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VENTURA COUNTY WEEKEND | CENTERPIECE / VENTURA COUNTY

Clean Screen

Focus of the Santa Clarita film festival is on quality movies. Not sex, violence and nudity. BY PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN TIMES STAFF WRITER

February 06, 1997

You won't see any splatter films or bondage farces at the Third Annual Santa Clarita International Film Festival, which opens Friday.

Unlike Sundance or Telluride, this is the world's first proudly family-oriented film festival, a week of features, short films, documentaries, animation and special events that may perplex but won't offend your mother.

Three years ago, when the festival got off to a delayed start after the Northridge quake, executive director Chris Shoemaker spent a lot of time fielding pointed questions from reporters (including this one) about plain-vanilla programming. This is, after all, the only competitive film festival that never has to say it's sorry about gratuitous sex and violence, frontal nudity or obscenity: Movies containing them are simply not accepted.

How wholesome is this enterprise? Let's just say that the Beaver--actor-director Jerry Mathers--is one of the honorary directors.

But three years have brought a sea change in American life. Even Madonna has traded in her Z-cup cones for a nursing bra and, as Shoemaker reminds, has declared that she has no intention of letting daughter Lourdes view Mom's raunchier oeuvre.

"People are clamoring for this," Shoemaker says of the festival's family-friendly programming. "People are hungry for good storytelling without the bells and whistles of gratuitous sex and violence."

Delayed until March because of the 1994 quake, the first festival barely attracted enough submissions to fill a program and drew an audience of 4,000. The second year saw film entries quadruple to more than 75 and festival-goers swell to 6,000.

"This year, the quality of the submissions has really increased," says Shoemaker. For 1997, the festival administration received some 135 submissions and rejected about 20%, either for insufficient quality or failure to meet the guidelines.

"There's been a dramatic increase in awareness of the festival out of state and out of the country," Shoemaker says. "I just got a call yesterday from Paris from a filmmaker who is overnighting us a submission entitled 'The Princess in the Pond.' " International participants in this year's festival will include Huang Shi Xian, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, whom Shoemaker describes as China's leading film critic.

As evidence of the mounting quality of the festival, Shoemaker cites the appearance on the program of films of the quality of the chess-themed feature "Long Live the Queen," nominated for a foreign-film Oscar by the Netherlands. He also points to growing festival sponsorship by Warner Bros., Microsoft and other high-profile companies.

Last year, the festival added an annual student film competition, sponsored by the Producers Guild and featuring entries from top film schools, including USC, UCLA and New York University. This year, the competition has been opened to documentaries for the first time, a move that allows it to showcase the work of some of the most vital independent filmmakers, Shoemaker says.

Among the documentaries he is happy to have is "Hasten Slowly," produced and directed by Mickey Lemmle. The film, which will be one of 15 festival premieres, tells the story of Sir Laurens van der Post, from his childhood in racially divided South Africa to his friendship with the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. "It's like watching Mother Teresa," says Shoemaker. "He has so many simple but profound and spiritual things to say about the human condition."

Other documentaries in competition (both premieres) include "Memories Don't Burn," a film about an island camp in the Adriatic for children traumatized by the war in the former Yugoslavia, and "Stand Tall," a film about bodybuilding featuring Lou Ferrigno, produced and directed by Corona filmmaker Mark Nalley.

Also new this year is a Screenwriters' Showcase at which professional actors will read one scene from each of the 10 finalists in the festival's screenwriting competition.

Of special interest locally is the feature "Common Bonds," made by students in a film and arts magnet program at Pacoima Middle School. Screened this year at Sundance (although not accepted for competition), the movie tells the story of a rebellious teenager who is sentenced to community service at a senior citizens' home. The young woman allies herself with one of the residents to thwart a con man who tries to prey on the elderly.

"It's a remarkable effort," Shoemaker says of the film, a festival premiere that was made on a minuscule budget with student cast and crew. Shoemaker says he was stunned by the consistency and quality of the writing.

Since Day One Shoemaker has maintained that "family" doesn't have to mean bland. Conflict is the engine that drives these films, just as it does all drama, Shoemaker points out. Even entries submitted by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and other religious groups tend to eschew preachiness. "Any religious content doesn't scream out," he says.

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