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By Wolf Schneider

The spiritually themed Indigo, about children with psychic powers, had its world premiere at the Santa Fe Film Festival and walked away with the Audience Choice award--not surprising, given the film’s significant grass-roots marketing push and this New Mexico art town’s bohemian slant. “It’s a film made for people who want to feel better about being a human being when they walk out than when they walked in,” commented director/producer Stephen Simon. Simon and executive producer James Twyman are considering self-distributing their picture.

In its biggest year yet, some 200 filmmakers flew in for the 4th Annual Santa Fe Film Festival, held here December 3-7, 2003, a significant increase from 130 the previous year. The festival--which is now the dominant film fest in New Mexico, given the recent demise of the Taos Talking Picture Festival--showed 211 films and videos, approximately 50 of which were features, culled from 700 submissions from 37 countries. About 20,000 ticket admissions were rung up, representing an estimated 7,000 attendees.

The mood was convivial and contemplative in this town of 68,000 as filmmakers headquartered at the Hotel St. Francis and breakfasted together in the open lobby, then spilled out onto adobe-lined narrow lanes where woodsmoke drifted through bare tree branches in wintry calm.

Given its timing as a harbinger of Oscar season, the festival is uniquely positioned to draw high-profile year-end releases, which it did this year with 21 Grams (filmed in New Mexico) and House of Sand and Fog (the fest’s first movie from Dreamworks). Said festival executive director Jon Bowman, “They wanted to make sure they reached the audience here, particularly the Academy members. That’s been an appeal for Miramax and Sony too.” An estimated 75 to 100 Academy members live in the Santa Fe area, home to Gene Hackman, Val Kilmer, Ali MacGraw, Shirley MacLaine, Marsha Mason, composers Dave Grusin and Gerald Fried, screenwriters Danny Rubin and Chris DeVore, and production designer Fred Harpman.

Acquisitions executives from the Sundance Channel and IFC made the trip, with interest largely focusing on the fest’s documentaries--including Jon E. Edwards Is In Love, about a struggling R&B musician; the Native-themed Mending the Sacred Hoop, about a Lakota journey of healing, with narration by Peter Coyote and music by U2; and the Canadian doc Spirit of the Game, about young Native athletes preparing for the North American Indigenous Games. Said Bowman, whose dynamism spurs this festival, “For us, it’s the doc slate that drives the most industry interest, because obviously Sundance is right around the corner with features.”

Two features that did prompt distribution-deal buzz were Break a Leg, a dark comedy about an actor trying to get to the top, with Jennifer Beals and Eric Roberts in the cast (foreign rights have been sold to In Motion, according to actor-screenwriter John Cassini), and Justice, about a substitute teacher who becomes the unwitting hero of a comic-book line. After being programmed by the festival, but before screening, the Hungarian film Divan was picked up by Zeitgeist.

The festival’s awards ceremony rounded up presenters Ali MacGraw, direct from yoga class and looking spectacular as a blonde, and a philosophical Shirley MacLaine, who remarked, “Something happens when you live here, work here, create here. It’s not so much about profit and loss as about the responsibility the artist has to elevate culture.” Winners were Jon E. Edwards Is In Love (Best Creative Spirit), The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (Best Latino Film), Jesus Freak (Best Southwestern Film), Spirit of the Game (Best Native Film), Lustron (Best Documentary), Break a Leg and Virgin (tied for Best Independent Spirit), Since Otar Left (Best of the Fest), Fast Film (Best Animation), and Simone’s Labyrinth (Best Short).

Tributes went to director Stephen Frears, screenwriter Walon Green, and writer Max Evans, as well as actor Peter Boyle, who drolly quipped of the host hotel’s old west lineage: “I survived the night in the Hotel St. Francis. A lot of ghosts in this hotel--not all of them A list or B list, some of them XYZ list.” On a more serious note, filmmakers got up to speed on New Mexico’s film production incentives, including a 15% tax credit and loans of up to $7.5 million.

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