War stories: Anne Aghion (pictured here, "My Neighbor, My Killer") and Benjamin Gilmour ("Son of a Lion") hold forth on the challenges and ethics of making films in war-torn regions for "The Professionals" at SFIFF52. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

SFIFF52: 'The Professionals' Unites Filmmakers

Michael Fox April 28, 2009

The concentration on local filmmaking at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival goes beyond the exhibition of films in the "Cinema by the Bay", shorts and documentary programs. "The Professionals," an ambitious array of panels, case studies and discussions, makes its debut as a forum for encouraging Bay Area moviemakers to engage with guests and colleagues. Though for many years at SFIFF, visiting directors routinely conducted post-screening Q&As, and also spoke to students lucky enough to attend matinees through the Schools at the Festival program, "The Professionals" marks the first time that local filmmakers have been actively invited to join their peers from abroad in conversation about contemporary filmmaking practices and issues.

"It’s designed to fill a networking need that filmmakers and accredited industry professionals visiting the Festival have asked for," says SF Film Society filmmaker education manager Michael Behrens, who created and developed the program with director of programming Linda Blackaby. It seems obvious, once you think about it, that directors from around the world would want to make the most of their visit by immersing themselves in the Bay Area’s internationally recognized pool of filmmaking talent, technological innovation and social consciousness.

Out-of-towners may have been the ones asking for more opportunities to interact with the Bay Area community, but the Festival lists the needs of local filmmakers as a priority. "Now that the SF Film Society is also a filmmakers’ service organization, we’re slowly upping the industry presence at the Festival," Blackaby notes. She’s referring to the addition of an array of support and funding options in the last year, including fiscal sponsorship, the FilmHouse Residencies and a variety of filmmaker grants.

Sessions that have already taken place include primo local DP Hiro Narita expounding on shooting La Mission and other projects, a quartet of Bay Area producers divulging the secrets of filming shoestring independent narratives and Grantmakers in Film + Electronic Media program director Pamela Harris’s presentation on fundraising through the GFEM database. Wednesday, April 29, at 4:30 p.m., directors Anne Aghion (My Neighbor, My Killer) and Benjamin Gilmour (Son of a Lion) hold forth on the challenges and ethics of making films in war-torn regions. Veteran fundraising maven Morrie Warshawski, author of Shaking the Money Tree, is in town this Saturday, May 2, for an energetic discussion about which branches to climb out on in a recession.

Behrens describes "The Professionals" as an experiment, which may be a realistic way to view a brand new program, but understates its breadth and relevance. Not only does "The Professionals" continue with a full slate through Wednesday, May 6, but there are several other workshops offered online by visitors to the Festival. In addition, Blackaby points out, local filmmakers can avail themselves of the public panels and SF Chronicle chats.

"The Professionals" marks a valuable foray for the SFIFF, but it’s familiar work for the actual professionals engaged in the sessions. "They’re used to doing these kinds of things at other fests," Blackaby said matter-of-factly, when I asked what sort of reaction she got when she spoke to visiting filmmakers about participating. But for Bay Area directors and producers, the program represents an exciting opportunity to pick up fresh ideas, make new connections and (who knows?) encounter future collaborators.

Note that only festival guests and Network, Industry and Festival Pro badge holders can attend "The Professionals" functions. But, as Blackaby notes, local filmmakers have various entry points with the Film Society, so any film artists interested in attending a session and unsure of their eligibility are invited to contact Michael Behrens at mbehrens@sffs.org.

Notes from the Underground

Caroline Kraus set off this week on her cross-country trip. Follow her blog here.... Whiz Kids, Tom Shepard’s (Scout’s Honor, Knocking) new doc about three high school seniors gearing up for a national science competition, has its world premiere June 16 at Herbst Theatre. Proceeds benefit the Exploratorium and the Whiz Kids Outreach and Education Fund….A long-lead tease: Argentine director Lucrecia Martel is tentatively slated to visit SF in August, shortly before Strand Releasing opens her latest film, The Headless Woman.

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