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Poppy Jasper Film Fest brings “breath of fresh air” to South Bay – The Mercury News


Mattie Scariot always wanted to make movies. But growing up in the ’70s, the Gilroy native never saw women featured as filmmakers on the posters of the movies she loved. Now after more than a decade in Hollywood, she’s determined to change that for the next generation through the local Poppy Jasper Film Festival.

While the festival began in Morgan Hill as a small fundraiser, it has grown to attract filmmakers from dozens of countries around the world, drawing in thousands of visitors over eight days of showings in Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Hollister and San Juan Bautista.  This week the festival returns with 270 films — the most in its history —  and a mission to elevate under-represented voices through film.

“I don’t want any other 10-year-old girl not to see herself in that poster, that was my purpose of doing this festival,” said Scariot.

Though it now has worldwide reach, the film festival had humble beginnings in 2004 as a fundraiser for Morgan Hill Access Television, a public station there. The founder, William Leaman, had worked with Warner Brothers and made TV ads, so he put together a team to run the festival. In its inaugural year, he received 50 submissions — some in Betamax, VHS, and DV tape — and chose around thirty to edit by hand onto a single reel.

The event was a success, and grew into a regional hit that put Morgan Hill on the film industry map. “It seemed like a perfect location for us to help the community and bring the community together,” said Leaman.

But the financial crisis of 2008 struck a blow to the festival. Then in 2010, they entered a dispute over their original venue in Morgan Hill, only to be kicked out later when the theater changed ownership. The team then bounced around different venues, including high schools and colleges. “We did what we had to to keep it alive,” said Leaman. Until in 2016, only 300 people attended, according to Scariot.

“We were really struggling, we really were,” recalled Leaman. “We spent $10,000 advertising (the festival) and nobody came… That was the worst time of our lives.”

Around that time, Scariot had been a volunteer at the festival for six years, so she was well positioned to take the helm of the film festival.

“I had to recreate everything,” said Scariot. Together with a group she assembled, she rebranded the festival, revamped the website, spread the festival over several days, and added nearby Gilroy as another stop.

But the struggling festival was left with near-empty coffers, so she scraped together money and borrowed from her parents and aunt in order to rent out the venue she wanted.  “I only had $1,200 when I signed the $26,000 contract … I didn’t have the money, that’s for sure,” she said. “I think you have to take a little risk.”

Her risk paid off. The festival began to grow in popularity, winning nods in industry magazines and gaining a reputation among budding filmmakers. While she received 150 submissions for the first festival she ran in 2018, she and her team sorted through 1,000 films for this year’s festival.

Over the last few years, she also folded in Hollister and San Juan Bautista, extended the festival to eight days, added hikes and brunches with filmmakers and a red carpet bash. This year will feature 63 different film screenings across the four cities, all with opportunities to ask questions of the filmmakers directly.

“It just brought out a lot of energy towards film, which was really exciting for me. It’s creating another community, a common love for film which you just never really had here in our county before Poppy Jasper came to town,” said Fran Fitzwilliam, a Hollister resident and self-identified “film geek” who organizes the Hollister and San Juan Bautista events for the festival.

The event also has drawn in several community members beyond “film geeks” to take part, and is run completely by volunteers throughout the community. Gilroy Mayor Marie Blankley has hosted filmmakers in her home for the past several years and helped procure vans to shuttle filmmakers to the different locations. To her, the hospitality is well worth it to meet the people who come in from across the globe to share their films. “This film festival and everybody who comes to it is such a breath of fresh air.”

Anu Bhatt is one of the filmmakers who has benefited from the South County hospitality, and last year she won an audience choice award for her short film “Autocorrect.” “Poppy Jasper has a very down-to-earth, human, welcoming element to it,” she said. She is working on another film now and is “definitely thinking of returning” when she is finished.

“The first time we all were able to come together in person after COVID. I was really moved with how many young people were attending the events and seeing the inspiration light up in their eyes,” said Kimberley Browning, a Los Angeles based filmmaker who has attended the festival multiple years. “I think one of the most important things that this festival will continue to do is be a nest for young people that want to have filmmaking in their life path.”

The inspiration is intentional, part of a mission that Scariot adopted to encourage women and other under-represented groups to “tell their stories through film.” The festival has several days dedicated to different underrepresented filmmakers, such as a Women’s and LGBTQ+ film day, along with educational programs meant to help introduce people across generations to the art of filmmaking.

Even so, discrepancies in representation persist. According to the Annenberg Initiative, a group which studies diversity in films out of the University of Southern California, only 6% of the top grossing films since 2007 have been directed by women, and while under-represented leads have more than doubled since 2007, they still only appear in around a third of top grossing movies. Female leads actually saw a drop in representation last year, even with Barbie topping the charts.

“When you look at the industry, women and minorities have been not just misrepresented, but underrepresented,” said Scariot.

Moving forward, Scariot looks forward to growing the festival, including by showcasing a Poppy Jasper Asian Film Festival in Los Altos in June, and a Queer Film Festival in November at a location yet to be determined.

The goal is to “build a film hub” in the region, in part so others like her can have an easier way forward. “If I had grown up with a film festival like this,” she said, “I would have had a completely different path.”

The Poppy Jasper International Film Festival will take place in Morgan Hill, Gilroy, Hollister and San Juan Bautista from April 10-17. More information on the event is available at pjiff.org.

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