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Mardesich (left) with L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn at the press launch for this year’s LAHIFF in February. (photo: Martin Zamora, L.A. County)

For two decades, Stephanie Mardesich has been spreading the gospel of cinema.

“It’s surreal in many ways because it does not feel like two decades have passed,” says Mardesich, the director and founder of the Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival (LAHIFF), which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this month at the Warner Grand Theatre.

Looking back on those 20 years, Mardesich is amazed at how many films and notable guests she has been able to bring to the Warner Grand’s stage since the inaugural festival in April 2004.

“When I close my eyes, all the years and so many amazing moments flash before me,” she says. “Not only have we had true movie stars, but also exceptional talent present. From our first Hollywood Nostalgia Tribute featuring Neptune’s Daughter with star Betty Garrett present to the next year featuring South Pacific with Mitzi Gaynor. Then [we had] West Side Story with co-stars George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn [here].”

As Mardesich describes it, the festival has always been a celebration of film and prides itself on screening films from past generations and more contemporary times, with a strong focus on children’s education through its “Read the Book, See the Movie” (RBSM) program. This year is no exception.

For its 20th anniversary, and last at the Warner Grand Theatre before major renovations occur, the LAHIFF has an eclectic lineup that includes a Mel Brooks horror comedy, a timeless holiday classic, and the return of the quintessential San Pedro documentary.

The film festival begins Thursday, March 2, at 10:30 a.m. with the Academy Award-nominated Disney animated classic, The Jungle Book (1967), part of the festival’s “Read the Book, See the Movie” education outreach program. 

The program, a unique cornerstone of the festival, promotes literacy through film. Students read and discuss the book before visiting the Warner Grand Theatre and seeing the film version on the big screen. Since 2004, more than 20,000 free books (provided by festival sponsor Penguin Random House Young Readers) have been distributed to students. There’s usually a Q&A held after the movie.

“We knew from the beginning that an education outreach program would be a key component of the LAHIFF,” says Mardesich. “As a student of literature and film scholar, the idea of source to screen has always been a keen interest. So, I came up with the simple concept of the RBSM — to promote literacy and a more thoughtful way to view a film. Publishers responded, educators and schools praised the RBSM concept, and sponsors embraced the program.”

Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein (1974), the opening night film of this year’s LAHIFF. (photo: 1974 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

The festival continues Friday, March 3, at 7 p.m. with the opening night selection of the Mel Brooks classic, Young Frankenstein (1974), kicking off the film’s upcoming 50th anniversary. 

On Saturday, March 4, at 1 p.m., in their 11th year with the festival, New Filmmakers LA (NFMLA) will present their Emerging Filmmakers Showcase featuring four short films. 

“Our aim is always to educate, entertain, and enlighten the film-going audience,” says Mardesich. 

Later that afternoon is the festival’s traditional Hollywood Nostalgia Tribute night featuring a 35mm screening of the Bing Crosby holiday classic, White Christmas (1954). A Christmas film in March may seem odd, but Mardesich has always had an eccentric flair, so a decision to feature a holiday film as we enter spring isn’t surprising.

“We thought it would be a great ‘last hurrah’ at the Warner Grand before the hiatus,” explains Mardesich. “White Christmas, with its fabulous cast, a charming, heartfelt story full of wartime heroes and romance, the memorable Irving Berlin songs, was the most popular and lucrative film released in 1954.”

The night will benefit Harbor Interfaith Services and the YWCA of the Harbor Area & South Bay. Donate a non-perishable food item or new clothing item for free admission. Tickets can also be purchased for $5 at the box office.

The highlight of this year’s LAHIFF falls on “DocSunday,” March 5, with the return of Port Town (2006) at 3 p.m., a seminal documentary about San Pedro, written and directed by Jack Baric. The film features seven stories about San Pedro’s fascinating men and women who found the promise of America’s greatness on the multicultural town’s gritty docks and seaside streets. 

The film made its world premiere at the LAHIFF in May 2006 to a sold-out Warner Grand Theatre. It also screened to similar enthusiasm at the festival in 2014.

Port Town poster.

“I’m just really proud to have played a role in helping to document the history of the Harbor Area, and so showing the film at a theater that is so historic, like the Warner Grand, is a really special honor,” says Baric, who, in addition to being a filmmaker, is also co-founder of GameChange, a sports media company that uses inspirational sports stories to teach life lessons and provide educational resources to athletes around the world. 

“[Port Town’s] stories are meaningful and timeless with regard to the history revealed and thankfully preserved,” says Mardesich. “On a sentimental note, my late father is featured in the story about the fishing industry. We programmed the film in 2014 due to popular demand. This year, it’s relevant because we’ve continued to have requests to screen it again. With the Warner Grand closing, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to introduce the movie to a new audience, and for those who have seen it or are in it, to have another opportunity to view the film on the big screen.”

DocSunday begins at 1 p.m. with a screening of Nailed It: Vietnamese & The Nail Industry (2018), a documentary by Adele Pham about the enigmatic nail salon industry, parts of which were filmed locally. 

Immediately following Port Town is the fourth volume of Stories of Los Angeles Harbor Area: For Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, an oral history documentary project produced by Baric and Mardesich. The series features short stories from a diverse group of people born or residing in the communities surrounding the Port of Los Angeles. The first three volumes can be viewed at

“The project, made possible by grant funding from the County of Los Angeles thanks to Supervisor Janice Hahn, is the natural [choice] as the closing program,” says Mardesich. “Every day, [these stories] become more meaningful and important. If we do not preserve our history, it’s gone tomorrow, [which would be] an immense loss to past, present, and future generations.”

With the Warner Grand Theatre likely closed for renovations next year, the festival’s future is up in the air. Though she’s confident the festival will find a new host, Mardesich is urging anyone who hasn’t been to the Warner Grand Theatre in a while (or ever) to watch one of the festival’s films in one of Los Angeles’s last grand movie palaces before it closes.

“The Warner Grand hiatus will make a big dent in downtown. We must keep the spirit going, support local businesses, and be creative,” she says. “Don’t miss this last golden opportunity to enjoy the Warner Grand in its current glory. Gaze up at the decorative gilded ceiling, the hand-painted murals by A.J. Heinsbergen around the proscenium arch, take the time to appreciate all the details, revel in its innate beauty, and enjoy the show!” spt

The LAHIFF takes place Thurs-Sun, March 2-5, at the Warner Grand Theatre (478 W. 6th St.). For more info, visit

Joshua Stecker

Joshua Stecker is the publisher and editor-in-chief of San Pedro Today.