly to offer not only streaming movies, but also interactive Q&A. Taking security measures into account but retaining the aura of the festival, there will be many more intimate and smaller-scale social experiences such as cocktails and group screening events. This year, in compliance with public health guidelines, the SDIFF plans to organize events including a screening of the first weekend, a cocktail and a walk in Balboa Park as well as a culinary movie night that offers food pairings and wines. In addition, an event on the Half-way will honor San Diego’s historic military presence.

San Diego has an exciting ten day experience unfolding and you don’t want to miss it! Tickets can be purchased at or by calling 619.818.2221. To whet your appetite, please visit the link below and check out the many film offers

Eva Trieger is a freelance writer specializing in arts coverage. She can be contacted via [email protected]

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