The 21st Sarasota Film Festival commenced Friday, April 5, with a red carpet and movie screening at a new venue—the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium, where a casual atmosphere and popcorn, snacks and beverages for purchase greeted attendees—and a new opening night party locale, the Sarasota Modern Hotel, as well.
The emphasis on opening the fest with a documentary film continued as it has for the past few years, though, with director Avi Belkin’s look at the late, longtime television journalist Mike Wallace in Mike Wallace Is Here—the phrase that for decades struck fear into the hearts of his potential interviewees, especially those suspected of wrongdoing.
Wallace died in 2012, so Belkin didn’t have the chance to interview the interviewer himself. But he worked with tons of archival footage to present Wallace at work, often issuing his hard-hitting questions wreathed in a cloud of cigarette smoke in his early days; later, after years spent on 60 Minutes, occasionally finding the tables turned and himself the one facing questions from his fellow journalists.
Belkin said in a Q&A after the screening that he wanted to make a movie about journalism and how it’s changed over the past four or five decades, and that he happened upon Wallace as “the Zelig or Forrest Gump” character who turned out to have been there at every turning point in broadcast television history, including coverage of the Vietnam War, the Iranian hostage crisis, Watergate and much more.
While the film raises pointed questions itself about the costs of doing investigative work, the attitude the public has toward the news media, and, of course, the importance of the freedom of the press, it also lends more personal insights into the heart, soul and mind of Wallace. He began his career in radio, often shilled for commercial products in his early career, and was frequently accused of overdramatizing his broadcasts. Apparently Wallace himself struggled with the perception among other news professionals that he was not a “pure” journalist due to his background; he also dealt with severe depression, which makes even more remarkable the body of work he was able to leave behind.
Undoubtedly Mike Wallace Is Here will turn up somewhere on the big or small screen after this month; it’s worth looking out for. The festival continues through April 14; for the full line-up of films and events, visit sarasotafilmfestival.com.