Nonprofit is ramping up, showing selected films in anticipation of next April’s festival

The PJIFF fundraiser was held Sept. 25 at Morgan’s Cove.
Photo courtesy PJIFF

By Marty Cheek

By going small, the Poppy Jasper International Film Festival is going big. The South Valley’s celebrated cinematic cultural gala is streaming independent films with live interview panels of movie-makers that are seen by film fans around the world.

The eight-day festival scheduled for the first week in April would have brought filmmakers to chat with local movie buffs in Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Hollister and San Juan Bautista. More than 40 filmmakers had planned to attend, many from other countries. The festival jurors had selected 205 films, with special days devoted to showing Chinese and Mexican films.

Organizers had to cancel this year’s festival when the coronavirus crisis forced the Santa Clara County Health Department to issue shelter-in-place orders in mid-March. The small army of volunteers and organizers were sad that their work would not be enjoyed by thousands of movie buffs. Despite the loss, board members stayed determined to keep the event alive at smaller venues to showcase the selected films throughout the following months, said Mattie Scariot, the festival’s director.

“We had to rethink how we would do the film festival in April 2021,” she said. “We thought we would build up to the festival by creating these smaller events throughout the proceeding months. It sort of gets us ready for the big event in April next year.”

The festival is going to be a hybrid event offering audiences a mixture of live and streamed showings from here on out, she said. A series of “drive-in” showings of festival films had been planned for September, but the heavy smoke in the air from the series of wildfires in Northern California forced these outdoor events to be cancelled at the last minute.

Organizers held a special dinner and movies under the start event at Morgan’s Cove, the pirate-themed in the backyard of the home of Morgan Hill resident Rich Firato. Thirty-six people attended, sitting safely distant at six tables seating six. The $50 tickets included a delicious dinner prepared by Gilroy caterer Troy Garcia and the singing talent of Ted Sanchez, a Gilroy crooner who entertained with songs such as the Bobby Darrin classic “Beyond the Sea.”

The guests sat in front of a large screen where a projector showed a Crowdcast video-based panel of five movie-magic makers who created the special effects for Walt Disney Pictures’ “Pirates of the Caribbean” series of films. Guests learned how the filmmakers built the movie’s pirate ships such as the Black Pearl by seeing a video of how they did the details on the model and filmed it to create a realistic experience for the big budget film.

The discussion was streamed to anyone anywhere in the world who purchased a virtual ticket. Audiences could watch these videos live or later.

The Poppy Jasper held an event Oct. 2 and 3 in downtown Sacramento in the pedestrian courtyard between the IMAX theater and the Hyatt Hotel. They put up a screen on the hotel’s garage and people were able to watch a film from the festival, followed by a Crowdcast panel discussion by filmmaker Rick Baker and actress Markie Post, who was in the independent film.

If its various virtual events prove successful in attracting film fans, organizers hope to take the festival to other California cities including Heavenly and Livermore.

“We’ll be taking the Poppy Jasper everyplace, which is great,” Scariot said. “My goal has always been to get more of our audience outside of our community so that we can get people to come into it during the festival. So, this is really a good way to do that.”

Poppy Jasper’s organizers are working with the Gilroy Downtown Business Association to do a second Movie Under the Stars event Oct. 10 in the backyard of a prominent Victorian home in downtown Gilroy. Similar to the Morgan’s Cove event, this will have a Latino cinema theme. Tickets are $50. Up to 36 people will sit at six tables of six and enjoy a meal of paella cooked up by Milias Restaurant’s chef. Spanish guitar music will be performed by Gavilan College music instructor Albert Marques.

Two select films will be shown. From Portugal, “The Boy and the Owl” is a fable of love and letting go. It was created by Mario Gajo de Carvalho who drew each frame himself as a pencil and pen drawing. It took him seven years to make. He will talk about the film by video from Portugal.

The dark comedy “Your Last Day on Earth” comes from Spain. It is a 13-minute science fiction movie by Marc Martínez Jordán about a man dressed as a fox who travels back in time visit his dead/missing wife.

“It is quirky humor. This director is so talented,” Scariot said. “He has a strong sense of timing and purpose.”

The Gilroy event will be shown via video throughout the world.

The COVID-19 outbreak changed the art and craft of filmmaking and distribution. Many movie theaters are now closed, forcing  filmmakers to explore other options to share their celluloid creations with audiences.

“Once the pandemic hit, they put out a call where we would have this Friday morning COVID conference call, and about 150 film festivals would be on Zoom,” she said. “It was amazing because we’re all in the same boat. It didn’t matter how big or small you were because we were all lost. And so over time we built this camaraderie between us. It was so cool to be talking to people throughout the United States and learning from that.”

As the pandemic worsened in the spring, the Poppy Jasper’s board considered turning the April festival online but decided against doing this at the last minute because it would not be the same experience for audiences, Scariot said.

“We put together an amazing eight days,” she said. “It will still play next year. It’s not like bread or milk. It’s not going to go bad. It’s still great. It’s a great program of films from around the world. So I wanted to move it to next year. But meanwhile we’re going to take some of the films that we have and show them throughout the year and do panels and stuff.”

It’s vital to communities across America and around the world to ensure the pandemic does not damage the cultural pursuit of cinematic events such as the Poppy Jasper.

“If you think about it, the arts have saved people during COVID-19,” Scariot said. “You listen to music and you watch films, and that is what has gotten people through this pandemic. It’s interesting because a lot of festivals that have gone virtual are doing well because people want to support the arts. And we have a mission. Our mission is to change the way we see each other through films, and that is something that stands out when they’re going to go and watch a film.”

Marty Cheek