San Diego International Film Festival focuses on what you can’t get at home

Two boys run with smiles on their faces.
Jaylin Webb (left) as Johnny Crocker and Michael Banks Repeta as Paul Graff in writer-director James Gray’s “Armageddon Time,” which is Wednesday’s opening night film at the San Diego International Film Festival.
(Courtesy of Focus Features)

Back with a full slate of in-person events, the annual celebration boasts early looks at studio films, Q&As with filmmakers, and the camaraderie of fellow cinephiles


Ask Tonya Mantooth, CEO and artistic director of the San Diego International Film Festival, if in this era of COVID-driven streaming from home people still want to go to the movies. Her answer will be emphatic.

“Everybody,” she declared, “wants the chance to come back together, to share a sense of community.”

Especially, Mantooth added, fans who want to see films that few others have seen before them.

At the 21st annual SDFF, which begins Wednesday, Oct. 19 and runs through Oct. 23, “you’re going to see studio premieres that when we screen them maybe one or two audiences in the country have seen,” said Mantooth. “For people who are cinephiles, that’s a huge piece of a film festival.

“Also, there are independent films they may never see elsewhere. Documentaries about what’s going on around the world. Foreign films that offer a glimpse into another country, another culture. You have the ability to watch a film and have a Q&A afterward. You’re not just getting out of the theater and going to your car.”

After partly virtual festivals in 2020 and 2021, this year’s SDFF, produced by the San Diego Film Foundation, boasts a heavy schedule of in-person screenings at venues including the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park and AMC UTC-14 at the Westfield UTC shopping center. There also is an extensive schedule of online screenings for those who still want to watch from home.

This year’s festival lineup includes 155 films in total, among them full-length features, documentaries and short films. Actor Andy Garcia, who starred in “The Godfather Part III” and “Ocean’s Eleven” among many other films, will be the 2022 recipient of the festival’s Gregory Peck Award for Cinematic Excellence.

The festival’s opening night screening, Wednesday at 7 p.m. at MOPA, is director James Gray’s “Armageddon Time” starring Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong and Anthony Hopkins. Bookending it on closing night Oct. 23 at 7:15 at AMC UTC-14 is Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” with a cast that includes Olivia Colman and Colin Firth.

“I’m really thrilled about the studio films in particular,” said Mantooth, “because I think each one has a powerful message to it. For the independent films and the documentaries I wanted to highlight a number of social issues, one of them being human sex trafficking (the documentary ‘Exit’ directed by Alison Jayne Wilson).”

Mantooth also has programmed the documentary “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” directed by Yoruba Richen and Johanna Hamilton, which she said illuminates “a side of her (Parks) that I didn’t know.”

Recognizing the increasing status of female writers, producers and directors, the festival this year has added a Women’s Film Series to the five-day-long festivities. The series is the upshot of conversations between Mantooth and Felicia Shaw, executive director of the Balboa Park-based Women’s Museum of California.

“They had run their San Diego Women’s Film Festival for eight years,” Mantooth recalled. “I very often sat in on their panels, did interviews, supported it in any way they asked of me. But it was hard for them to grow it.

“She (Shaw) said, ‘Why don’t we join forces, and under your umbrella we’ll be able to shine an even brighter light on women in film?’ I’m thrilled to launch it this year and to grow it.”

For Mantooth, who’s directed the SDFF for 11 years, its own growth has been gratifying.

“The festival’s changed in a number of ways,” she said. “One, when I took over, one of the first things I wanted to accomplish was to increase the number of submissions from filmmakers. At that time there were maybe 300 or 400 films submitted to us. This year we topped almost 3,100 from 85 countries. Building that credibility with filmmakers from around the country and the fact that they chose to submit to us is a huge compliment.

“Another thing is the support from the studios. They don’t allow many film festivals to screen their studio premieres. To build that trust with them, to be able to highlight and premiere those films, is significant.”

To see the SDFF film and screening guide, go to

Coddon is a freelance writer.

San Diego International Film Festival

When: Oct. 19-23

Where: Various venues and online

Tickets: Individual screening tickets start at $16; in-person and virtual passes available (prices vary)