A local told me Sarasota was "the cultural capital of Florida" and recited a long list of arts institutions and events. The proud Sarasotan wasn't saying anything new. This little city of under 60,000 people has had a reputation as an artists' colony since the 1920s. The reputation is well-deserved. Sarasota is the "anti-Orlando". No tourist traps or tacky souvenir shacks, but plenty of small bookstores and gourmet cafes. Judging by their film festival, only nine years old, I am impressed. It's a well-organized event run by an army of volunteers. The film selection was interesting, with an emphasis on American Independent and European films and a high number of documentaries and shorts. The festival features a series of free panel discussions, several extremely popular "Conversation with..." events, and a tribute to director Norman Jewison (along with a retrospective of his films). These special events take place at the Asolo Theatre, a recreation of an 18th Century Italian Court Playhouse from Asolo, Italy. The regular screenings are held at a rather cramped, downtown multiplex.

After a 234-mile drive, I arrived on the fifth day of the 10-day fest and was able to get tickets to 9 of the 10 films I wanted to watch. I eventually managed to get a ticket to the sold out screening of Klimt, directed by Raul Ruiz and starring John Malkovich. At $8 per film and $70 for a 10-film pass, the Sarasota festival is a bargain (tickets at the the Miami Festival are $12 and there are no passes). Parking is convenient and... free! All the screenings I attended started punctually, a very important consideration when one is watching three or more films daily and has to find time to have a meal. This little city puts together a better film festival than the ones in Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, and Palm Beach, cities with populations of over a million people. If I was to compare it with other American festivals, I'd say the SFF has become in a short decade the East Coast equivalent of the Telluride (CO) Film festival, the model small-town showcase for cinema.

Over the next few days, I'll review the films I watched and share some impressions of the experience of attending this festival.