Once a year, the life of Steve Grumette – even by the standards of a die-hard cinephile – gets a bit intense.  He’s the artistic director of the Ojai Film Festival, which raises the curtain on its ninth year this next week; and although each of the 500-plus applicant films are reviewed by three of a 15-member screening panel, Grumette makes a point of personally viewing every single one, to help the panel pare the 500 films down to this year’s slate of 57.  “It takes me the entire month of August to review the submissions;  just me, the screen and the waterbed,” he laughs.  “If you’ve seen my photo on the Web site, you might ask, “Why is this guy still smiling?”

Grumette’s good humor and love of film serve him well, for his job isn’t getting any easier.  As the festival nears the end of its first decade, it continues to grow steadily, with a well-deserved and hard-won reputation for quality that distinguishes it from the thousand other film festivals in the U.S. alone.  “We’re very proud of our record,” notes festival Chairman David Shor, “We’ve had great success in premiering films here —important films that go on to wide acclaim and many prestigious awards.”  Executive Director Maureen “Mo” McFadden continues, “We have 20 premieres in this year’s catalog — out of our 57 films, I’d say that speaks well to our growing reputation as a priority festival.”  

In that growing reputation, the ever-increasing quality of submissions, the number of screenings and its evolving footprint in the national cinescape, the Ojai fest has been a model of success — even if that model is decidedly unconventional. 

Emphasizing documentaries over mainstream narrative film (by a margin of more than 3- to-1), the Ojai fest deliberately blazes a cultural trail that’s better aligned with terra firma than with Tinseltown-style flights of fancy.  The festival’s theme celebrates the “Uplifting of the Human Spirit Through Film,” a challenging mandate that explains its marked divergence from the blockbuster mentality that drives the American film industry, where cash is king and the cultural waters tend to run shallow and none too swift.

The challenge of that mandate finds a welcome home here on the Gold Coast, where more cerebral media is often favored over blockbuster fare.  “It takes a certain profile to support this kind of festival, and thankfully, ours is an issue-driven community,” notes McFadden. “People care about what’s going on, and want their cinema to reflect the real challenges of this age and of our lives.” David Shor agrees, noting that mainstream cinematic themes can be off-putting to Ojaians and other festival denizens who tend to engage well above the lowest common denominator.  “I was soliciting the support of a would-be festival patron,” he recalls, “and the guy turned me down flat, saying that he didn’t support film, that it’s a destructive influence in our culture.  Clearly, he didn’t understand our focus with this festival, so I sent him a few of last year’s films.”  Shor confirms with a smile, “He’s now proud to be one of our patrons.”

1030 Art2Artistic director Grumette is an apt choice to set the tone for the powerfully topical catalog, having gravitated toward edgier fare at an early age: “I lost interest in formulaic Hollywood films as a teenager,” he confides, “and fell in love with what we used to call ‘art films,’ what we now know as independent cinema. My parents would ask, ‘Don’t you ever want to go to the movies just to be entertained?’  They didn’t get it, that not only was I highly entertained— I was sustained—by truly gratifying food for thought.”

Likewise sustained by the art form is filmmaker Eric Metzgar, a newcomer to this year’s catalogue, whose feature documentary Life. Support. Music. explores a musician’s journey back to health from cataclysmic brain injury and vegetative prognosis.  “Conventional wisdom has always dictated that you shouldn’t get too close to your subjects,” he notes, “but I couldn’t disagree more.  I believe in getting as close as possible, getting deep inside the story.  These projects take years to complete. They become chapters of our lives; we live them, and I think the audience benefits from the experience.”  The notion is echoed by McFadden: “Cinema is such an immersive medium,” she explains.  “We’re transported by these stories, and when they’re effective, we can be transformed.  Add to that the excitement of the festival – we become a community of cinephiles for the weekend — and you have the whole community engaged in the experience, discussing art, images and ideas.  It’s quite an antidote for an apathetic age.”  

In a time when the cultural trend dubbed ‘the dumbing down of America’ reaches all corners of the land, from trash TV to insipid advertising, cotton-candy publications and entertainment “news,” the film festival emerges as a bastion for themes too candid, edgy or challenging to otherwise find an audience in a film market driven by mass mentalities.  “The festival offers a showcase of filmmaking not so readily available at the corner cinema,” notes acclaimed actor Malcolm McDowell, who chairs the fest’s first-ever celebrity golf tournament.  “And there’s a ready audience for it here in Ojai.  But truly, I think there’s room for both, for edgy independent film and for mainstream, escapist cinema.  In either case, people are stimulated to get out, to support our robust film industry, to connect and explore new ideas.”  

“It serves as a sort of cultural crucible,” explains Metzgar, “through which ideas circulate in the national consciousness, helping to drive our evolving social thought, for better or worse.  Of course, all filmmakers wish for their work to be well-regarded on that score, but that verdict can only come from an audience — and thanks to our thriving festival community, we have that opportunity.”  

It’s no surprise that this year’s catalog, in its quest to “uplift the human spirit,” often traverses a path through darkness before it finds the light. “These are challenging times,” notes McFadden, “and people relate to the idea that we often only reach triumph through travail. Numerous titles from the catalog support the notion.  Along with Metzgar’s film, noted above, we find renewal in the face of untimely death (Childless, The 27 Club), inspiration after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. (A Ripple of Hope), the push to refill the ranks of our military forces (The Recruiter), a meditation on genius and disorder (This Dust of Words), the seeds of freedom sown in the 1956 Hungarian uprising (Torn From the Flag), and many more — stories of challenge, of change, of history in the making and of its consequences, intended or otherwise.

Of course, there’s plenty of lighthearted fun to be had while the human spirit is being enriched: a slate of animated and narrative shorts, the free open-air screening that traditionally opens the fest and the lifetime achievement awards to be presented to noted filmmakers Richard and Lauren Schuler Donner and to legendary scribe Ray Bradbury.  “The celebration of Bradbury is welcome acknowledgement of a national treasure,” notes McDowell.  “While the French have Jules Verne and the English have H.G. Wells, America has Ray Bradbury — and the comparison is most apt; he is absolutely the peer of those legendary writers.”  McDowell is also pleased with his role in heading the first annual celebrity golf tournament. 

“The Ojai Valley Inn and Spa is a splendid headquarters for the festival,” he notes, “and the golf course is its crown jewel, one of the few courses by renowned designer George Thomas that’s available for play outside of posh country club membership.”

While such comparisons might feel like heady praise, Ojai fest insiders accept the comparison without hesitation.  “Like Telluride, our community – both in size and commitment — is a place where a call to action absolutely resonates,” notes McFadden.  In large cities, which might have any number of festivals, the energy becomes diffused.    But in a place like Ojai, where the dedicated support of the community embraces a deep and relevant film catalog, we have the opportunity to accomplish something special – and we’re making the most of that opportunity.”   

The Ojai Film Festival, Nov. 6-9. More information, including schedules and tickets, can be found at www.ojaifilmfestival.com.