SARASOTA -- At most film festivals, the celebrity guests are directors, actors and producers.
At the opening night of the 2014 Sarasota Film Festival, they were veterans, an ex-governor of Florida and three generations of the Kennedy family.
The 16th annual edition of the festival opened Friday with a screening of "Last Days of Vietnam," a new documentary by Rory Kennedy, at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.
Before the screening, Kennedy -- who was born six months after her father, Robert Kennedy, was assassinated -- joined other celebrities on the red carpet outside the hall.
"We're enjoying every minute of it," she said as she slowly worked her way down the line of media people. "There are a lot of veterans in this area, and I think this film is really going to resonate with them."
She clutched her young daughter, Bridget Kennedy-Bailey, who clearly seemed to be enjoying every minute of it.
It was Rory Kennedy's second visit to the Sarasota Film Festival. The first came two years ago, when she screened her documentary "Ethel," a tribute to her mother.
On Friday, Ethel Kennedy walked the gauntlet of red carpet reporters and photographers ahead of her daughter, then headed inside to see the film.
"She's so fantastic," Rory Kennedy said of her mother.
In the lobby, local notables milled about with just-plain folks and some bigger names.
"Hi, I'm Charlie," said one man, extending his hand to a stranger he happened to pass. It was Florida's former Gov. Charlie Crist.
Inside, Kennedy's film was preceded by more than a half-hour of speeches, which is typical, and a presentation by a color guard and the singing of the national anthem, which is not.
This year, the festival is partnering with Legacy of Valor, an area campaign to honor and support veterans. A large number of them were in the Van Wezel audience and were asked to stand. They received as much applause as the Kennedys.
Some of them would turn out to be significant players in Kennedy's film, a powerful work that focuses on the evacuation of Americans and South Vietnamese from Saigon in 1975.
The film uses old footage -- some of it never seen before, that had been literally sitting in someone's attic since he shot it nearly 40 years ago -- and contemporary interviews to document the chaos and the heroism that went into that evacuation.
Among the startling scenes: A helicopter full of Vietnamese hovers over a U.S. Navy ship that's too small for it to land on. A mother drops her baby out of the helicopter, then her older children, and sailors catch them. Then the mother jumps. Finally the pilot intentionally crashes the helicopter into the South China Sea and swims to the ship.
The ship was the USS Kirk, and its captain, Paul Jacobs, was in the audience for the film and joined Kennedy for a question-and-answer session afterward. She called him "a real hero."
It was the second straight year the festival had opened with a documentary, which is somewhat unusual. Last year's opening film was "Blackfish," which became one of the most widely seen and discussed films of 2013.
The festival continues through April 13 in several venues around Sarasota, with more than 250 films, plus parties and other events.
For a full schedule, tickets and other details, go to www.sarasotafilmfestival.com
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.