Among a massive slate of features screening incessantly over several weeks, a microbudget, no-name production or a foreign language documentary, say, have far less of a chance of being discovered. Yet the Gasparilla International Film Festival continues to adhere to wise belief that in most cases less is more.

Now in its 11th year, GIFF (March 2-9, 2017) has found its own identity, differentiating itself from other Florida fests (of which there are an unusual amount). Exploiting its prime location in Tampa, GIFF focuses on treating every one of its curated screenings as a major event.

Located in the busy Ybor City district, a historic neighborhood populated by restaurants, entertainment and vivid nightlife, the local hotel that houses staff, filmmakers, press and jurors quickly becomes an unofficial—and unpretentious—hub where the eclectic mix of guests interact. Whether at breakfast or during a post-screening break, a friendly bond develops, removing the pressure. It helps that the program is comprised of only 35 features, allowing the invited journalists and other guests to mingle with the handful of filmmakers present at any given point during the festival.

This year’s GIFF scored several noteworthy findings. Following its accomplished debut at Slamdance in January, where it won an Audience Award, Jamie Greenberg’s Future ’38 had its second festival appearance. It played to an enthusiastic audience that was taken by surprise by the ambitiously designed and retro-inspired comedic adventure. Looking at the year 2018 through the lens of 1938 science-fiction storytelling, Greenberg cleverly replicates the tone of films from that period, but surpasses simple homage and touches on the absurdity of the modern world. Saturated colors (what the film calls “Spect-A-Color,” a fictional version of Technicolor), spitfire dialogue laced with puns, and two lead performances (by Nick Westrate and Betty Gilpin) straight from a classic B-movie come together for a highly entertaining dose of ingenuity. Beating out other major entries, Future ’38 won the Grand Jury Prize for Best U.S. Narrative Feature. Securing distribution is still on the horizon.

Future ’38 director Jamie Greenberg at GIFF 2017

Hosting its international premiere, Gasparilla moviegoers were the first outside of Argentina to be moved by Poli Martinez Kaplún’s documentary Lea and Mira (Lea y Mira dejan su huella), about two Holocaust survivors who started a new life in the South American country after Auschwitz. The most surprising gem at the festival, this topical piece, which runs only 52 minutes, provides flesh-and-bone testimony that aims to warn younger generations of the horrors that bigotry and xenophobia can ignite. The title subjects’ shared tragedy and will to live are nothing short of life-affirming.

Another non-fiction work set in Latin America, Finding Oscar (directed by Ryan Suffern and executive produced by Steven Spielberg), received the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary Feature. Other notable winners include François Ozon’s gorgeous black-and-white period drama Frantz (Best International Feature), and comedian-turned-moviemaker Demitri Martin (Best Performance, U.S. Narrative) for Dean, which he also wrote and directed. Carrie Pilby, directed by Susan Johnson and starring Bel Powley, earned the Audience Award for U.S. Narrative. In the Florida Focus Competition for world-premiering features made in the state, the family-oriented and eco-friendly Turtle Tale was the winner. Meanwhile, the festival’s non-juried Fun and Thrills section included the U.S. premiere of German horror film Veras Mantel, a subtly unnerving glimpse to fandom turned deadly.

As written about here, GIFF honored one of Tampa’s most famous talents, Patrick Wilson, with a Career Achievement Award. Wilson, accompanied by his parents, wife and children, remembered his high school days in Florida and assured the audience that he would come back to shoot his first directorial effort in town. Besides the film line-up and special celebrations, this year GIFF dabbled into Virtual Reality with a showcase for spectators to immerse themselves in between screenings at the Centro Ybor multiplex.

Poli Martinez Kaplún’s documentary Lea and Mira

One singularly exciting industry-centered gathering titled Billion Dollar Pitch brought together 10 aspiring screenwriters—selected from over 100 submissions—to present their projects in front of Hollywood producer Randall Emmett (Silence, Lone Survivor, Everest), whose films have collectively grossed over $1 billion at the box office. Each of the writers who pitched their projects received a check for $1,000, and the chosen winner took home $5,000 and an option deal. Few pitching events offer such a direct route from anonymity to getting a project to the big screen. Emmett is a Floridian himself and has been vocal about his intentions to support local up-and-comers trying to break in.

Summing up the vibe of the Gasparilla International Film Festival on a sunny Sunday afternoon, a brunch on a boat confirmed for me that, in Tampa and perhaps elsewhere, the best ingredients for a festival are handpicked film choices, a refreshing community atmosphere… and plenty of mimosas. MM

The 11th Gasparilla International Film Festival runs March 2-9, 2017, in Tampa Bay, Florida. Patrick Wilson received the festival’s Career Achievement Award on March 4, 2017.