39th Santa Barbara International Film Festival Celebrates Emerging Filmmakers and Established Stars

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Photo Courtesy of Shane Rockenstein Carlson.

Houston Sasselli

News Editor

The enchanting coastal city of Santa Barbara geared up for the 39th Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF), which took place from Feb. 8 to Feb. 18. Known for having picturesque settings and attracting A-list celebrities — including this year’s Martin Scorsese, Billie Eilish, Jeffrey Wright, Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and many more — the festival promises a celebration of the enduring power of cinema.

The 2024 festival follows the success of its predecessor, which saw 48 world premieres, 95 U.S. premieres, and honored acclaimed figures like Angela Bassett, Nicole Kidman, Austin Butler, Steven Spielberg, Damien Chazelle, Christopher Nolan and more. According to the Santa Barbara Independent, this year’s festival saw 45 world premieres and 77 U.S. premieres altogether from 48 countries. Approximately 100,000 attendees during the week attended the screenings of over 200+ films. 

In the midst of this cinematic extravaganza, the festival also provided a platform for emerging talents, showcasing the work of promising young filmmakers from institutions including UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Santa Barbara City College (SBCC). In addition to the annual 10-10-10 SBIFF competition, which saw 10 college students and 10 high school students premiere their iPhone-shot films, there were also many standout students from UCSB accepted into the festival this year. 

Among the standout student filmmakers is Najee Werners, whose film “Someone Lied on the Roommate Form” featured a whole 7-minute live action fight scene between two roommates who, as the title implies, broke their vows on the roommate form. The film, created for UCSB’s Reel Loud Festival, had a modest budget of $300, but still made a significant impact on Werners’ journey as a filmmaker.

Werners shared his thoughts with The Bottom Line (TBL), stating, “Being in the festival was the first time I felt like I was taken seriously. Standing alongside higher-budget films with a wonderful but tiny crew was validating. SBIFF has given me the confidence to take on larger projects.”

Najee’s film caught the attention of audiences, and his experience was heightened by the Rosebud program, which allowed a select group of students to attend screenings, engage in Q&A sessions, and even talk with established filmmakers. For Werners, this exposure made the film world feel more accessible.

Editor Nigel Suarez, who collaborated with Najee on the film as a lead actor and sparing partner, emphasized the festival’s significance for students, telling TBL, “I think the festival is a great opportunity for students because it gives a chance for their film to reach a larger audience and provide possible publicity to push them as filmmakers.”

Another noteworthy student filmmaker featured in the festival is Noah Hecht, whose mind-bending psychological thriller “Forget Me Again” explores the consequences of a memory-erasing drug called bliss. Hecht, a part of UCSB’s Film and Media Studies (FAMST) 106 department for all his four years, expressed his gratitude for the festival experience, saying, “It was an honor to premiere our film at SBIFF. The people, the venue, the films, the filmmakers, the panels – everything was even more impactful than I had anticipated.”

Hecht highlighted the exposure and legitimacy that SBIFF provides to emerging filmmakers. “Film festivals offer a tremendous amount of value for emerging filmmakers — they provide a level of exposure and an assurance of quality that lets people know your work might be something worth checking out,” he said.

Suarez, reflecting on his own experience, noted the thrill of seeing his work on the big screen and the festival’s contribution to creating a sense of community among fellow filmmakers. “The festival was an incredible experience. Seeing the films with my friends and fellow filmmakers was great because we all got to enjoy our films that we made together with a crowd of people,” Suarez shared.

Beyond the small community in Santa Barbara were the connections students made to some of their own heroes. Hecht emphasized, “Having access to the entire slate of films, workshops, and panels felt like a real gift that seems hard to replicate outside of the festival atmosphere. Although you can find thousands of clips of someone like Scorsese on YouTube, there’s something inexplicably powerful about the immediacy of seeing him speak in person.”

As SBIFF continues to bridge the gap between established and emerging filmmakers, the festival remains a significant stepping stone for those looking to make a mark in the world of cinema. With the 39th occasion just ending, the anticipation for these young student filmmakers grows as they wait for what next year’s festival might have to offer. 

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