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The San Francisco International Film Festival kicks off tonight at the Castro Theater, but after the opening, the majority of the festival’s will be held in the Mission District for the first time ever. Mission Local spoke with SFIFF Executive Director Noah Cowan about the transition and what it will change.

Mission Local: Was there a moment when someone said, hey, we should do this in the Mission?

Noah Cowan: We are a city based film festival, and that means that we are also ambassadors for this place.

When I arrived here [from Toronto] nothing really rivaled the Mission in terms of the brilliance of its history and its existing culture on the one and, and …on the other, the incredible changes that that have occurred there.

To me, this neighborhood really represents San Francisco in transition. That, I think, is going to be of most interest to our dozens and dozens of visitors, hundreds of visitors from out of town, as they start seeing what’s been great about San Francisco and some of what’s been lost in San Francisco, and what’s new in the city.

We’re working really diligently to embrace both the old and the new in the mission and we have a lot of different kinds of partnerships in order to do that.

Without a doubt with neighborhood is among the most vibrant, interesting and contested on the planet. Festivals are all about beginning conversation and dialogue. And so what better place to do that than the Mission?

We can create a really marvelous festival village between 16th and 24th streets in the Mission and we’re really proud of that. We’re really proud we’re helping to upgrade existing facilities in the neighborhood as well as the new arrivals, the Alamo Drafthouse.

ML:You mentioned uprgading. What are some changes and upgrades you contributed?

NC: The Victoria has done great work in terms of encouraging live theater in that space. We purchased a projector to make the experience better in the Victoria. We’re always just doing what would appear to be minor changes but actually enhance the audience’s experience in all of our work.

For example, in a sponsorship with Dolby,  which is among the best, and started as a San Francisco based company…[Consultants] walk into a cinema figure out how to recalibrate the sound and how it’s going to be more effective with things like speaker placement, etc.

Visiting filmmakers really appreciate that because their films sound and look great.

ML: With this “film village,” do you see yourself as reviving Mission street as cinema thoroughfare?

NC: My understanding is that for most of its history until really recently, the Mission area was packed with films, so it was just a great place to see a movie and was a really important moviegoing capitol of the city.

If we can play a part in reviving that and making that a reality once again that’d make us really proud, and I think we’re on the way. We’re having a great time understanding the history and culture of the place we’re going into right now.

Part of that is seeing photos of Mission Street full of really fabulous movie palaces. It’s great to feel like we’re playing some small role in bringing that back.

ML: What does having these different types of facilities allow you to do?

NC: Gray area still feels very much part of the family this year, and has new technology. For us it’s an obvious match for readers who don’t know what Gray Area is. It’s one of the preeminent  digital arts facilities in the country. It feels very forward thinking. We’re really happy that they wanted us.

We’re going to be doing some events there and a lot of the arts stuff – we couldn’t have asked for a better place for that.

When we talk about a village I think what we talk about is somewhat organic. The Mission has a long history of welcoming people and we think this will be no different.

The fact that we have so many theaters and opportunities for engagement…plus we’re going to have lots of filmmakers and people from out of town industry I think there’s going to be this wonderful spontaneous film community. It’s a place within the world that feels really open to conversation and dialogue and we’re hoping we can add to that by bringing in these terrific filmmakers from around the planet.

ML: Does this allow you to do something that a different setup might not allow?

NC: The move has also provided us the opportunity to kind of make the festival a little bit more festive. We’re able to serve drinks in all of our theaters, a couple have food, it allows it to become a bit of a bigger experience, a more wholesome experience.

We’ll see how it all plays out of course, but for now, in many ways, this is going to be a pilot year for us to see how it goes. What we’re going to get out of the experience, what the audience will get out of the experience, and what the neighborhood will get out of the experience. And we’ll reassess next year and make it even better.

You can see a full schedule of SFIFF screenings and events here

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