The inspirational documentary set to kick off the 32nd annual Santa Barbara Film Festival on Feb. 1 showcases a shocking predicament representing an extreme of human suffering: The world premiere feature, Charged, follows outdoorsman/chef Eduardo Garcia, who endured a near-fatal jolt of electricity after touching a dead bear that had fallen across a live power line in the hills of Montana. The TV personality had his hand amputated, suffered burn trauma and lost several ribs to his recovery process — only later to be diagnosed with testicular cancer and put through chemotherapy. But throughout his ordeal, viewers see Garcia gain a deeper appreciation for life, embracing newfound selflessness and making peace with his troubled past.
Arriving as something of a departure from such recent SBIFF opening-night selections as the animated fantasy The Little Prince (2016) and the Frida Pinto-starring biopic Desert Dancer, Charged highlights themes of uplift and overcoming adversity en route to personal wholeness. In that regard, SBIFF executive director Roger Durling notes, the doc sets the festival’s tone at a time when the country remains divided along political fault lines.
“All the films in the documentary section are rich, social justice documentaries; they all deal with timely subjects,” says Durling. “There’s a lot of uncertainty in the country right now. So we actively sought out films with themes affecting all of us.”
As the last major film fest in the final lead-up to the Oscars, Santa Barbara’s stature has grown as a beacon for A-list talent, who travel 90 miles up the coast from Los Angeles to accept the festival’s “tributes” at the historic, 2,000-capacity Arlington Theatre. And his year’s crop of tributees includes Academy Awards nominees Denzel Washington, Isabelle Huppert, Jeff Bridges, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.
Taking a cue from the Sundance Film Festival — whose programmers chose to spotlight environmental concerns such as global warming over its 2017 installment — the SBIFF’s 125 feature films this year include 45 documentaries tackling such subjects as environmentalism (Island Earth), feminist freedom fighters in Tunisia (Revolution in Four Seasons) and insect-eating as a sustainable food solution (The Gateway Bug). “This a volatile time in the world,” says fest programming director Michael Albright, “so the films we are focusing on and that are being submitted are reflecting those conflicts.”
Montana filmmaker Phillip Baribeau (behind the 2015 doc Unbranded) raised $165,000 toward Charged‘s budget through a Kickstarter campaign. He hopes audiences will be inspired by Garcia’s journey from near death to self-acceptance. “Maybe there’s a piece they can reflect on in their own lives,” says Baribeau. “Looking at what this guy got thrown at him — practically dying and then going through chemotherapy, while keeping a smile on his face, hiking in the hills — maybe they can take a positive look at the challenges in their own lives and realize they can get through it.”
15 Oscar Contenders Take Fest Honors
Santa Barbara Film Festival
Feb. 1-11 Santa Barbara
Denzel Washington (Fences)
Maltin Modern Master Award, Feb. 2
Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
Outstanding Performers of the Year Award, Feb. 3
Naomie Harris (Moonlight), Dev Patel (Lion) and 6 others
Virtuosos Award, Feb. 4
Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
Montecito Award, Feb. 8
Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
American Riviera Award, Feb. 9