by Ryan G. Van Cleave
Sarasota Film Festival’s Education Department
This past April, the Sarasota Film Festival provided the usual glitz and glamour that a world-class film festival does. We enjoyed seeing actresses Diane Lane and Aisha Tyler. IMG Academy had a visit from former NBA star Kenny Anderson. And we all were wowed by the “Sea and Be Scene” block party at J.D. Hamel Park. But here’s the thing that too few know — SFF has a lot more going on than just these jam-packed, Hollywood-infused nine days in April. Thanks to their energetic Education Department, SFF is hard at work throughout the entire year. Here are just a few of their more successful efforts.
The Moonlight Movie Series
Don’t like the sticky floors or the over-air-conditioned atmosphere of a regular movie theater? No problem, because SFF brings movies to the great outdoors with their giant inflatable screen. Starting in October and going until June, they host about one of these events per month in such locations as Ed Smith Stadium, Nathan Benderson Park, and the local beaches, with each event averaging 800 viewers.
Shakira Refos, Director of Education and Community Engagement, says that “it’s a great way for families to see films, especially when the kids have a hard time sitting that long in a theater. Who doesn’t want to watch movies under the stars?” The films are primarily G-rated, though they did show Jaws on Lido Key which was a great success, notes Refos.
They’re already in conversations with Realize Bradenton and the Newtown community to expand the location offerings for this coming year.
So watch for the list of venues for the Moonlight Movie Series come October. The movies are free, though you should bring your own chairs and blankets. And don’t forget the snacks (but if you do, they sometimes provide free popcorn!).
SFF knows that future generations of film-goers need to be encouraged, so they’ve created school curricula based on several film-related topics suitable for a lesson in geography, history, or media studies. “It connects with the programming the schools already provide,” says Refos. “We match their themes that are related to film and TV, then we create workshops to bring into the K-12 classroom.” For the younger students, they might examine gender stereotypes in media. The older students might engage in a creative writing or storytelling activity.
The teachers — Refos calls them workshop docents — primarily come from area schools like New College, whose students help out with SFF in various ways throughout the year. “We’ve reached nearly 500 students this past year alone,” says Refos about the Classroom Critic program, which often has two or three sessions built into a single workshop experience.
It’s not just the students who are learning, either. One of the New College workshop docents, who thought she was primarily interested in gender studies, found an equal passion for teaching — which has become her new career path.
Kids VIP Trips
This field trip program for area schools brings students out during the morning of actual SFF days to experience specially-chosen festival films to see at the Hollywood 20. The films are free of charge, and the busing to the events is free, too, thanks to the program’s partner, Embracing Our Differences. Either after or before the film, the students also get to see the Embracing Our Differences exhibit for free as well, making it a two-part field trip. Why is it called the Kid VIP trips? Refos explains that it’s because the students are all treated like VIPs. It’s one thing to go with your parents and see a blockbuster film, but it’s another thing entirely to see an independent film and have someone from the SFF talk to them about it.
This past year alone, more than 2,000 students participated in this program between Monday and Friday of the festival week, and thanks to its popularity, SFF hopes to expand the offerings in the future. “It has a massive impact on our community in such a short time,” Refos says about this program in particular, as well as the festival in general. Perhaps more important, this program helps foster the film fans of tomorrow.
Refos has been with SFF for three years now and she’s constantly impressed by the passion and energy that the festival employees have. She’s worked in the local arts community before and has done classroom teaching, but she recognizes that SFF is a special place. “Without our amazing volunteers — who number about 200 during festival season — we simply wouldn’t be able to do all of this. So a huge shout-out to them!” She points out that the Kids VIP Trips alone require a ton of extra help since managing 2,000 students takes a lot of planning and effort.
Like so many 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, though, SFF works with a minimum of staff. It’s the Herculean efforts of those dedicated volunteers that make everything go. To that end, Refos welcomes anyone who might be interested in helping to contact her. Film expertise is not a requirement, but a sincere appreciation for the arts is! And if you have classroom education experience, you’re going to get a rousing welcome, since that’s a much-needed skill at SFF. Students, too, can volunteer and earn service hours.
The reality is that despite the festival hitting its 20th anniversary in 2018, some of the needed funding sources aren’t likely to continue, so overcoming that challenge is at the top of the To Do list for SFF. Their goal is to remain a world-class platform for thought-provoking films from some of the best known and emerging independent voices, as well as keep at the forefront of film and media education to enrich Sarasota’s cultural landscape. That’s a goal worth supporting, to be sure. Just consider how much poorer we’d be if the festival shuttered its doors or — as so many professional sports teams seem to do these days — relocated to another community.
Storytelling and the art of cinema are an important part of who we are as a community, and SFF is a primary source of keeping those arts alive and vibrant for us all to enjoy.