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It’s rare experience for an audience to spontaneously break into full-throated laughter or even applause in the middle of a movie—but such visceral reactions were frequent during the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival’s Student Screening Day, on Monday, Jan. 13.

More than 1,000 students from nine valley high schools were selected by teachers and administrators to fill the auditorium at the Palm Springs High School on the final day of this year’s film festival for screenings of Wadjda and The Crash Reel. They also participated in Q&A sessions after each showing.

“It’s been a sensational day,” said PSIFF director Darryl Macdonald. “I’m willing to bet that for the vast majority of our audience today, this film (Wadjda) was the first subtitled film they’ve ever seen. … It teaches them how people of their generation live on a day-to-day basis in Saudi Arabia—and their response was just overwhelmingly wonderful.”

For the film’s writer and director, Haifaa al-Mansour, the student audience’s vociferous support of her film helped make the struggles she endured while making the film in her native Saudi Arabia worthwhile.

“My country is segregated,” said al-Mansour. “It doesn’t allow a woman to be on the streets. So if the Saudis don’t want women in the streets, then I’ll make the film from a van with a monitor and a walkie-talkie. But I don’t think they like me to make the film as well—so here we go.”

Did she model the film’s rebellious and hyper-entrepreneurial title character after herself?

“I’m shy. I’m not a hustler like Wadjda,” said al-Mansour. “My niece is amazing, and I based the character on her. She’s always scheming some way to make money. She’ll never take no for an answer. I grew up with girls like that who have great potential, but they give up and become conservative, because this is the way society wants them.”

Bank of America is the sponsor for the educational day.

“We’ve been doing this day for six years,” said Al Arguello, the Inland Empire’s market president. “It’s the highlight of our annual sponsorship, because we’re able to expose over 1,000 students in the Coachella Valley to the art of film-making.”

Macdonald said it was a special day for everyone involved.

“This is exactly what our student screening day is all about: opening (students’) eyes to the world and giving them an opportunity to engage in a dialogue with these filmmakers, and ask penetrating questions that are inspired by the movies.”

Published in Previews and Features

It was Day 5 of the 2014 Palm Springs International Film Festival, and I wanted to talk to the leader of the festival’s critically important volunteer team.

Of course, this was not the best time for Rochelle Koch to take a few moments to chat with a pesky reporter. To put it mildly, she was kind of busy.

However, Koch, who is in her third year as the PSIFF volunteer coordinator, seemed happy to take some time to chat about her “wonderful team.”

“It’s my volunteer family, is how I refer to it,” said Koch (pronounced “Cook”), who comes across as a focused bundle of energy. “‘Our Volunteers Are The BEST!’ is what I put on my business card and on my emails—and it’s the truth.”

Festival director Darryl Macdonald was also happy to take a few moments out of his busiest week of the year to share his perspective.

“The volunteers’ contribution to the festival’s success is invaluable in every way,” he said. “This is one of the top three festivals in the U.S. in terms of attendance, with well over 130,000 attendees last year. So the manpower needed to support 15 screens showing films from early morning until well into the evening each day, the number of hands needed to deal with hundreds of filmmaking and press guests in town, coming and going throughout the festival … there are just so many fronts where extra hands and brains are needed that it is utterly true that without our volunteers, there is no way we could run a festival of this size or pursue the kinds of ambitions we have.”

Remember how we mentioned that Koch is kind of busy? Well, we were putting it mildly.

“I have over 3,500 shifts to cover at the five screening venues and various events over the 11 days of the festival,” she said Koch. “The main responsibility for myself and volunteer assistant coordinator David Gray is to manage and schedule volunteers, and making sure all of our shifts are covered when volunteers have to cancel their commitment, because life does happen.

“So out of our standing database of more than 2,000 registered volunteers, we have between 700 and 800 working at this festival—and we couldn’t do it without them. They’re wonderful people from all walks of life—a CEO to a dishwasher in a restaurant. They’re from different nationalities and different races. That’s what, I think, gives us our strength.”

The volunteers are organized into 19 active teams: Theater Operations, Transportation, Balloting, Special Events, Black-Tie Gala, Guest Services/Hospitality, Concierge, Credentials, Film Society, Film Review, Front Desk, Merchandise, Office, Opening/Closing Night, Street Team, Village Fest, Volunteer Department, Interpreter and—last but not least—the Lead Team, which supervises the Theatre Operations and Ballot volunteers.

“We rely on them to take care of everything from taking tickets at the door, dealing with customers at the merchandise outlets, (and helping) our guests in the hospitality suites, to travel support. Literally, we have volunteers who drive into Los Angeles to pick up filmmaker guests and drive them to Palm Springs,” Macdonald said. “There is not a single front of the festival that volunteers are not an integral part of.”

Few people realize that the Palm Springs International Film Festival volunteer effort is a year-round affair.

“We have a volunteer corps which helps out in the office year-round, and there’s a preview screening team made up of 16 volunteers that help us critique submitted films as they come in,” said Macdonald. “… We also do the Palm Springs ShortFest each June. It’s the largest short-film festival in North America, and last year, we got over 3,400 entries. So we’ve put together this crew of programming assistants from our volunteer corps. These are people who have long been immersed in film who help us with the grading process by actually watching the films and then recommending which films move forward in the process. It literally takes five or six months even for this group and our staff programming team to watch 3,400 films.

“I’m not entirely sure that some of us wouldn’t be wearing inch-thick glasses or be locked in a booby hatch somewhere, bouncing off of rubber walls, if it wasn’t for the help we get from our volunteers.”

Only a select few can claim to have been a part of the now finely tuned PSIFF volunteer effort from the beginning.

“We have three wonderful volunteers—Dee Thomas, and Sidel and Lionel Weinstein—who come out every season, and they’ve all been here since Sonny Bono started this festival 25 years ago,” said Koch. “And they are all such neat people.”

Of course, these three will be among the honored invitees to the annual post-festival “thank you party” for the volunteer staff, at which Macdonald and festival Chairman Harold Matzner will show their appreciation.

“When compared to all the various film festivals in the country, our volunteers have a wonderful reputation for being the friendliest and the most helpful, since they know film themselves, and they know what they’re doing,” said Koch. “All of our volunteers do a wonderful job, and they’re great ambassadors for Palm Springs.”

Those interested in becoming a PSIFF volunteer should visit the website at People who register will be contacted via phone by a volunteer representative.

Published in Previews and Features

What makes short films interesting? Why should people go see them?

“In many ways, I believe the great short film is harder to make than the great feature film,” said Darryl Macdonald, the executive director of the Palm Springs International Film Society, which is putting on the 2013 Annual Palm Springs International Shortfest, starting on Tuesday, June 18. “You have a very, compressed, limited amount of time to tell a story that really touches people, ideally on all three levels—emotionally, viscerally and intellectually. It’s a staggering feat to accomplish that.”

And which of the 330 films stand out at this year’s festival? Macdonald points out a 27-minute film from England called Walking the Dogs, which features Emma Thompson as Queen Elizabeth and tells the true story of a man who broke into the queen’s bedroom in 1982 while her royal guard was out walking her dogs.

Macdonald also cites Penny Dreadful, an 18-minute American comedy about a kidnapping gone wrong.

The festival features different programs representing various genres.

“A very popular program is our Award-Winning Documentaries. That show is always packed,” said Macdonald. “We’re also doing, for the third time this year, a kids’ show, called Kid Stuff, for kids aged 6-12. Artistic License, which revolves around stories related to art, is also very popular. Our LGBT programs are also very popular and sell out.”

Here are some highlights:

Programmers’ Picks (Camelot Theatres, 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, June 19): Programmers’ Picks features six shorts—you guessed it—assembled by the people with the Palm Springs International Shortfest. These are films that don’t fit in elsewhere, but are still notable. Fallen, a short from Germany, tells the story of three soldiers returning home from Afghanistan who are unable to deal with the losses they suffered. Listen is an Ethiopian short about a musician who has an inspiring encounter that leads to new compositions. The Telling is a thriller from Australia about a psychiatrist’s patient who tries to convince the doctor that the end of the world is near.

LGBT—Like Me (Camelot Theatres, 5 p.m. on Wednesday, June 19): There are two locally produced documentaries in the four-film LGBT—Like Me block. A Family Like Mine is from a student in Idyllwild, and it focuses on the subject of children brought up by gay parents. The Pride of Palm Springs is a documentary on the Palm Springs High School Marching Band’s participation in the Palm Springs Gay Pride Parade. Given the local contributions, this one’s a must-see.

Amazing Animation (Camelot Theatres, 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 20): For fans of animated shorts, this program of eight films has plenty to offer. The Collector’s Gift is an American short about a young girl who loves to collect objects and stumbles upon an old inventor’s house. Forty Hymns of Faith, from India, features stunning animation that is set to the Hindu devotional song “Hanuman Chalisa.”

After Hours (Camelot Theatres, 4 p.m. on Friday, June 21): A program of seven films about strange things in the night, After Hours sticks out as one of the best of the festival. The program includes an American short called Help Wanted, a comedy film about a convenience-store robbery during the graveyard shift. Elle Fanning stars in Likeness, a short about alienation directed by Rodrigo Prieto, cinematographer of Argo, Brokeback Mountain and Babel. One short that grabbed my attention was Honk If You’re Horny, from New Zealand, about a cab driver who gives a passenger a “ride from hell” while the passenger talks about his sexual escapades from the night—all as cops are chasing them.

Horrors! Thrillers! Mysteries! (Camelot Theatres, 7 p.m. on Friday, June 21): Locked Up, an Australian short, is about a storage security guard working on the night shift when he notices a crying woman going into her unit; his curiosity leads him into a mysteriously creepy situation. Night and Suddenly is a Spanish horror film about a woman home alone in her apartment when she receives a visit from her desperate upstairs neighbor, claiming his apartment is being broken into. Reset is a Swedish film about a little girl getting mysterious letters—with one of them triggering strange events.

Out … and Definitely “Out There” (Camelot Theatres, 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 22): This LGBT category features eight films. Chaser, an American short, is about a young schoolteacher who feeds his urges through self-destructive cruising. It’s Consuming Me, from Germany, focuses on a man who discusses what he loves and hates about his ex-lover. On Suffocation, a silent short from Sweden, is about two gay men who face criminal punishment for their relationship. Sufferin’ Till You’re Straight is a three-minute long animated musical short in protest of Proposition 8.

The 2013 Palm Springs International Shortfest takes place from Tuesday, June 18, through Monday, June 24, and includes various programs, forums, masterclasses, parties and more. Passes range from $54 to $200; individual screenings are $12, or $11 for matinees (starting before 3 p.m.). For a complete schedule, visit

Published in Previews and Features