San Antonio Film Festival 2018: The 24-Year-Old Texan Fest Continues to Grow in Size and Stature

San Antonio has an interesting history when it comes to movies.

The first film to win a Best Picture Oscar (Wings) was shot here back in 1926. Pee-Wee Herman wandered the Alamo looking for his prized bicycle (Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) among a cluster of brain-dead tourists. Sandra Bullock went undercover at a local beauty pageant (Miss Congeniality), and Henry Thomas dodged bullets with Dabney Coleman along the famous River Walk (Cloak and Dagger).

While that flickering lineup might seem like a wild genre mashup, why should the San Antonio Film Festival be any different? Diving into its 24th year, the festival is a reflection of its culturally diverse landscape and a testament to the independent film ethic that has grown here from humble roots. Sporting a unique selection of dramas, comedies and documentaries to go with the summer humidity, SAFILM 2018 was heating up and ready to unspool.

The last time I visited this festival in 2016, I encountered great selections throughout the SAFILM schedule. Among the discoveries, I stumbled across the wayward journey of a flawed but talented basketball player (The Legend of Swee’ Pea), and a delicious short dedicated to home-cooked Thai Food (“Cooking With Love”). Of particular note that year was a preview screening of the 2017 Best Picture nominee Hell or High Water with actor Gil Birmingham in attendance. Expectations for 2018 were high. This time around, I was bringing my new documentary short “Thou Shall Not Tailgate” to mix it up with 156 other films on three screens. Onward!

Wednesday

Executive Director Adam Rocha kicking off the San Antonio Film Festival. Image courtesy of San Antonio Film Festival.

Access to the main venue (Tobin Center) from my hotel was quick, although walking in the oppressive heat and humidity makes everything twice as taxing. I left via the restaurant patio, which has a flight of steps down to the famed River Walk which was dusted in various layers of city construction. There was a dearth of human traffic. Zombie films have more human movement when compared with San Antonio in the afternoon. The heat corrals most souls inside for the cold comfort of air conditioning. My only conversation was with the hissing frogs and finger-sized cicadas that mocked me from the trees. Three minutes into my journey and already sweating through my shirt, I crossed the bridge to the venue, where SAFILM was set up and getting ready to roll.

Diving into its 24th year, the San Antonio Film Festival is a testament to grassroots efforts in transformation. From their punk rock beginnings when they screened films in a warehouse, Executive Director Adam Rocha and his crew have taken the festival to the next level–growing in stature and quality and quickly filling into their independently-made shoes. Hunkered down in the living room of the voluminous Tobin Center, Rocha and his dedicated team of volunteers were a mass of activity, making phone calls, meeting moviemakers and doing everything to make the event a success.

A view of the Pharm Table, a place of respite for SAFILM attendees.

After checking in and catching a handful of short films, I wandered over to the recently created SAFILM moviemakers lounge, located across the street. The lounge lives behind the doors of The Pharm Table, a nice roomy venue that offered house-made vegan treats, local beer, wine and spirits—situated in a cluster of rustic tables and locally-made art. It’s a very welcome addition from the last time I was here, and it serves as a natural resting place for moviemakers to congregate, refuel and relax.

Following the evening screenings, I found myself at the opening night party staged at the nearby Gunter Hotel watering hole—Bar 414—which draws its name for the famous Room 414 where blues guitarist Robert Johnson recorded the bulk of his legendary catalogue. While I can’t confirm the Johnsons’ ghost was among us, the spirits and conversations were definitely flowing.

Friday

Director Alexander Shebanow talking about his documentary Fail State.

Today was all about short films as I consumed two blocks and came back liking Maria Pretzls’ comedic short “Super Dad!,” along with David Sims’ wildly entertaining documentary “Cornyation,” which documents an annual mock debutante pageant hosted in San Antonio, and celebrates one of Texas’ oldest LGBT events. Also of note was “Do or Die,” an exciting documentary short directed by Dan Klores about a scoring race in 1978 between NBA greats George “Iceman” Gervin and David Thompson.

The highlight of the day was David Bellarosa’s indie romantic feature Here We Are which follows a young writer who takes a gig as an in-house medical guinea pig, only to discover his soul mate among his fellow test subjects. After the screening, we made our way back over to HAUNT for a cast/crew party with plenty of libations. Bellarosa’s got every right to celebrate as Here We Are is original, off-center and has a great comedic heart.

Saturday

One of the many names SAFILM attracted was Lou Diamond Phillips who went to promote his film Created Equal.

One of the hallmarks of a good festival are the names it can attract. Front and center on the fourth day was a stacked discussion with Oscar-winning producer Fred Roos (The Godfather trilogy, Apocalypse Now), editor Anne Goursaud (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, The Outsiders) editor/AFI instructor Michael Jablow (The Naked Gun, Old School) and actor Jesse Borrego (Blood In, Blood Out, Con Air).  Moderated by moviemaker/UCLA Professor A.P Gonzalez, the panel delved into the perils and pleasures of producing, editing and acting, while unpacking a passel of great Hollywood in-the-trenches anecdotes.

Immediately after the panel I skittered off to my own screening which had a decent audience of about 30 souls. It was well liked and received some good questions afterwards. I scurried along to catch a few more shorts and then hustled over to Pharm Table to hunker down with a few complementary rum drinks (aka Painkillers) before the awards ceremony at the Tobin Center. While I didn’t see most of the films that ended up winning, I was pleased to see the aforementioned “Do or Die” documentary short and the Fred Roos’ produced/Polly Draper directed feature “Stellas Last Weekend” go home with SAFILM honors.

Sunday

All good things must come to an end, but before things wound down on the final day, I had the chance to share a meal with Producer Fred Roos; who chatted about his career and experience at SAFILM. “I’ve been to film festivals all over the world, so I’ve seen the big and the small. Cannes this isn’t. Venice this isn’t… but it’s very nice, and I think it’s a wonderful festival.”

To cap things off, festivities wrapped up at a local distillery over a heap of toothsome BBQ and delicious drinks. Executive Director Adam Rocha and a host of moviemakers milled about exchanging cards and saying their farewells. Among them was editor Michael Jablow who shared his love for the River City: “I thought the atmosphere was outstanding and very moviemaker-friendly. The hospitality at San Antonio is incredible.”

With over 3500 film-goers and 150 visiting moviemakers in attendance this year, it’s hard to argue with that logic. MM

San Antonio Film Festival ran August 1-5, 2018 in San Antonio, Texas. For more information visit their website here.

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