Stephanie Mardesichloves movies.
If not for her passion for the cinema, the ebullient director and founder of the Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival may not have been able to carry the event through to its 10th anniversary this year.
“A decade is a significant epoch and though I don’t feel older, clearly ten years has passed,” she says of the milestone.
As Mardesich describes it, the LAHIFF has always been a celebration of film. Unlike more relevant film festivals like Cannes, Sundance, South by Southwest or Toronto, which are geared towards new and independent films looking for distribution, the LAHIFF prides itself on celebrating films from both past generations and more contemporary times, with a strong focus on children’s education thrown in.
“The motivation to continue corresponds to the values instilled by my parents to persevere, to strive for excellence as its own reward, to be an individual of conviction, and to never give up on something or someone as long as there is some hope for a positive outcome,” says Mardesich. “It’s better to try and fail than succeed at nothing, as a friend once told me. In spite of challenges we have continued and now have a ten-year record.”
Back in 2003, the idea of establishing a film festival in San Pedro wasn’t a far-fetched one. The town already had an iconic theater to host it, perfectly set in the heart of downtown. Not to mention, San Pedro already had a rich history of being used as Hollywood’s backdrop. From classic films such as Chinatown, to popular current television series like Mad Men, San Pedro has become synonymous with film production.
“Stephanie and I were at a San Pedro Chamber mixer at Ports O’ Call Restaurant and we were chatting with the late Gary Cox about how San Pedro should have a film festival,” recalls Jack Baric, an original co-founder of the festival who has since stepped away. “Stephanie really took the conversation to heart and immediately started working on getting a festival launched. She has been generous enough to include calling me a co-founder, but truthfully she put forth all the effort in launching the festival and has kept it going since then.”
The inaugural festival launched on April 30, 2004, and included such films as The Perfect Storm, the 2000 drama starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, based on Sebastian Junger‘s best-selling book, the 1949 musical comedy Neptune’s Daughter, starring Esther Williams, Betty Garrett and Ricardo Montalban, and an afternoon screening of Disney’s The Little Mermaid for the kids.
Other films featured at the festival throughout the decade include The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), South Pacific (1958), Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), and West Side Story (1961), among others.
In 2006, the LAHIFF hosted the world premiere of Baric’s San Pedro documentary, Port Town, which brought a near capacity crowd to the Warner Grand that year.
“When I think of what the festival has become, I just think of Stephanie and how she has persevered in keeping it going,” says Baric. “It is not an easy thing to keep a festival running year after year and yet she has done it, which is a compliment to her passion.”
Mardesich’s other passion is education. Her late mother, Lee, was a teacher at Bandini Street Elementary School and instilled in her family the importance of reading. Mardesich used that inspiration to establish the “Read the Book, See the Movie” (RBSM) program, which has become the cornerstone of the film festival.
“From the beginning, it was clear LAHIFF should have an education element for students,” remembers Mardesich. “It’s so simple. Pick a book that has a film attached. We’ve been focusing on classic literature, but the choices are infinite. Read the book and talk about the differences in the two genres. It’s a more thoughtful way to encourage literacy.”
Every year, one film adaptation of a classic novel is chosen for the RBSM program. Publishing sponsors Penguin and Puffin Classics donated 1,200 paperback copies of the book that are distributed to students from middle school to adult education classes. Participating schools include: John & Muriel Olguin Campus of San Pedro High School, Dana Middle School, Rolling Hills Renaissance School, Pacific Lutheran School, Port of Los Angeles Charter High School, Mary Star of the Sea High School, and the Harbor Service Center (formerly known as San Pedro Adult Learning Center).
For newly-elected L.A. City Councilman Joe Buscaino, the RBSM program is what separates this film festival from the rest.
“‘Read the Book, See the Movie’ is my favorite element of the film festival,” he says. “My wife, who is a teacher at White Point Elementary, has participated in this program, and we understand the educational value that it delivers. LAHIFF’s commitment to San Pedro, its culture and its history, is important.”
This year, the four-day festival takes place May 2-5 at the Warner Grand Theatre in historic downtown San Pedro, the heart of the Port of Los Angeles, beginning with a free screening of the RBSM film, Disney’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1993), starring Elijah Wood (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy), on May 2 at 10:30 a.m.
“The story of Huckleberry Finn and his friend the runaway slave Jim, speaks to friendship, loyalty, and courage with an anti-slavery theme,” says Mardesich. “The timing of this classic choice with regard to the recent films Lincoln and Django Unchained is relevant considering issues of social responsibility and morality with historical reflection.”
The festival continues on Friday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m. with the opening night screening of Chased By the Dogs (1962), the film adaptation of the Egyptian novel The Thief and the Dogs by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz.
Saturday, May 4, marks the annual Hollywood Nostalgia Tribute night featuring Irving Berlin’s 1953 classic, There’s No Business Like Show Business, starring Ethyl Merman, Dan Daley, Donald O’Connor and Marilyn Monroe. The screening is preceded by the “Show Biz and Red Carpet Gala” at the Arcade Building, directly across the street from the Warner Grand. Tickets for the pre-show Gala are $75 ($65 if purchased before April 18), which includes admission to the film, an open bar, appetizers and buffet supper homage to 1950s cuisine. General admission to the film is only $10.
The festival concludes on Sunday, May 5 at 1 p.m., with its traditional “DocSunday” programming featuring the New Filmmakers LA (NFMLA) “On Location Program,” showcasing 22 short films made to promote the City of Los Angeles.
With its eclectic lineup, Mardesich is hoping to pull in audiences who appreciate various genres and who are open to viewing films they might never have seen before.
“Bringing out the audience is probably the greatest challenge of this festival,” admits Mardesich. “[My dream] would be to have a full house — that’s at least one third of the 1,500 seat capacity of the Warner Grand — at the programs. We’ve been fortunate to have several capacity crowds. That’s exciting, though not realistic in current times. When the movie palaces were built, there was an audience to fill the huge space. It’s rare for that to happen any longer, thus theatres like the Warner Grand have become multi-use venues.”
Even with a handful of loyal volunteers, the LAHIFF is still Mardesich’s baby. It’s rare that you spot her around town not wearing one of her many multi-colored LAHIFF t-shirts. Come marketing season, that shirt is usually accompanied by a handful of postcards and posters that she single-handedly distributes across town and throughout Los Angeles.
With continued community support from Congresswoman Janice Hahn and Supervisor Don Knabe, plus local business sponsorships, the LAHIFF continues to stay alive, even through challenging times. With a decade of experience, Mardesich still expresses hope that the festival will become ever grander and more relevant during the next ten years.
“It would be wonderful if an entity or sponsor had the interest to give their name above the title and bring an infusion of funds so there could be a paid administrator and staff and the festival could perhaps go to another level,” she says. “I would still want to be involved and advise so the mission is not distorted, however, the effort it takes now is very consuming and one of these days I might like to take a voyage elsewhere than on the cinematic bridge.” spt
The Los Angeles Harbor International Film Festival takes place Thurs-Sun, May 2-5. Tickets for all programs and reception will be sold online through Brown Paper Tickets, Williams’ Book Store (443 W. 6th St., Downtown), and at the box office (cash only) during the festival one-hour before programs start. General admission is $10 per program; $8 with discounts from select affliliations: GVF, LAMM, IDA, CMA, BAFTA LA and ILWU, and seniors and students. Prices subject to change. For full details, visit www.laharborfilmfest.com.