By Pam Daniel
Like lots of other locals, I love to escape Sarasota summers for northern Michigan, where along with (usually) cooler temperatures you’ll find some of the most beautiful scenery on earth. Quiet roads wind through evergreen forests and along farms dotted with cherry orchards, and every now and then you’ll catch stunning glimpses of royal-blue Lake Michigan. We go for the beauty, the peace and the quiet, figuring we get our fill of social events and culture the rest of the year in sophisticated Sarasota.
Or at least that’s what we used to figure, before we attended last week’s film festival in Traverse City, an hour north of our cottage in the woods. Traverse City not only has a spectacular setting, on Grand Traverse Bay, but a busy airport, nearby wineries and a charming little downtown, with upscale boutiques and galleries and cafes. It also has a thriving cultural scene, crowned by the Traverse City Film Festival. We were eager to see how it compared with our own Sarasota Film Festival, and after attending the first few days, I can say that both are excellent, with a similar line-up of films (in fact, some of the 100 or so movies shown at the Traverse event were screened in Sarasota last April). But the Traverse festival has an intimate, casual and community-owned feeling that is all its own.
The marquee on opening night.
And that’s because Traverse City has two things we don’t—its guiding spirit, Academy Award-winning fillmmaker Michael Moore, and its primary venue, downtown’s historic State Theatre. Whatever some might think of Moore’s outspoken liberal politics, his love for film and for his native Michigan have made him a hero in Traverse City. In addition to starting and running the festival—which is focused on bringing “Just Great Movies” to the audience rather than on industry deal-making—Moore rallied the town to save and restore the State Theatre, which is now community-owned and operated. From the twinkling stars on the ceiling to the red-velvet curtains shielding the screen, it’s a grand and gorgeous place. The woman sitting next to me at the opening-night film, a schoolteacher in blue jeans and a sweater, proudly recounted that this year, Michael decided they needed to do some work on the exterior, so “We all pitched in and got that done.”
When we took our seats for the opening-night film, an Irish slide band was revving up the crowd. (There was live music before every film we saw, something Sarasota festival organizers might consider adding.) When Moore ambled onto the stage, the standing-room-only audience gave him some good-natured ribbing about appearing in a suit rather than his usual shorts and baseball cap. He spent almost an hour on stage and was engaging for the entire time, talking about movies, introducing a kid who was donating the proceeds from his lemonade stand to restore a similar theater in a nearby town, and then bringing up actress Susan Sarandon. The Traverse event is not really about celebrities, although it does include panels with actors and filmmakers. This year the festival awarded a rare Lifetime Achievement Award to Sarandon, but after she and Moore chatted a bit, it turned out no one was sure where the award was or who was supposed to bring it onstage, which elicited affectionate laughter from the audience.
Moore and Sarandon check out the stars on the theater’s ceiling.
Moore helps Luke from nearby Manistee make a pitch for funds to restore an historic cinema there.
But it was the opening-night film, Searching for Sugarman, that was the real star of the evening. Made by a Swedish filmmaker, it’s a documentary about a Detroit rock musician who faded into obscurity in this country after two albums in the early 1970s. He spent his life laboring in poverty in the inner city, while—completely unknown to him—his albums became a sensation in South Africa, where his music helped inspire the anti-apartheid movement. The film has the most inspiring Cinderella-style ending imaginable, which left most of us wildly applauding while wiping away tears.
Then Moore came back on stage and said, smiling shyly, “I have a surprise for you.” The red velvet curtains parted and out came Sugarman himself. The new roof almost flew off the old State Theatre in the ensuing uproar; the next day, at a panel discussion with Moore and Sarandon, a visitor from Palm Springs’ film festival stood up and said to Moore, “I have been to film festivals all over the world, and I have to tell you, nothing has ever compared to what you put on for us last night.”
The Sugarman himself.
Wherever we went in town, people seemed to be talking about the festival. Some say it’s the reason they retired to Traverse City; others wait in line for five hours to get their tickets on the day they go on sale. Many are “Friends of the Festival,” purchasing memberships that start at $120 a year. At a sidewalk cafe, we struck up a conversation with a woman who told us she was a longtime festival supporter and admitted, blushing, that she’d just bought a new dress for the sponsor dinner with Sarandon. At the street party after the opening-night film, which was lit by a Hollywood-perfect full moon, people were just as friendly, welcoming us to town and comparing movie schedules. And even after we returned to our cottage, we were able to listen in on the panels, which were carried by a nearby radio station.
The downtown street party crowd
Of course, film lovers can find magic aplenty at the Sarasota event, which runs longer than the Traverse festival and hosts more movies, parties and special events. Indeed, much as we loved the small-town vibe of that opening-night party, after sampling the food stations, we admitted we missed one thing about Sarasota: the catering. We’re eager to immerse ourselves in Sarasota’s glamour and fabulous films again this April; but come next July, we’ll return—now as card-carrying Friends of the Festival—to Traverse City.
Inside the beautiful State Theatre.