Santa Barbara Film Festival Kicks Off with U.S. Premiere of 'Desert Dancer'

Desert Dancer Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Carol Marshall PR

Desert Dancer Still - H 2014

The 30th Santa Barbara International Film Festival kicked off on Tuesday night with the North American premiere of Richard Raymond's feature directorial debut Desert Dancer, a drama based on the true story of a young aspiring dancer in present-day Iran, where dance is banned. (Think Rosewater meets Footloose or Dirty Dancing, in the best sense.)

More than 2,000 moviegoers packed Santa Barbara's historic Arlington Theatre for the screening, which was attended by Raymond and his stars Reece Ritchie (who looks and dances like a young Michael Jackson), Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) and Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey) — and was very well received.

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Desert Dancer, which Relativity Media will release in select U.S. theaters on April 10, is certainly one of the more impressive and moving of the opening night films that I've seen in the seven years that I've been attending the fest, celebrating the freedom of expression just weeks after the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris demonstrated how some wish to repress it.

Previous SBIFF opening-night films — which, in full candor, have been hit or miss — included Derek Magyar's Flying Lessons (2010), Fisher Stevens and Robert Nixon's Mission Blue (2011), Lawrence Kasdan's Darling Companion (2012) and Henry-Alex Rubin's Disconnect (2013).

The next 11 days of SBIFF will include screenings of 197 films from 54 different countries, including 23 world premieres and 52 U.S. premieres. But the fest's biggest draws are its events celebrating Hollywood talent. Because SBIFF is held each year right around the time that Academy members receive their final Oscar ballots, and because more than 100 Academy members are believed to live in and around Santa Barbara, many Oscar nominees — or people who hope to be Oscar nominees in the future — are happy to make the two-hour trek north from Los Angeles to participate in the festival, either as a tribute recipient, presenter or panelist.

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The fest previously announced that it will be presenting its Modern Master Award to Birdman's Michael Keaton; Cinema Vanguard Award to The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones; Outstanding Performer of the Year Award to Foxcatcher's Steve Carell; American Riviera Award to Boyhood's Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette; Montecito Award to Cake's Jennifer Aniston; Virtuosos Award to Obvious Child's Jenny SlateFury's Logan Lerman, Boyhood's Ellar Coltrane, Get On Up's Chadwick Boseman, Gone Girl's Rosamund Pike, Whiplash's J.K. Simmons and Selma's David Oyelowo; and Directors of the Year Award to Whiplash's Damien Chazelle, Boyhood's Richard Linklater, Foxcatcher's Bennett Miller, Citizenfour's Laura Poitras and The Imitation Game's Morten Tyldum.

On Wednesday, the Attenborough Award will be presented at the Arlington to the late Jacques Cousteau's son Jean-Michel Cousteau, and Jean-Michel's children Fabien Cousteau and Celine Cousteau, "for their decades-long commitment to educating the public and discovering the mysteries of the ocean."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg