Opening Night at the Arlington Theatre on State Street in the heart of Santa Barbara began with a greeting from Helene Schneider, the Mayor of Santa Barbara. Ms. Schneider spoke before a sold-out house of 2200 people. She praised the Executive Director of SBIFF, Roger Durling, "The festival does so much for Santa Barbara. Roger is able to bring together people who shine. Santa Barbara thanks the Board of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival for all their work and contributions. There are 24 Academy Award nominees who will attend the Festival!" Schneider went on to thank UGG Australia as the presenting sponsor. There are 197 films in the festival selected from 3000 entries to be shown during these 12 days this year. Finally, she thanked "the individual who has really brought along the Festival over the last twelve years to where it is today", Roger Durling!
Roger came to the stage and spoke from his heart about how grateful he was to be doing what he loves. "I grew up poor in Panama. I came as an immigrant. My mom always taught me to count my blessings so I am counting my blessings! I am so fortunate to be at this majestic Arlington Theatre. We have 58 countries represented in the festival. We have diverse forms of expression. We are so lucky to congregate and see films. I am so fortunate that self expression is accepted here. Je Suis Charlie. I am so fortunate that you all are here. I encourage you to be bold, be brave, be free! Happy 30th SBIFF!" Then Roger introduced the Director of the Opening Night film, "Desert Dancer," Richard Raymond.
Richard Raymond came to the mike, "This is my first time being a Director here at the Festival. It means so much to follow in the footsteps, standing on the same stage where Scorcese, Ben Affleck and others before me have stood! I want to thank Relativity Films. I want to thank the people that made this film possible. This film was financed by so many brave people. I want to thank the wonderful actors Freida Pinto, Tom Cullen, who just won a SAG Award for his role on Downton Abbey, Reece Ritchie, Nazanin Boniadi, Simon Kassianides. I got the idea for this film because I read an article that told an amazing story of freedom of expression. It was a little like 'Footloose in Iran.'" The story is about Afshin Ghaffarian, who risked everything to be a dancer in his country, Iran, where dance is forbidden. Raymond continued, "Afshin would have loved to be here but he cannot leave the country. He is a political refugee. He did give me a letter to read to you though." Raymond read from the letter where Afshin thanked the cast, thanking them for their tenacity and truth, and wishing them good luck. "You have all my heart with you," he wrote.
"Desert Dancer," tells the moving story of Afshin Ghaffarian, a self-taught dancer, played by Reece Ritchie, who finds a way to express himself through what he loves in spite of the strict Iranian rules and enforcers who threaten him every step of the way. The film has amazing dance performances and compelling music. Freida Pinto is an extraordinary dancer in addition to Mr. Ritchie.
Watching "Desert Dancer", and reflecting upon it afterwards, you can't help but feel gratitude to live in a country where freedom of expression is allowed and celebrated and in our very constitution. The theme of freedom of expression resonated from Roger Durling's introduction earlier in the evening. The value of coming to a film festival like SBIFF is that you get exposed to the hearts of filmmakers from all around the world and you get to see what they have struggled so hard to communicate.
Following the film, people strolled down State Street to The Opening Night Gala at Paseo Nuevo Shopping Center, all outside with music, food and drink. Strobe lights jetting light up to the stars and general excitement all around for the days ahead.
Photo Credits: Sally Fay