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By Wolf Schneider

Romantic comedy Elephant Shoes, which has been on the festival circuit the last three months, captured the Audience Choice award at the fifth annual Santa Fe Film Festival. The story of a whirlwind courtship between a young couple who meet by chance on a Montreal street, romance, and then break up — all in just 12 hours — Elephant Shoes was directed, written, and produced by Christos Sourligas whose One Man Band Films is based in Montreal, Canada. Upon accepting the award, an ebullient Sourligas confided, “This film cost $7,000 — U.S., not Canadian — and it was shot in four and a half days with a cast of two, crew of three. Max out your credit cards, do what you have to do, just make the film.”

Personal stories were a trend at the festival, held in Santa Fe, New Mexico, from December 1-5, 2004. Attendance increased slightly from 19,000 ticket sales to close to 20,000, with 88 programs shown representing 196 films including shorts and documentaries; an additional 100 New Mexico-made films, mostly shorts, were presented in the Governor’s Cup sidebar. In all, 84 features were shown. About 150 filmmakers flew in for the snowy festival, with total attendees between 7,000 and 8,000, slightly up from the year prior. There were more than 900 submissions (up from 700 the year prior) from 65 countries.

The hottest ticket was for the U.S. premiere of Mexican director Alfonso Arau’s Zapata, a biopic about the life of Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata which, at a cost $8 million, is said to be the most expensive Mexican film ever made.

The festival’s emphasis was on regional films, a strong international line-up, and documentaries — along with such potential Oscar harbingers as Kevin Spacey’s biography of Bobby Darin, Beyond the Sea. Festival executive director Jon Bowman commented, “When I talk to the distribution folks, a lot of the titles that interest them are our regional titles like Baptists at Our Barbecue and Turmoil.” Some 36 documentaries were shown, 10 more than the year before, with Bowman reasoning: “In the past sometimes when we put documentaries on the slate it was kind of like a charity case but we did it because it was the right thing to do, whereas this year some of these documentaries had as much or broader appeal than features. Our second show of Mojados was packed.”

Mojados, in which the director took a 120-mile trek through the Southwest with four illegal immigrants from Mexico, won Best Documentary. Other awards winners were A World Without Waves (Best Southwestern Film), Earth (Best Animation), Paper Dove (Best Latino Film), The Loss of Nameless Things (Best Creative Spirit), Raven Tales (Best Native Film), Bicycles & Radios (Best Short), Sonata (Best Independent Spirit), and Nobody Knows (Best of the Fest).

Acquisitions executives who flew in included Cynthia Kane from the Sundance Channel, Joe Matukewicz of Paramount Classics, and Kent Kubena from 2929 Productions. They were joined by Santa Fe-based Zia Film Distribution, a worldwide TV and video distributor, and the newly launched Spiritual Cinema Circle, a DVD club. Zia, which relocated from Los Angeles to Santa Fe four years ago, entered into talks with Elephant Shoes, Hamburger America, Bulls of Suburbia, and True Whispers, according to executive vice president Doug Heller. Films drawing the most acquisitions interest in general were Elephant Shoes, Baptists at Our Barbecue, and documentaries Mojados, Turmoil, and The Loss of Nameless Things.

Festival headquarters shifted to the Eldorado Hotel this year, where actor Alan Arkin and Alfonso Arau were honored at the awards dinner, with presentations by Shirley MacLaine and a stunning-looking Ali MacGraw in grey jersey dress, silver concha belt, and high-heeled boots. Festival buzz predominated about New Mexico’s filmmaking incentives including a 15 percent tax credit and up to $7.5 million in zero percent loans. “This is a magical realism city,” Arau declared. “I’m planning to shoot a film here very soon.”

As the festival wrapped on Sunday with a tranquil hush of new snow on the bare branches of trees, local newspaper The Santa Fe New Mexican capped it off with the news that New Zealand director Niki Caro (Whale Rider) would be shooting Warner Bros.’ Class Action, a story of female mine workers starring Charlize Theron, in the state.

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