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Welcome to the San Diego Italian Film Festival

Why does the San Diego Italian Film Festival have two names? A little bit of history, a little bit of identity.

All Italians have two names, their family name and another name used as their “official” identity. Now you might say, “Well, everyone has a nickname,” but in Italy the family name is not just a nickname – rather it is the boundary between the known, the familiar and the comfortable and the unknown, the mysterious and probably the uncomfortable. The San Diego Italian Film Festival is the family name given by the original founders who, beginning in 2005, showed films over a two year period through the House of Italy and who had little idea (more like none) what this creature was that they were naming.

This group, made up of almost all Italian and U.S. citizens, came from a variety of backgrounds (retired Italian Air Force Colonel, retired U.S. Navy Captain, former film professor, current Professor of Italian, retired businessman) but all were possessed by a devil, un diavolo, to make a spectacle of Italian culture in San Diego. And after showing movies through the House of Italy, they decided to leave their comfort zone and adopt a public persona. As a business. A non-profit business, senza scopo di lucro, as the Italians would say. As an official, California, non-profit corporation. This was their “official” identity, the one named on accounting, legal matters, by-laws, filing, the need to put on a good show, fare una bella figura. You see, the Italian keeps showing up. This creature was named The Italian American Art and Cultural Association of San Diego. The SDIFF dances in the streets; the IAACASD sits in boardrooms. But it’s the same person.

In 2006 the gang found a collection of recent feature films offered by the Italian government, talked their way into a theater at the Museum of Photographic Arts (MOPA), recruited a designer from Buenos Aires (design being essential to an Italian), and recruited someone noted for her food and parties to throw a gala (food and wine being the most important part of life), and they created a festival. The first festival, in 2007, was called Cinema Sud after the name of the film collection and in honor of all the Italians who came from southern Italy. By then the small group had expanded into a larger group, whose main characteristic, besides a love of Italian culture, was a kind of innocence about their project. That first time, as the final preparations were being made, no one had any idea what to expect or what was normal for a film festival; if we had movies, a great theater, a major party at the end – what else could be necessary?

The first festival arrived with the raging fires across southern California and here in San Diego, called the Witch Creek Fire. At that time there wasn’t a San Diego Italian Film Festival, there was no organization, no experience, and no understanding of what would or could happen. Like the vagaries of all the fires then, our experiences were hot, bright and whipped by winds, but in the case of Cinema Sud, nothing as tragic as the fires. In fact, those huge piles of 35mm films, which almost broke the van we carried them in, may have been a source of comfort to many. The numbers of people attending shocked everyone. They were huge.

Learning that the festival could not function well without some corporate structure, the group decided to apply for non-profit status. Not only should the organization include a film festival, but in fact, it should do all it could to bring all people together, not just Italians, to celebrate cultural creation in San Diego. The model we used to help us understand our goal was the Italian piazza, the open place where everyone gathers to share stories in words, music, film or food. And of course, the underlying theme of sharing all aspects of culture, which is what we picture in an Italian piazza, came to stand for our goals – community bathed in and connected by a sharing of culture.  And this organization was named the Italian American Arts and Cultural Association of San Diego, each word serving as part of our goal, tying identity with place and with the material to be shared.

Most of our audience has little notion of what the IAACASD means; few have heard of it, and most don’t like having to type so many words. But the name of the festival, the San Diego Italian Film Festival, has become an important and luminous feature of the San Diego arts and cultural scene.

The IAACASD, or SDIFF as it is often called, shows monthly movies at MOPA, produces a fall festival dedicated to the best of recent Italian cinema, and is now expanding into North County, where the SDIFF is now drawing very large numbers at La Paloma, a vintage movie house that still carries echoes of several generations of San Diegans seeking new and exciting stories in moving images. The SDIFF expects to soon bring its audiences into another major cultural venue in Downtown San Diego, one that will be a hallmark of San Diego civic culture – the theater at the new Library building. Modern, gorgeous, accessible from all parts of the county, and with what we think of as an Italian flair, great open spaces for gathering before or after a movie. And not only does it have great bay views but parking, which is tough to find anywhere, even in Italy.

While almost all work has been done by the all-volunteer board, the IAACASD has faced up to the fact that it needs to combine the creativity of Italian culture with the organizational skills of American culture, and this, interestingly enough, is exactly where Italian American can mean so much. Keep the brio but sharpen it so that the organization can cut through the work better.

Obviously nothing gets done without the help, support, and dedication of volunteers, and the SDIFF has some of the most dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers one could hope for. Many have asked for more to do to make the organization function even better and the board of the IAACASD has decided that that is exactly what needs to be done.

In the past, our volunteers have helped primarily with lobby operations. Now the board, after an important period of restructuring and research, has created a slate of positions to help carry out many management and coordination tasks, and in the process move the IAACASD into a larger arena of art and cultural sharing and outreach.

The prospects are exciting. The IAACASD has found a solid welcome wherever it has thrown a party, and in the next couple years its goal is to triple its offerings through film and through other Italian cultural expressions. We want everyone to know that as varied and wonderful as San Diego is, a large part of that wonder is our Italian culture and the creative interactions with the many cultures here in San Diego.