SFFilm executives finally feel at home with new offices and the return of the indoor festival

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Anne Lai (right), executive director of SFFilm, and Jessie Fairbanks (left), director of programming for SFFilm, are seen at SFFilm’s new offices in San Francisco in March. The two are happy to return to work in person. Photo: Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

The longest handover in the history of the San Francisco International Film Festival is almost complete, and Anne Lai and her team can finally see the finish line.

Three years after the last theatrical version of the oldest film festival in the Americas, SFFilm is set to return with a full festival from Thursday, April 21 through May 1.

More on that later. But first, who won the baking contest?

The return to form when it comes to festivals isn’t the only seismic change for SFFilm. The organization recently moved to a spacious new office in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood after years at the Presidio. To celebrate, they held an office-wide baking contest.

“You can’t do this virtually,” said Lai, who took over as executive director of SFFilm in March 2020, just days before making the decision to cancel the 2020 festival as the COVID-19 pandemic put the city in quarantine.

The winner: Masashi Niwano, the former CAAMFest Festival and Exhibitions Director who joined SFFilm as Director of Artist Development in October.

“He was kissing,” Lai said with a laugh. “First of all, he’s an amazing cook, but he baked a pie and put our pastry logo on top of the pie.”

Joshua Moore (left), director of SFFilm artist development of documentary, and Masashi Niwano, director of SFFilm artist development, work on the second floor of the new SFFilm offices in March in San Francisco. Photo: Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

Jessie Fairbanks, hired as director of programming in January 2021, acknowledged that she and the SFFilm team were able to do great work virtually “that brought challenges and brought creative collaboration. But it’s so enjoyable to be in the same space and to feed off each other’s energy and excitement as we drive towards the festival.

The 65th festival is expected to feature more than 130 films from 56 countries, including 16 world premieres and 10 North American premieres. There are also planned in-person tributes to comedian/actress/filmmaker Jenny Slate and actress Michelle Yeoh, who is set to be interviewed onstage by “Killing Eve” star Sandra Oh.

The biggest events will take place at the 1,400-seat Castro Theater, one of six festival venues, and sold-out crowds are expected. The festival opens April 21 with the North American premiere of director Jamie Sisley’s sensitive opioid recovery drama, “Stay Awake.” The film, starring Chrissy Metz (“This Is Us”), was supported by SFFilm Makers, SFFilm’s artist development program that provides financial and professional support.

The 11-day festival culminates with “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” a comedy-drama written, directed and starring Cooper Raiff and starring Dakota Johnson. The two are due to appear in person at the Castro on April 30.

Writer-producer-director Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” which closes the SFFilm Festival on April 30. Photo: SFFilm

Impressive as it is, SFFilm 65, like the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, is scaled back from what fans were used to before the pandemic. Weekday screenings take place almost exclusively at night, and although the program runs all day on weekends, the number of screenings and rooms used at the same time has been reduced. The 2019 festival, for example, featured nearly 200 films and live events, with around 100 guest filmmakers participating.

Lai called it “measured steps” upon returning to theaters, leading organizers to be even more “incredibly careful with programming.” Eventually, she and Fairbanks want to return to the pre-pandemic level and then evolve beyond it. The 2022 edition of the festival, however, is all about opening the door and welcoming people back.

“We haven’t run (six) sites in a while, so this is going to be a bit new,” Lai said. “What we also want to be able to do is create an environment in each of these places that is warm and inviting, and this sort of cocoon and magical space where you have your own personal experience and then you get that interactive experience with others as well.

Lai added, “We want to spend time with our audience!”

Chrissy Metz stars in “Stay Awake,” an opioid addiction and recovery drama that opens the SFFilm Festival on Thursday, April 21 at the Castro Theater. Photo: SFFilm

Fairbanks said she couldn’t wait until opening night.

“I think it’s going to be super festive,” she said. “It’s going to be awesome packing up the Castro to get the festival going…then being able to go to a big, beautiful party at the (San Francisco) Mint and celebrate with all of our colleagues, our donors, our audiences, our members, as well as all those who are part of the film. Opening weekend is jam-packed.

Lai and his team are proud not only to be in theaters again, but also to see several films supported by the SFFilm Makers fund, starting with “Stay Awake.” Since its inception in 2009, the SFFilm Makers program has awarded $8.5 million to independent projects, as well as other types of professional support.

Anne Lai, Executive Director of SFFilm, at SFFilm’s new offices in San Francisco. Lai says she likes getting to know the city. Photo: Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

And now that its new office is open, SFFilm brass can connect more directly with filmmakers through their Filmhouse Residency program, which provides Bay Area documentary and narrative filmmakers with artistic guidance and, most importantly, office space.

Previously, the FilmHouse was based on Broadway in the Chinatown/North Beach area, a bit away from SFFilm’s small Presidio offices. The 21 artists currently in residence have started their year virtually but have now moved into SoMa’s new space.

So SFFilm is getting back to normal – and Lai and Fairbanks are finally starting to feel rooted in the Bay Area.

Fairbanks, who programmed the mostly virtual 2021 festival from her home in Chicago (she appeared in person at the festival’s drive-in events at the Fort Mason Flix pop-up drive-in), is in temporary housing in the neighborhood of Hayes Valley until moving to a permanent Bay Area home after the festival.

Lai, who worked with the Sundance Institute and was based in the Los Angeles area, recently moved from her first home in San Mateo to that of Foster City. She recently purchased a kayak to enjoy the nearby water and loves exploring San Francisco.

“I have love be back in the city more,” Lai said. “It was so rare in 2020, like it was a field trip. … But especially now, coming to the office three times a week, being able to be here and attend events – it felt really good to me. Being able to explore, visit friends, and then spend some time kayaking on the peninsula makes me very, very happy.

Jessie Fairbanks, SFFilm’s Programming Director, at SFFilm’s new offices. Photo: Lea Suzuki/The Chronicle

65th SFF Film Festival

When: April 21-May 1

Or: Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., SF; Vogue Theater, 3290 Sacramento Street, SF; Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., SF; Victoria Theater, 2961 16th St., SF; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, 2155 Center St., Berkeley; The Walt Disney Family Museum, 104 Montgomery St., SF

What: More than 130 films from 56 countries; 16 world premieres, 10 North American premieres

Opening on April 21: “Stay Awake,” opioid addiction and recovery drama directed by Jamie Sisley, starring Chrissy Metz (“This Is Us”), at The Castro followed by a party at SF Mint, 88 Fifth St., SF

Centerpiece, April 27: “892,” a crime drama about disabled veterans directed by Abi Damaris Corbin and starring John Boyega (“Star Wars”), at the Castro

Closing evening, April 30: “Cha Cha Real Smooth”, comedy-drama written, directed and performed by Cooper Raiff, starring Dakota Johnson, at the Castro

Tributes: actress Jenny Slate; actress Michelle Yeoh; and filmmaker, writer, literary theorist, composer, and UC Berkeley professor Trinh T. Minh-ha (Persistence of Vision Award)

Tickets: General admission $10 to $18 (larger nights are more expensive); six-pack tickets $90-$105; 10-pack ticket $130-$155; Cinevisa $1,800.

More information at www.sffilm.org.



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