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2021 San Antonio Film Festival gives filmmakers second chance to show their movies the way they were meant to be shown

After an all-virtual event in 2020 due to COVID-19, the festival is returning to familiar community spaces.

SAN ANTONIO — Local movie-lovers may find themselves in a bit of a “Groundhog Day” situation when they explore the schedule for the 2021 San Antonio Film Festival, set for August 5 to 8, and find that most of the features and shorts premiered in 2020. 

There are two big reasons for that, explains Executive Director Adam Rocha. For one, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t play nice with the festival’s typical schedule for reviewing hundreds of submissions and deciding which ones would ultimately screen. November is when Rocha typically starts making those decisions, but November 2020 marked a period when there were still more questions than answers regarding potential coronavirus vaccines. 

“There was no end in sight for this pandemic at that time,” Rocha said. “So we pushed it (the deadline for festival submissions), we didn’t want to chance anything. We didn’t want to gamble and be like, ‘Oh, sorry guys, we’ve got to cancel. Sorry, all the 40 people who bought plane tickets!’ That would be the worst thing.”

A few months later, around spring break, is when the hope of returning to an in-person festival for 2021 began to pay off as Bexar County residents continued to get vaccinated. Last year, as with most other film festival organizers, Rocha improvised by making the event virtual. Movie fans had a window of several months to watch the cinematic offerings from filmmakers as close to home as San Antonio and as far away as Tokyo. 

But as cinephiles will attest, it’s one thing to watch movies at home and another thing entirely to watch them with fellow community members. And it wasn’t just audiences getting an approximation of the real festival experience last year; filmmakers also lost that sense of closure that comes with applause at the end of a long road. 

Rocha says providing a 2021 slate of movies which mostly premiered in 2020’s virtual festival allows those filmmakers a second chance at in-person engagement while showing their work. 

“The filmmakers were really happy that we were able to give them their day in the sun by having it in person (this year),” he said. They’re very happy they didn’t get excluded. They want it to be in person.”

Diana Carrasco is one of those very filmmakers. The Alamo City native’s short film “She Is Me,” a poignant all-female dramedy capturing the intersection of various women's lives in a communal restroom, debuted virtually at last year’s festival and has been welcomed back for 2021. 

Adding extra resonance to Carrasco’s excitement about her movie screening in person is not only the fact that it’s her first film, but also her way of honoring her grandma after she died. 

“For him (Rocha) to call me and invite us back and have it screen in person just means the world to me,” she said. “Film is such a community effort, and watching a movie at home or on your computer is definitely not the same. You want to feel their reactions and know what some of their reactions are to certain scenes, what they relate to. This is the first time I’ve ever done something like this, so it’s really important to me to screen it.”

“She Is Me” is screening as part of the “With Friends Like These” short films block on the afternoon of August 8. Similar to last year, the San Antonio Film Festival is offering tickets to themed collections of shorts, each one with anywhere between five and seven movies. Each “block” of screenings generally lasts about two hours, and tickets for each are either $10 or $15. 

Meanwhile, tickets to the handful of feature film offerings are $15 each, and single-day passes providing access to multiple blocks of shorts and feature films are also available for $49 each day. For the hardcore movie fans, this year’s VIP badge granting access to all festival events and screenings runs $109 (about 60 movies in all are being shown). 

One of the longer shorts that will be screening this year is “70 Years of Blackness,” a documentary from Mississippi-based filmmaker Chris Windfield about a Black-identifying woman who didn’t discover until late in life that the biological parents she never knew were both white. Windfield said it took him nearly two years to tell Verda Byrd’s story, and that he relishes the opportunity to screen her story in person in San Antonio. 

“It’s wonderful, I’m very excited. This festival, it really means something for me to go this year,” he said. “Here I am, I’m from Mississippi, and we don’t have big film festivals down here. We have some, but we don’t have them as big as San Antonio.”

As for the venue, this year’s showings will take place at the Radius Center downtown, an intimate space that, while it doesn’t have the familiar cinema textures, does boast something else spurring Rocha's excitement. 

“To me, the strong part about that joint is the sound is amazing,” he said. “And then we rented this amazing projector screen. So we don’t cut short of that.”

Meanwhile, his team continues planning for the 2022 festival, when local moviegoers can expect to see a fresh slate of totally new films. He relies mostly on community volunteers to screen submission, some of them linked by staff members. 

Rocha emphasizes that previewing those films is an important responsibility – after all, a filmmaker has poured their blood, sweat and rewrites into it – and it’s inevitable that not all the volunteers will watch the movies they’re assigned. About a handful of reliable volunteers who endure the months-long process. 

“We’ll ask 30, 35 people, and some of them fall off. Or some of them will do it because they’ll say, ‘I will do this,’ and by the end they say, ‘I don’t want to watch another movie.’ So it’s work, and it’s not paid work, and that’s how we run for the most part.”

Rocha said he’s confident about attendance for this year’s festival, pointing out that one Friday afternoon screening sold out a few days after tickets were made available. In a time when families are embracing each other and traditions are slowly churning back to life for the first time in nearly 18 months, it’s perhaps a sign of the local movie-watching community’s anticipation to grab their popcorn and watch movies next to each other once again. 

“Art’s a necessity,” Carrasco said. “Because of the pandemic, it’s reminded us how much we need the community to come together and share those experiences. Even though it’s more accessible at home, it just made it more apparent we need each other in person.”

Meanwhile, the window for submission from filmmakers vying to secure a spot in 2022 is Oct. 29. And as both the independent spirit of the San Antonio Film Festival and Windfield can attest: You don’t need to be a master storyteller to have a story to tell. 

“Anyone can be creative and make films, so long as they take their time and put the effort in,” Windfield said. “It’s a lovely art form, and one everybody can get into.”