By Connor Dziawura
“Oh, here we go again,” the Phoenix Film Festival’s Jason Carney remembers thinking leading up to last year’s event. Delayed from its usual spring setting to late summer, he says the annual festival came right as concerns were mounting due to the COVID-19 delta variant.
Thankfully, the event performed well — better, in fact, than the previous year’s event, which had been delayed and dissected into a smaller version of itself amid the pandemic’s early waves.
Carney, the festival director, is similarly hopeful for this year’s 22nd annual Phoenix Film Festival, which returns to its usual spring setting at Harkins Scottsdale 101 from Thursday, March 31, to Sunday, April 10. The International Horror & Sci-Fi and Arizona Student film festivals are once again tied in.
And Carney says he’s still seeing the enthusiasm filmmakers and audiences had toward last year’s festival this time around.
“Audiences were crazy enthusiastic — and so were the filmmakers,” Carney says of 2021. “Many of these filmmakers, they played other festivals, but all of them had been virtual. This was the first time for them to have an audience, and so their excitement level was really high, and many of the audience members hadn’t been back to the movies yet, and so they were really excited. It was just like some kind of crazy movie love fest.”
This year’s diverse lineup is projected to include more than 200 works spanning local, national and international productions, plus appearances from guest filmmakers. And over the festival’s 11 days, audiences will be able to see films from all over the world compete for awards.
Films range from feature length to shorter projects, encompassing mediums and genres like live action, animation, narrative stories, documentaries and college productions — or “kind of a little bit of everything,” as Carney puts it. The inclusion of the annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival lends credence to genre pictures.
Highlights, according to Carney, include director Dan Mirvish’s Watergate thriller/dark comedy “18 1/2” and the “wildly entertaining” documentary “The Pez Outlaw,” about a smuggling operation of rare Pez dispensers from Europe into the United States in the ’90s.
“You want to come to a festival and you don’t want to see a bunch of dramas or you don’t want to see a bunch of dark documentaries,” Carney says, emphasizing the variety. “You want to be able to see some light stuff, too. And so it’s important for us to program some romantic comedies, you know what I mean? There’s a place for that, and you want to lighten up; you want to have an enjoyment of your day.
“You’re going to see these powerful, amazing performances of trauma, but like, hey, let’s cleanse our palette and see something that’s going to make us laugh or see a documentary that’s going to raise awareness or just give us a good feeling.”
The recent Unified by Film category, on the other hand, has been rebranded and expanded as Community Spotlight — with the hopes of showcasing the diversity of filmmakers from the African American, Latinx, Native American, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and LGBTQ+ communities.
The idea, Carney says, is to work with and promote nonprofits in those communities to create opportunities and raise awareness of the issues they face, while also giving those communities the opportunity to see films with their same world view.
“It’s nice to see yourself represented on screen in some regard or at least getting that vision and having that commonality with the director of films,” Carney says. “There’s plenty of 30-year-old white guys making movies out there. So it’s good for us to do that and not only just do it for the sake of doing it, but really commit to it and be part of these communities and grow this thing.
“We just try to do it a little bit more each year, and I’m just really proud of our organization and our commitment to it. It’s never been just a one-off thing; we want to transform it and continue to grow it. So you can count on that happening again this year.”
The Arizona Student Film Festival is set for Saturday, April 9. The annual competition screens short films created by grade school and high school students, with one high school winner to receive a $1,000 scholarship.
“It’s always a fun day at the festival that Saturday morning,” Carney says. “It’s just exciting to see not only have the opportunity for these young filmmakers to have their films on the screen, we get to see the family, their parents, their siblings, their grandparents, they’re all there and they’re all supportive. It’s just such a great feeling, and we’re just really proud of that program for sure.”
Notable this year, beyond films, is more of an emphasis on the social aspect that had been reduced the past couple festivals. While last year’s audience was not the size it had been just a few years back, Carney says it “set the tone for us just kind of moving forward and setting us up for hopefully an even bigger comeback this year with the return of our Party Pavilion, which we haven’t been able to do since 2019.”
The opening weekend Party Pavilion, he says, is back with some changes aimed to ensure comfortability and openness. Highlights are the Opening Night cocktail party; Friday’s Industry Night, which Carney calls “the biggest networking event of the year for the state;” and the Saturday night Film Prom.
“It’s kind of fun to intermingle that with so many great films we play,” Carney says.
Free educational filmmaker panels will also be set up in the theater on each weekend. Plus, there’s the free Kids’ Day the first Saturday morning, April 2, another opportunity for connection — and education. Carney says the festival works with area film schools to set up hands-on filmmaking experiences.
“We try to do a whole thing where it’s different parts of the filmmaking so it’s educational and fun, and it’s a wide enough variety so they can kind of go from station to station without waiting forever to do an activity,” he explains.
After a great 2019 and then a quick scaling back of the festival’s many activities due to the pandemic, Carney feels the pieces are moving for the Phoenix Film Festival to remain on track toward a successful future.
“2022 gets us another step towards where hopefully we were and get us back on our big growth mountain that we’ve been climbing over the years.”
Phoenix Film Festival
WHEN: Various times Thursday, March 31, to Sunday, April 10