Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy first experienced the Sarasota Film Festival two years ago, when her film "Ethel," a portrait of her mother, screened here.
"I think it's a great festival," she said in a recent phone interview "It's a nice, small, intimate festival. They treat filmmakers very well, and they do get a lot of great films."
Kennedy will be back this year with her latest work, "Last Days in Vietnam." It will take the prestigious opening night spot of the festival, at 7 p.m. Friday at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Kennedy, who was born six months after her father, Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated, said she was initially reluctant to do a documentary about Vietnam.
"As I was growing up, Vietnam was such a part of the ether of our lives," she said. "When I was approached by 'American Experience' to do this film, I thought there was nothing new to say. But I discovered that there was a lot I didn't know."
Her film focuses on the American evacuation of South Vietnam as the North Vietnamese military was about to take over.
American military personnel, she said, ignored orders to evacuate only Americans and helped South Vietnamese civilians and military personnel escape. One ship, the USS Kirk, allowed helicopters packed with Vietnamese to land on its deck. There was no room for more than one helicopter on the deck, so Kirk sailors had to push each helicopter overboard to make room for the next.
An officer from the Kirk will be in Sarasota to discuss the incident and the film with Kennedy after Friday's screening.
Kennedy's film is just one of the high points of the festival. This year's lineup features 252 different films, including short films, and 230 screenings. (The number of screenings is lower than the number of films because some screenings include multiple films.)
For Bradenton, one of the most exciting aspects of the film festival has already happened.
For the first time, the Sarasota Film Festival screened a film in Bradenton. The documentary "The Enduring Beauty of Memory" had its world premiere at the Manatee Performing Arts Center a couple of weeks back, in a special presentation by the festival. It's also being shown during the festival itself.
Festival director Tom Hall said that turned out to be a great experience, and he hopes the Sarasota Film Festival will have a greater presence in Bradenton in the near future.
"The venue's great," he said. "It's a perfect size for us. We've been looking for a theater with 300 or so seats for a long time."
But, he said, film festival staff is pushed to its limits put
ting on the festival in Sarasota every year, and expanding the festival into Bradenton might not be feasible anytime soon
Sarasota Film Festival CEO Mark Famiglio, though, isn't equivocal. He said the festival will find a way to show more films in Bradenton, and maybe elsewhere in Manatee County.
"We're very confident that we'll be screening festival films in Manatee County, and we will even be curating specifically for Manatee County," he said. "We may even have a box office there. Our audience research has shown us that Manatee County loves the festival."
All that, or at least some of it, could happen as early as 2015, he said.
"Next year's a long time away," he said.
Kennedy's film is only the fifth documentary that has ever been chosen to open the festival in its 16-year history, including last year's "Blackfish," a little-known film that went on to become a cultural phenomenon.
For a complete list of festival films and events -- which include parties and discussions with filmmakers, actors and critics, go to www.sarasotafilmfestival.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919.