Palm Springs Film Festival directors find camaraderie in annual Sunnylands filmmakers forum

Friday, January 9, 2015

For five years, directors whose films are shown in the highly acclaimed Palm Springs International Film Festival have been invited to Sunnylands for a bonding experience like no other – a chance to delve deeply into the intricacies of their craft with fellow filmmakers.

But a new twist has given the public a window into the filmmakers’ deliberations this year.

Paula Bernstein, filmmaker toolkit editor for, spent the day with narrative filmmakers and wrote about the discussions that focused on storytelling and how truthful they need to be when basing films on real-life events.

“In my mind, I had to differentiate between the true story and the story of the film,” Bernstein quoted Vuk Rsumovic as saying. The Serbian’s directorial debut, No One’s Child, was inspired by the true story of a wild boy found in the mountains of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1988.

“If your decision is to make a fiction film, make decisions of your own. If you want to structure things properly, you’ll have to change certain things.”

The filmmaker forums at Sunnylands give directors a rare opportunity to collaborate, compare notes, and share experiences with counterparts from throughout the world.

“There’s not a lot of festivals that give you this chance. You go to festivals and you just pass these filmmakers on your way and you never get to meet them,” said Andy Siege, an Ethiopian-born director who lives in Germany. “What you realize is that it doesn’t matter what kinds of films you make, what the film’s for, what your budget is. There are certain commonalities in personalities, the way we think, in our film theory and so on.”

The directors’ roundtable is one of the longest running programs hosted at Sunnylands. Geoffrey Cowan, president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands (2010-2016), noted the estate’s historic tie to the film industry. Leonore Annenberg was raised in the Los Angeles home of her uncle, Harry Cohn, the founder of Columbia Pictures.

“We’re continuing this tradition of great filmmakers having candid conversations where they somehow, by knowing each other and talking about each other’s problems honestly, find a way to improve their own work and maybe improve the craft a bit,” Cowan said.

Convening at Sunnylands “is one of the most special things at the film festival,” said festival director Darryl Macdonald. “ It’s a place that’s utterly serene where all of us, either artists or lovers of art, can open up and talk to each other about our priorities in the creative filed we’re in and learn from each other in terms of enriching our own approaches to that creative work.”

That was certainly the case for Justin Benson, who was raised in San Diego, and screened his movie, Spring, at the festival with co-director Aaron Moorehead.

“Directing is typically a kind of lonely profession. You’re not usually around other directors and you’re kind of isolated in the whole process … ,” Benson said. “It’s really interesting to hear other directors around you speak about their own experiences in a way that’s a sort of pleasant surprise. … It’s nice to hear them talk about it, because it reinforces an experience you had.”

Catalina Aquilar Mastretta, a director from Mexico, said she appreciated the “truly international” reach of the festival and the Sunnylands roundtable. “We focused on the idea of truth in film, because a lot of our films are based on personal experiences or events that actually occurred. I feel like everyone has something to say about that,” she said.

The filmmaker forum took place over two days, with 20 narrative filmmakers gathering in the Center & Gardens on Jan. 6 and 12 documentary filmmakers meeting at the Retreat Pavilion on Jan. 9.