ST. GEORGE — To Adam Mast, the concept of going out to see movies on the big screen still has a pulse even after the biggest public health crisis in more than 100 years.
“I mean, I love, love the big screen, said Mast, the co-founder of the Film and Media Alliance of Southern Utah. “That’s not to knock streaming. I love streaming too. There’s so much great content, but given the choice, I mean, heck my wife and I went and saw Godzilla vs. Kong on IMAX and drove down to Vegas to see it. We still went to see it in the theater.”
Mast and FAMSU co-founder John Pugh are hoping that passion for film with fellow enthusiasts in person will translate into a big box office as they host the third annual Desertscape International Film Festival starting this Wednesday for four nights at the Electric Theater at 68 E Tabernacle St.
This year’s festival features 61 films from more than 20 countries ranging from shorts to features, comedies to dramas, and documentaries to animation. There will also be live question and answer sessions with the filmmakers, 3D and virtual reality stations and a screenwriting clinic.
Unlike most film festivals in the last year, which either were canceled or held virtually, Desertscape – which is shortened to the acronym DIFF – still managed to hold their festival last July and August. While last year’s event was marked by masks and physical distancing, this year’s festival has been cleared by the City of St. George for full seating and while masks won’t be frowned upon, they’re not required.
“To say that this is going to be a different feel, we feel 100% different. Like we’re not walking on eggshells this time,” Pugh said. “It’s a feeling of hope and that we’re all going to get back to watching films together collectively inside a big room. That’s exciting.”
Each film festival has its own feel. Cannes has the glamour and big awards and Sundance up north has its showcase of independent films – and according to Mast, it can be a pain.
“I’ve been attending Sundance for 26 years and I love Sundance, but it’s a grind. It’s a trip from one venue to another,” Mast said. “And as much as I love it, man, it can be like running a marathon. We try to be as intimate as possible.”
Mast said intimacy is what sets DIFF apart from other festivals. Part of that is sticking to one venue: The historic St. George Electric Theater with its 200 seats, three-feet-thick adobe walls and 110 years of history.
“We love the history behind the Electric Theater. We’ll never lose that venue. The filmmakers come in and they love it,” Mast said. “It’s a single-screen theater, which is unheard of because we’re dominated by multiplexes now, but people just love it.”
While Mast and Pugh still have the ambition to expand the festival, they aren’t thinking more venues as much as just bigger and bigger films.
“We’re trying to bring storytellers from outside our area into town so that they can mingle with the locals and everybody can learn from each other,” Mast said.
This year’s storytellers include a session with local resident and “Falling Skies” actor Colin Cunningham as well as screenwriter Jeff Robison, whose film “Rudderless” directed by William H. Macy of “Fargo” and “Shameless” fame and starring Billy Crudup will be showcased.
“It’s an incredibly underappreciated movie,” Mast said. Robison will also be hosting a four-hour screenwriting clinic.
And Mast is quick to say the festival is only as good as its movies. And having screened just about all of them, Mast and Pugh have something to say about them.
A film that Mast said was a favorite of his is “Recovery,” written and featuring Whitney Call & Mallory Everton and Whitney Call of BYUtv’s “Studio C” as two sisters taking a cross-country trip to rescue their grandmother from a COVID-19 outbreak at her nursing home.
“It’s a road trip comedy and we’re closing the festival with that,” Mast said of the film, which is making its Utah premiere on June 26.
Also having its Utah premiere on Friday is the documentary “Zero Gravity,” about a diverse group of middle school kids who take part in a competition to code satellites aboard the International Space Station. Mast said this film may be the kind of feel-good movie needed post-pandemic.
“There’s just a lot of negativity. And one of the things I really like about ‘Zero Gravity’ is just what it has to say,” Mast said. “The positivity that it pushes forth is about youth … and not just youth, but teachers who are kind of some of the unsung heroes of the world, if you ask me.”
Pugh has some of his own favorites – especially among the short subjects – including a French-Canadian short being shown Friday called “The Danger in Front.”
“The thing is, I can’t really do that film justice through words. It’s just a film that you have to see,” Pugh said. “It’s very surreal, very dreamy. It’s offbeat, but it’s visually so impressive.”
Speaking of visuals, Pugh is high on a block of no-dialogue animated shorts being featured Wednesday, especially what he said is a revolutionary animated short called “0110.”
“It is just the coolest CG animation,” Pugh said.
And on the funny side, Pugh said he loved the French-Canadian short “Mister Cachemire,” screening Friday. “That one is just hands down one of the funniest films I’ve seen this year,” Pugh said. “It’s just quirky and absurd, and I loved it.”
A complete schedule of the films can be found here.
- What: The Desertscape International Film Festival.
- When: All day, Wednesday, June 23, 2021 to Saturday, June 26, 2021
- Where: The Electric Theater, 68 E. Tabernacle, St. George.
- Cost: Each film block is $10, with an all day pass costing $25 and an all-access pass between $75 and $100.
Purchase tickets: Online or at the event.
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