For a town that has been tied to the entertainment industry for so long, Santa Clarita has conspicuously gone without a local film festival for several years.
Fortunately that drought of fresh talent and new stories has come to an end thanks to the Santa Clarita International Film Festival (SCIFF) presented by the Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie Charitable Foundation, which partners with colleges and universities across the country to bring scholarships, lectures and screenings to comedy students pursuing careers in theater, film and television.
The brainchild of local filmmaker Lisa DeSouza, SCIFF’s first year featured 105 in-person screenings and 35 online-hosted films over four days. While film was the titular focus of the SCIFF, it was only one component of the festival that also featured 30 musical and 27 comedy acts.
Here is The Proclaimer’s daily breakdown of the inaugural Santa Clarita International Film Festival.
In spite of the cold and rain, about 70 patrons braved the elements and trekked to the Laemmle Theater in Newhall on Thursday to attend SCIFF’s opening night screenings.
Opening night featured two documentary screenings, beginning with the short film “Two Heads are Better Than One: The Making of the Ben Ferencz Bust” that documented the creation of a sculpted bust of the last living chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials. Then came the feature-length documentary “Fireboys,” which followed several juveniles incarcerated by the State of California who serve their sentences as volunteer firefighters.
Following the screenings was a question and answer session with the filmmakers via Zoom hosted by retired NBC4 weathercaster Fritz Coleman. Director Eric Kline and sculptor Yaacov Heller spoke on behalf of “Two Heads Are Better Than One,” expressing how inspirational it was to speak and spent several days with Ferencz and how they hoped their film would serve as a plea for tolerance and a reminder of the generational trauma inflicted by the Holocaust.
“Holocaust studies are only mandatory in 19 states in this country, and this is my way of teaching tolerance: through my hands and sculpting memorial,” Heller said. “Ben has been my hero and mentor for years.”
Directors Drew Dickler and Jake Hohendoner also called in to speak about “Fireboys” and discussed how being embedded with the young firefighters and filming alongside them as they trained and fought California wildfires allowed them to connect with their subjects more intimately to create a more engaging film.
“We did a lot of training to be able to keep up and we actually had to do fire training and pass the fire shelter tests to show we could be on the line as well,” Dickler said. “It’s really challenging because there’s dust in your eyes and smoke in your lungs and every night we had to clean the fire retardant off our camera gear with Q-Tips. For us, what was most important was to capture the authentic experience of our characters going through fire camp. ”
Coleman was invited by DeSouza to host the opening night screenings and said that he was happy to participate. He added that as a frequent presenter at Los Angeles film festivals and as the entertainment industry is so vital to Southern California’s economy, he sees the value in promoting independent films.
“Film is the great American art form, so any way we can promote that work at a grassroots level like community film fests is a win-win for everybody,” Coleman said. “I thought the short film was very touching and ‘Fireboys’ is an important film for all the citizens of California. They have a hundred films at this festival and I’m sure once they get a reputation for having quality product, I’m sure it’s going to excel in later years.”
One of the noteworthy attendees of the opening night screenings was Mayor Bill Miranda along with his wife Virginia. The Mayor said he enjoyed his time at the festival and that it represents one of the ways the city is preparing to become an even bigger player in the entertainment industry.
“The opportunities for this festival are unlimited and I envision this film festival taking over all of Main Street, and as a city we’ll shut down Main Street for a film festival,” he said. “Because of William S. Hart, Santa Clarita was right at the forefront of the silent movie era, and when I was a kid it was all about the Westerns and they were all filmed in Santa Clarita. We have many soundstages right now but I can tell you the plan is for more to be built here over the next five years and we are going to be ‘Hollywood North’ on steroids.”
Actor Rodney Allen Rippy also came to opening night and will be in attendance throughout the festival to help conduct interviews with some of the filmmakers.
“I believe in first events,” Rippy said. “People pour their hearts and souls into them, they have a vision. I always do my best to support them. With film festivals you really get to see a different flavor of film. People say there are no new stories, but that’s not true. There are always new stories and opportunities to tell things differently.”
As the opening night festivities wrapped up, DeSouza said that after months of intense work she was excited to see everything coming together so successfully.
“It’s big for year one and we’re super hyped,” DeSouza said. “There’s been so much put in by the team and we haven’t been able to take it all in yet… The two films we had really showed the independent spirit that this is all about.”
Friday saw SCIFF move from the Laemmle to the Regal Edwards Valencia IMAX and ScreenX where, beginning at 10 a.m., two theaters were dedicated to showing the different film program blocks.
Attendance continued to be strong with each film program attracting around 60 attendees.
“I’m so stoked and I’m seeing a lot of people walking around with their gift bags and getting a lot of good responses from the filmmakers,” DeSouza said. “Independent filmmakers are really supportive of each other because we realize it’s a hard battle. I talk about the three Cs of community, connection and conversation and I’m seeing that happen so that’s a win.”
DeSouza also had the opportunity to screen one of her own films, “The Film,” which was the inspiration behind starting SCIFF. When she first made the film, she looked for a local Santa Clarita festival to enter it in but since one did not exist, she decided to create one.
Local filmmaker Jeff Bomberger came to the festival to see his film, “Un Hombre Debe Aprender (A Man Must Learn),” which tells the story of a man trying to learn to speak Spanish so that he can order food from a restaurant during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My dad said that his one wish was to see the film on the big screen so I’m super happy,” Bomberger said. “I live across the street and shot this film in the apartments over there, so the fact that it’s in this festival and got to screen it literally at home was really special because I grew up going to this movie theater.”
Bomberger also commented that the challenges he faced making a film during the pandemic also helped spark his creativity.
“I was trapped in quarantine and goofing around on (the language learning app) Duolingo and I started thinking what kind of fun could I have with a movie that I could shoot by myself,” he said. “Not having a full cast and crew, I had my mom and dad help out and my girlfriend at the time was quarantined somewhere else and doing her stuff over facetime. It was a challenge to do the lighting and sound by myself, and doing a film that was socially relevant at the moment. That’s what I wanted to tap into.”
Los Angeles based filmmakers Christine and Robert DiTillio also screened their film “The Book Club,” a comedic short about a woman who starts a book club in an effort to meet some of her neighbors. They discovered SCIFF through an online community they belong to and while they had entered their film in virtual festivals, this was their first opportunity to see their work on a big screen in a theater. Though they liked how “The Book Club” looked on smaller screens, the DiTillios said that watching it blown up in the theater was an entirely different experience.
Robert said another film was in production and will be submitted to next year’s SCIFF.
“It was also really sweet to hear Lisa talk about her film,” Christine said. “From the moment we walked in we really felt welcomed. There are so many people making films now, and COVID-19 really exposed that filmmakers don’t need to wait for other people. When everything shut down, the people who really love film somehow all got it together to get films made. What we need is more exposure, so the more good festivals, the better.”
While Friday was the second day of the SCIFF’s film component, it was the first day of the festival’s musical and stand-up comedy performances and the visual arts show.
Comedian Isak Allen performed Friday night after he was invited by a member of SCIFF staff.
“Joy Eileen contacted me and she asked if I would do it. I said my fee is $15 and she said she’d give me $16,” Allen said. “It’s tough to do a meaningful film festival that’s just outside of L.A. that’s not an L.A. film festival, but it’s worthwhile to build on those little scenes. I like seeing the young talent.”
Allen said that many of the shows he performs in are at smaller venues around Los Angeles like SCIFF, and that what he appreciates most about stand-up comedy gets to the core of the performer’s identity.
“It’s an unfiltered you,” he said. “Making people think differently is my favorite part of doing comedy. Nobody likes hack comedy that is just repeated internet jokes. If I can make you laugh and think differently because of the laughter you just experienced, that is the biggest reward.”
Unfortunately, some of the fun had to come to an unscheduled close. Due to repetitive complaints from the Salt Creek Grille restaurant regarding the noise level and content of the performances, Jeff Frame, the comedy event coordinator, decided to preemptively cancel Sunday’s comedy show rather than have the performers travel to Santa Clarita only for the show to be shut down before they performed.
“I got to the point where I understood that tomorrow is going to be a miserable day or they were going to pull the plug at some point,” Frame said. “I program a lot of comedy in town and it makes me look bad if comedians show up and then I cancel the show. I turned down some other bookings for this, and with the comedians any time you book someone’s weekend it’s really hard because you don’t know what else they could have been doing that day.”
Frame denies the allegations that the performances were too loud, rowdy or vulgar, noting that he required all of the comedians to perform clean, profanity-free sets since the stage was in an open space. At one point, he said he almost couldn’t hear one comedian over the voices of the patrons dining on the restaurant patio. He said he feels that Salt Creek’s response is emblematic of a larger cultural issue in Santa Clarita that discourages its youth from exploring certain fields and genres of art.
“There’s a bit of an old guard/NIMBY culture and they were just looking for stuff to be angry about,” he said. “I wish Santa Clarita would foster [youth culture] more so the youth wouldn’t have to leave the valley to find art. The art becomes stale. It’s unfortunate we’re creating a vibe in Santa Clarita that kids should want to get the heck out of as soon as they can.”
DeSouza and Frame said they do not place any blame on the Westfield Valencia Town Center, who they said was a very accommodating partner to provided the space, a stage and a sound system, and understands that they have an obligation to the restaurant, which is a paying tenant. DeSouza placed the blame solely at the feet of Salt Creek Grille for, she said, their consistent “attack” on the artists.
“Had it not been for [the Westfield’s] commitment, we would not have gone forward with a comedy and music festival, ” DeSouza said. “I thought that Santa Clarita was ready for this and everyone was telling me that they were ready to embrace a festival, and it’s really disappointing that Salt Creek Grille has fought us every step of the way to the point that they think a comedian on stage is too loud and put a damper on Santa Clarita’s ability to embrace artists of music and comedy because it doesn’t fit what they expect.”
The Proclaimer reached out to Salt Creek Grille, which had musicians performing inside the restaurant, for comment on Friday night but they declined to do so at the time.
The sour note of the festival’s second day continued into the third as the day’s musical acts were canceled in addition to the comedians.
According to DeSouza, Westfield said the bands and comedians needed to be vetted by the Westfield team before they performed. She said that the lineup was vetted by the mall’s previous general manager but did not do enough research into the type of music to be performed. In an effort to promote a family-friendly environment, the mall selected certain bands from the original lineup that they would allow to perform in a closing concert on Sunday including a choir, a Christian rock band, a pop artist and a musical theater group performing “West Side Story.” Among the canceled acts were rock, rap and punk bands.
“That is not art. If you choose to censor and say what can and cannot, that is not art, that is not being supportive of art,” DeSouza said. “Art can be controversial, loud and uncomfortable and if you are a supporter of art, then that is what you are going to deal with. When I spoke to the Christian rock band they were taken aback and they themselves said, ‘Oh we’ve been rubber stamped and out brother artists weren’t?’”
DeSouza said that many of the artists who performed on Friday felt attacked and uncomfortable due to the hostility of the restaurant employees. She said that when she walked by the restaurant, many patrons dining on the patio were yelling profanity, yet it was the artists who were being targeted as not family friendly.
Initially SCIFF asked to host the performances in the vacant Saddle Ranch building, but were told by Westfield that the outdoor plaza by the theater “is where we need to be.” While she put the full blame on Salt Creek Grille, DeSouza said she is disappointed in how Westfield handled the issue
As a result of the cancellation, DeSouza said SCIFF would now have to refund some of the sponsorship money they received and that the canceled artists would not be paid. The obstacles have not derailed DeSouza’s determination to grow the festival in Santa Clarita.
“I think we need to do it. We just need to find the right spot and the right partner,” she said.
Westfield Valencia did not return The Proclaimer’s request for comment.
On the other side of SCIFF, the film program continued to perform well.
Christopher Lobron, a film student at California State University Northridge, volunteered for SCIFF to gain experience and understand the inner workings of a film festival for when he decides to enter his own films in festivals.
“This is the first festival I’ve volunteered for and so far it’s been a very routine process with helping the guests check in and get to their theater,” Lobron said.
He said he was surprised to learn that more people were interested in attending the short films rather than the feature length, which he attributes to it being easier to sit down for a few five- to 15-minute programs than for an hour and a half film.
“Short films are easy to access and a great entryway for people who don’t know a lot about independent filmmaking to see how they get made,” he added. “The Q&A session at the end of the films also does well highlighting the process.”
Tracy Tabb worked on the festival as the chief branding officer setting up the festival’s website and graphics and also helped program the virtual festival.
“This has been scary and amazing, because you try to think of everything you can prepare for but you’re still surprised. I forgot something as simple as Scotch tape,” she said. “My highlight has been seeing my eight-foot-tall banner and the poster I made in the backlit cases for everyone to see. People are already asking us when we’re planning the next festival. It’s lovely to know when you’ve worked so hard on something that they want you to bring it back, it’s like season two of your favorite show.”
Tabb said that she wanted to include a virtual element to the festival to combat the usual restrictions of festivals that limit an audience’s ability to see a particular film only on a certain day and in a programmed time slot. Films from four countries are included in the virtual festival and they are available to view until Dec. 18. Rather than just being a method to circumvent pandemic restrictions, Tabb said she would like to see the online screenings continue to grow along with the physical festival.
Ray Schillaci, who hosted the virtual film program, interviewed several filmmakers from Austria, Germany and India.
“It’s a lot of fun when I’m interviewing these filmmakers and I’ll ask them a question and they get stumped,” Schillaci said. “I try to get into their heads without putting them on the spot. These conversations inspire other artists, and I don’t just mean filmmakers. It inspires hope and every artist needs that because we suffer from so much insecurity.”
Another branch of SCIFF was the visual arts gallery hosted in partnership with the Santa Clarita Artists Association (SCAA). Local artist Lynda Frautnick saw the call for artists and took the opportunity to display some of her pieces.
“The people who have come through are art lovers and they enjoy the variety we have,” Frautnick said. “Art is essential to human life. It brings beauty, emotion and different pieces mean different things to people. I don’t need to sell art to live, I just do it because it brings me joy. If we could have more spaces like this to display art and draw people in, I think it would improve the quality of life for a lot of people.”
At night, SCIFF hosted its awards ceremony, which was moved indoors to avoid both the cold and any potential confrontation. Winners received trophies to commemorate their films, which was an important distinction for DeSouza, compared to other film festivals that just provide certificates.
“People walked away with something in their hand that they could hold up and it’s important for people to feel that recognition and that they matter,” she said. “That’s the independent spirit, you fight for it. Just to have someone say ‘I see you and I hear you’ is such a big deal.”
Schillaci and Rippey began the evening speaking to the crowd about the importance of art. Schillaci took the opportunity to highlight one of the virtual films that particularly moved him, “There Is Exactly Enough Time,” by Austrian filmmaker Oskar Salomonowitz. The twelve-year-old completed 206 frames of the animated film before he died in an accident and the project was completed by his father, filmmaker Virgil Widrich.
The awards honored several categories of film from micro shorts and music videos, documentary to comedy feature. The duo of husband and wife production team Adam Marcus and Debra Sullivan presented the awards to the winning filmmakers.
“This is the last chance for independent filmmakers to get seen on the big screen and have an audience that can react immediately to their material, rather than waiting to see if people liked it at home or online,” Marcus said. “When we think of L.A. and the outlying areas, we don’t really think of it as hometown things, but what’s beautiful about SCIFF is that it is a hometown festival that just happens to be where all the studios are. To get that meld of hometown charm and industry savvy is a very rare thing indeed and that makes it stand out.”
Burbank filmmaker Christopher M. Allport won the “Best Comedy Feature” award for his film “Emily Or Oscar?” which was partially shot in Santa Clarita and is about a filmmaker who must choose between the pathway to an Oscar award or the woman of his dreams and is Allport’s homage to classic Hollywood, featuring classic Hollywood actors like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin as his main character’s muses.
When accepting his award, Allport was filled with emotion and recounted how many people during the production process doubted his ability to make a feature film.
“I didn’t make this film for anything other than the fact that I had to make it regardless of how well it would do,” he said. “To quote a line from my film, ‘I’m stunned, I’m honored and I’m found.’”
“The Home Stretch”
Though SCIFF had hit some bumps in the road over its first two days, the staff and artists were determined to finish with a bang.
From 12:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., the Westfield-approved performers took the stage, making the best out of a difficult situation. DeSouza said bands who were scheduled to perform on Saturday came to show their support and enjoy the show. Though the acts were only originally slated for 15 minute sets, they played for much longer.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the acts who did perform because they stepped up to save our program,” DeSouza said. “We definitely lost momentum and several people came to me on Saturday looking for the music and asking where it went. Even the bands that were supposedly ‘mom and pop friendly’ were not happy because if they had a right to play, then so did the other artists. I think that’s part of why they did longer sets and more than was asked of them.”
The Band Lexington, a Christian rock band that performed on Sunday, was only booked for a twenty minute set but ended up playing for about two hours according to founder Chris Baurer. Their set included a mix of worship, country and classic rock songs.
Baurer said that he had only a passing familiarity with the details regarding Saturday’s cancellation and said he was not personally aware if being a Chrirstian band factored into The Band Lexington’s approval to perform on Sunday. While he understood how a business like Salt Creek might have complaints about the noise, the original agreement should have been honored, he said.
“I’m a businessperson outside of being in the band and I think that if an organization like SCIFF has closely worked with the property management and the businesses which it sounded to me like they did, then this is something that Santa Clarita as a community should have embraced,” he said. “If the point of this was to foster the creative element, and really a lot of Santa Clarita is built around that, then it really should have been honored.”
The Band Lexington enjoyed their Sunday performance and Baurer said that he would be happy to perform again for SCIFF next year.
“For me to book a performance we have to be somewhat familiar with the organization, we have to agree with the organization and it can’t be a difficult organization or venue to work with,” Baurer said. “Lisa and the rest of the organizers were very communicative the whole time. I like to rate things based on if I would do it again and we would work with them again.”
Looking forward, DeSouza wants to expand the festival to include an even wider variety of arts next year, toying with the idea of including programs for slam poetry and a fashion show. Though she said the film program had a strong enough debut to stand on its own, she wants to continue to provide a platform for all artists. The biggest consideration is location.
“The one thing you have to consider when building all this is what the flow looks like because you can’t have the film in one area and then music in another because the audience experience doesn’t flow well when it’s disjointed like that,” she said.
While DeSouza praised Regal for its dedication and expressed interest in hosting the majority of the festival there next year, her issue is whether or not her other programs like music and poetry will have a home.
In spite of it all, DeSouza said she was proud of how the festival ran and her team’s ability to adapt to the stresses and difficulties that arose.
“I watched all 192 submissions, personally programmed this festival and reached out to films that I thought should be included, so I got to know these people on a very personal level,” she said. “As a director your eyes are always on what could have been better, but then I take a step back and look at the positive reviews. It’s not all about what we think, it’s about what people saw and felt.”
On Monday, The Proclaimer was able to contact Greg Amsler, owner of the Salt Creek Grille, Valencia for comment. As of time of publication, the Westfield Valencia has not returned multiple requests for comment.
Amsler said that while he did have some complaints about the content of the music being performed at the festival his main issue was the noise level. He also said that he did not have any complaints about the genre or type of music that was performed. Though he was previously informed by the Westfield Valencia that the concerts would be taking place over the three days, he was not prepared for how loud they would be.
“The volume was just way too loud and we had four or five office or family Christmas parties out on our patio that just got up and left because it was too loud,” Amsler said. “A lot of the singing was inappropriate, but on Sunday I think they had a couple of choirs out there and it was fantastic. I didn’t have a problem with the comedians either. [The Westfield] told us a couple of weeks in advance this would be happening but that the volume would be under control, which it was not. You had a full volume concert 30 feet away from a fine dining restaurant; if you had done this in a neighborhood, it would have been shut down.”
For two months before the festival began, DeSouza said she came to Salt Creek Grille on five occasions to try to collaborate and review the planned program but she said the restaurant never returned her calls or answered her emails.
“Salt Creek had plenty of time to interact and work with us,” DeSouza stated. “We went above and beyond to do our due diligence and we were ignored. On Saturday, the artists who were canceled were Santa Clarita bands. They took the ability from artists that are from Santa Clarita to play.”
DeSouza and her staff called Amsler’s allegations of unsavory content from the festival “hypocritical,” countering with their own reports that they walked by the restaurant on several occasions and heard many patrons yelling profanity as well as what DeSouza described as “one woman who described in detail the various positions she used to get pregnant while kids were walking by, and she was fine.” The festival acknowledged that one rapper did begin to sing an explicit song but immediately cut off her microphone.
Amsler denied the possibility that his patrons used such language.
“That really doesn’t make any sense to me, I really doubt that happened” the restaurant owner said. “It could have been in response to the vulgarities in the music because it doesn’t make sense to sit down to a nice dinner and talk about sex acts. They might have been talking about what they heard in the music. I never heard it and I’ve never heard that in the 23 years we’ve been open.”
In spite of the conflict, Amsler said that he would be amenable to the festival returning to the same spot next year so long as the volume was kept low. DeSouza was more hesitant to consider the possibility, claiming that Salt Creek and the Westfield have damaged the SCIFF brand and made it harder for musicians and comedians to trust them. However, if Westfield were willing to host the festival again and it proved to be the best forum for the artists to perform without censorship, she would be open to it.
“I was told [the punk performers] weren’t in line with Westfield’s values and weren’t conducive to their operations,” DeSouza said. “What I hear from that is basically ‘we don’t like the way you look and sound, so you can’t speak and have no voice.’ That should bother you if you are an artist or an art lover or if you love this country. It’s not an apology to me or to the festival that is owed, it is an apology to every artist they have silenced.”
BEST SHORT DRAMA:
“Krieg” – Directed by Jeff Fry
BEST FEATURE DRAMA:
“My Dead Dad” – Directed by Fabio Frey
BEST SHORT COMEDY:
“Ms. Rossi” – Directed by Pat Battistini
BEST FEATURE COMEDY:
“Emily or Oscar” – Directed by Chris Allport
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT:
“Latinx Photography Project” – Directed by Alejandro Palacios
BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:
“The Price of Legacy: Wrestling with a Dynasty” – Directed by Sergio Valenzuzela
“The Soloists” – Directed by Mehrnaz Abdollahinia, Feben Woldehawariat, Razahk Issaka, Celeste Jamnek, and Yi Liu
Connor Keene – For “A Mission” Directed by Skyler James Sandak
Addison Riecke – For “Maddie” Directed by Zane Rubin
BEST MUSIC VIDEO:
“MeTube August Sings ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’” – Directed by Daniel Moshel
BEST VIRTUAL SHORT:
“Beneath the Surface” – Directed by Gianna Cullen
BEST VIRTUAL FEATURE:
“Making an Exoneree” – Directed by Robert and Cynthia Dorfman
BEST FOREIGN SHORT:
“Basurero” – Directed by Eileen Cabiling
BEST FOREIGN FEATURE:
“The Monsters Without” – Directed by Randal Kamradt
BEST MICRO SHORT:
“Family” – Directed by David L. Bradburn
SCIFF’s virtual film festival will continue until Dec. 18 at https://xerb.tv/channel/sciff/virtual-events and individual program tickets can be purchased for $5.