This Ocean Film Festival Does More Than See the Sea

By Nancy Friedman

April 1, 2022

Here’s what you can expect at any film festival: new films, fun swag, revealing Q&A sessions with filmmakers, stimulating conversations in the lobby or in the line for the restrooms. At the International Ocean Film Festival—North America’s oldest and largest ocean film festival–you can expect all that and something more: a call to action.

“Yes, our flagship event is the festival,” says Ana Blanco, who has been the San Francisco–based festival’s executive director since 2011. “But what we really are is an ocean conservation organization and a global platform for ocean education and literacy.”

If that sounds serious, it is—but the IOFF, now in its 19th year, is also wildly entertaining and inspiring. (Disclosure #1: I’ve been involved with the festival, as an envelope-stuffing volunteer and ticket-buying audience member, since its first year.) Having survived and innovated during two pandemic years, the festival returns, live and in person, to San Francisco’s Cowell Theater in Fort Mason Thursday, April 7, through Sunday, April 10, more committed than ever to its mission: “Saving the oceans, one film at a time.” Additional programs at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater and Marin County’s Smith Rafael Film Center, plus two weeks of post-festival virtual screenings, bring the festival and its mission to an even wider audience.

Fifty films from 17 countries will explore myriad aspects of ocean life, from humble sea slugs to invasive lionfish (“ocean murder hedgehogs,” as the film’s title luridly puts it) to mighty whales. Swimming, sailing, aquatic farming, and deep-sea mining will also be represented. If past festivals are any indication, the programs featuring surf-themed films (Friday evening) and shark-themed films (Saturday afternoon) will be among the most popular.

And don’t forget that mission. Ana Blanco is particularly eager to boost a new feature called “Ocean Action Cinema”: four films that will be followed by “action items” flashed on the screen. Because this festival isn’t just about appreciating the oceans—it’s about protecting them.

Belying its ambitious scope, the IOFF had modest and unlikely beginnings. The festival’s founder, Krist Jake, a San Francisco entrepreneur and nonprofit executive, had no experience in filmmaking or producing public events. An Ohio native,, he’d never seen an ocean until he was 22, but he became an enthusiast when he moved to the Bay Area for graduate school and then work. (Disclaimer #2: Krist is a longtime acquaintance.) He also relished adventure in general, and in 2000 he attended the touring program of the Banff Mountain Film Festival. “I was swimming in San Francisco Bay with the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, and I could imagine a similar festival that told stories about saltwater exploration,” he tells me. The following year, he saw a series of short films about sea creatures at the San Francisco International Film Festival: “They’d been directed by Jean Painlevé, a French filmmaker who’d died in 1989 and whom I’d never heard of before. It was a revelation. The impetus for the ocean film festival was born then and there.” At the time, there was only one other ocean film festival in the world: the Festival International du Film Maritime, founded in 1954 in Toulon, France.

Krist set about learning how to produce a film festival. “I looked for a book, something like Film Festivals for Dummies, but I couldn’t find one,” he says. Instead, he enlisted his wife, Laurie, and several friends and neighbors, including San Francisco Bicycle Coalition program director Andy Thornley. Planning sessions began in the Jakes’ home in 2002, and the first festival made its debut over two days in January 2004, screening 24 films from six countries. Many members of the original planning group, including Thornley, remained committed festival volunteers for a decade or longer.

Cover of the program for the first San Francisco Ocean Film Festival. Illustration by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank (1943–2007).

“Everything was a challenge in the beginning,” Krist Jake recalls. “What films would we screen? How would we find an audience? I was surprised that the idea immediately resonated with some people but not others—including funders I’d expected to be in our ‘zone.’” Despite those challenges, the San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, as it was originally known, found an eager audience in the city by the Bay, and within a few years was sustainable.

One reason for the festival’s success was a core of talented volunteers. Sid Hollister, who has a master’s degree in film studies and has taught film at UC Davis and the Bay Area Video Coalition, signed up early on to review film submissions. Eighteen years later, he’s still doing it. (Disclaimer #3: Sid is another longtime acquaintance—a Dolphin Club member like Krist and me.) “We begin looking at films in early September,” he tells me, “and our committee”—usually about 10 people—“meets every couple of weeks to discuss what we’ve seen. By now I’ve seen more than 2,000 films on the oceans and island cultures, so you could say I have a library in my head about film quality and how the many aspects of the oceans are treated.” One of his favorites in this year’s festival is Selma, “about 11 Polish sailors who take a sailing yacht closer to the South Pole than any other vessel has gone. It’s a wonderful human story.” Selma will screen at 7 p.m. April 9 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael.

 

When Ana Blanco took over from Krist Jake as the festival’s executive director, she was also new to film-festival management but not to the love of oceans. The youngest of 10 children, she moved from Texas to Lima, Peru, when she was 11, and grew up near the Pacific Ocean; she later became a recreational sailor. Also like Krist, she had extensive experience as a nonprofit and for-profit executive, and she quickly learned the ropes and began innovating. She introduced a student film competition, open to middle- and high-school students around the world; each film is no longer than five minutes, and winners receive cash prizes. “It’s surprising how good these films are,” Ana says, “and how many countries are represented—last year we had submissions from Pakistan and Cyprus.” This year’s winning films will be screened at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, April 10, at Fort Mason; admission is free.

Ana also introduced a traveling program that brings festival films to partner organizations throughout the U.S. and around the world. “Not all of our selections get picked up by distributors, but they still deserve to be seen,” she says. Another global initiative is the one with San Francisco sister city Kiel, Germany, now in its fifth year. About 20 people are expected to represent Kiel’s Cinemare International Film Festival and to present two German films on April 8: the short documentary The Origin: Life Around the Hot Spring and the feature-length Sturmfahrt (Storm Ride): The World’s Toughest Sailing Race. (As part of their immersive visit, 10 of the Germans will swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco on April 10 with members of the South End Rowing Club.)

Sturmfahrt

All this global activity merited an upgrade in the festival’s name: In 2017, it officially became the International Ocean Film Festival.

The two pandemic years were tough, Ana acknowledges. “We had to cancel the 2020 festival a week before opening night, in mid-March,” she says. Her team quickly pivoted to an all-online program, and then did it again in March 2021, when most large venues remained closed. Not only did the festival not lose any sponsors or donors, Ana says with pride, “we actually gained some sponsors, and our global audience increased by 40 percent.”

                                                                                            Ana Blanco, via International Ocean Film Festival

Just as Ana has changed the festival, so the festival has changed Ana. Inspired and moved by the films she’s seen, she is now producing and directing a film of her own: Sequoias of the Sea, about “how the Northern California kelp forest is being decimated because of warmer waters and the huge increase in the population of purple sea urchin, which isn’t as popular as the red urchin—uni—found at sushi restaurants.” One young chef in Elk, California, on the Mendocino County coast, is addressing the problem by putting purple urchin on the menu. “We’re excited about what we’re discovering about making purple urchin a more adaptable food choice,” Ana says. (Watch a trailer for Sequoias of the Sea.)

Meanwhile, she’s looking forward to this year’s feast of ocean films. There was “a great turnout” at a recent launch party, and enthusiastic volunteers are signing up. After two pandemic years, Ana says, “people want something that’s meaningful and impactful. They want a big ocean hug!”

“The oceans connect all of us—all around the world,” Ana says. “And the ocean still needs us.” The International Ocean Film Festival will keep telling ocean stories as long as the need exists.

19th International Ocean Film Festival

April 7–10, San Francisco and San Rafael

Virtual festival: April 11–24, online

Buy individual tickets and passes

Enjoy a gallery of trailers for many of the festival’s film below. 

Nancy Friedman is a writer and branding consultant in Oakland, naming products and companies in virtually every category: a condom, a venture-capital firm, a brand of freezer-to-stovetop meals, an office chair, one of the first mobile payment systems in the United States, a photo-sharing app, a pioneer in the business of divorce funding. A former newspaper and magazine journalist, she now contributes regularly to Medium, the Visual Thesaurus, the Strong Language blog, and her own blog, Fritinancy. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Read more about her name-development process in interviews with me in the Wordnik blog and the Chicago Manual of Style Online.

When  not working with words, Nancy swims wordlessly in San Francisco Bay with other members of the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club.

 

Complete Schedule and how to buy tickets for both in-person and Virtual showings.

 

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