Opening Night: SFF Director of Programming Michael Dunaway Takes Stock Of His First Festival

Last night marked the 17th opening night for the Sarasota Film Festival and the first for new director of programming, Michael Dunaway, who took some time on the red carpet to share a bit with SRQ.

“It’s tough to come in when there’s been one set of leadership for a long time,” said Dunaway, in reference to the recent departure of previous director of programming, Tom Hall. “But everyone’s been so incredibly welcoming that it’s been very easy and very comfortable.”

Opening with Time Out Of Mind, starring Richard Gere and Ben Vereen as homeless men on the streets of New York City and directed by Oscar-nominated director Oren Moverman, Dunaway saw the film at the New York Film Festival and admits to being initially skeptical but “within five minutes, I was totally blown away.”

Dunaway took the film to SFF founder and president, Mark Famiglio, and pitched a festival themed around the issue of homelessness. Famiglio’s “eyes lit up,” according to Dunaway. As it turns out, Famiglio had just weeks prior met with the City Manager to talk about getting a film made in the area about that very topic. “It was just a meeting of the minds.”

In addition to Time Out Of Mind, Dunaway has peppered the festival’s programming with a series of narrative films, documentaries, panels and other events designed to bring the issue of homelessness to the forefront and start a community conversation.

“It’s important to have art for art’s sake, said Dunaway. “But while we have this bully pulpit in the festival, it’s important that we use it correctly and use it to bring attention to things that people need to be paying attention to.”

This may be Dunaway’s debut voyage as the head of a film festival, but he aims to make it a memorable one. “For its entirety, the festival has had such a high bar for excellence in programming, in events – in everything,” said Dunaway. “If we can just continue that upward trend this year, I will be beyond satisfied.”

“It helps that we have a masterpiece of an opening night film,” he continued.

Pictured: Michal Dunaway. Photo By: Shane Donglasan

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