Neil Travis Best in the Fest Winners: 2010-2019

The SLO Film Fest Audience Awards are coveted by filmmakers because they reflect the impact their films have on an audience. Juried awards are important too, but movies are made for audiences and scoring well means a lot to a filmmaker who has poured years of energy, time and money into their movie.

During the festival week, audiences are given paper ballots for newer movies in contention for awards in several categories. Typically a film will screen more than once and those scores are added and averaged so that all films are graded equally.

The film with the highest score wins the Neil Travis Best in the Fest award. Neil Travis was an Oscar-winning Film Editor (Dances with Wolves) and a beloved board member for many years. He brought a Hollywood sensibility to our Festival, helping to create a more professional awards night by creating compelling celebrity video tributes and starting the evening with his commanding behind-the-curtain intro – “Ladies and Gentleman! Welcome to the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival!” He knew how to add a little glitz and sparkle that have made those evenings special and memorable. Many of them are available to watch on our Youtube channel too!

We are excited to dig into the archives and dust off some of the most incredible films from the festival’s last ten years, to highlight and share them with you in a variety of ways. They are available to watch online on several different platforms. Some are free, some are a $2-4 charge which benefits the filmmakers.

We’ll be rolling out the announcements of these movies over the next couple of months in no particular order, so stay tuned for more great movies and memories coming your way soon!

Click each film below to learn more and how to stream!

Neil Travis Best in Fest Winner – 2014
BOTSO: The Teacher from Tbilisi

In March of 2014, we were thrilled to present BOTSO, a locally-produced film featuring 92-year old Morro Bay resident, “Botso” Korishelli. To the delight of the audience that day, Botso was in attendance. When it went on to win the Neil Travis Best in the Fest award, no one was in the least bit surprised.

Made by a team of local filmmakers led by Tom Walters (SLO Film Fest board member) Hilary Grant and David Thayer, the film has garnered awards and praise wherever it has been screened. It was the NY Times Critics Pick in the fall of 2014 – “…an enchanting film.” The Hollywood Reporter called it “…a deserving homage to a life well lived” and the LA Times praised it, saying “He created a world of musical magic!”

Neil Travis Best in Fest Winner – 2018
Skid Row Marathon

We discovered this gem at the Napa Valley Film Festival in the fall of 2017. I knew it was going to be a definite audience award contender at our festival and sure enough, it scored higher than any other movie in the festival that year. Director Mark Hayes and producer Gabriele Hayes came to the Festival for a few days and happily received the award at our Closing Night ceremony. Unfortunately the subject of the film, the amazing Judge Mitchell was just coming back from another overseas marathon trip that weekend so he wasn’t able to attend.

Critics loved this documentary and it won many awards from festivals around the country, including the Palm Springs, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles Film Festivals.“It’s a brilliant piece of documentary cinema.”  Michael Moore, Academy Award winner 

“Highly motivational…Illustrates how rehabilitation can be fostered in the most unlikely ways.” The Hollywood Reporter

Neil Travis Best in Fest Winner – 2011
City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story

It’s very unusual for a film to win both the juried and audience award at our Festival, and back in 2011 those awards were presented on the same evening too. We festival organizers were feeling very excited about this big winner not just because it was a great movie but also because the director, Gabriela Cowperthwaite was attending the festival that weekend as well! We anticipated her great surprise and inevitable touching acceptance speeches when the awards were presented. 

But the surprise was on us! The humble, first-time director had skipped the award ceremony to enjoy a nice dinner in SLO, thinking there was no way her film would win anything. Fortunately, our intrepid team led by Nancy Ross Joynt managed to find her as she finished her meal and she arrived late (and very happily surprised) at the Awards Night After-party at the Monday Club. We celebrated her victory with bubbly along with that year’s King Vidor Award recipient, Greg Kinnear.

Gabriela went on to fame a couple of years later when she released her 2013 controversial documentary BLACKFISH, which focused on the captivity and cruel treatment of orca whales at SeaWorld. This was truly a movie that mattered, and it was instrumental in changing policy and awareness about this issue around the world. It was nominated for a BAFTA award that year too!

Neil Travis Best in Fest Winner – 2012
Age of Champions

AGE OF CHAMPIONS was inspirational in 2012 but 8 years later it might even be more timely! Our audiences loved this entertaining and often amazing look at sports, aging and what is possible. We are delighted to bring back AGE OF CHAMPIONS and salute the athletes, the filmmakers who documented their awesome strength and determination…and everyone else who is challenging time and gravity and “going for gold” in their own way.

Neil Travis Best in Fest Winner – 2017
My Mother’s Wound

It’s probably no surprise to most of you that our Festival audiences are diehard documentary lovers. Nine of the ten Best in the Fest movies from the last 10 years are in fact documentaries.

While the Turkish feature, MY MOTHER’S WOUND, was easily one of my very favorite films in the 2017 Festival, I think it’s interesting that it grabbed the audience the way it did and became the only narrative feature winner in ten years!

Often audiences are won over by filmmakers who entertain and thrill audiences during the Q&A segment of each screening, and this can enhance a voter’s evaluation on their way out of the theatre. But foreign filmmakers are often unable to attend festivals and in this case, talented Polish director Ozan Açiktan was not in attendance.

Some festival goers aren’t big fans of subtitles even though the SLO Film Fest always has a healthy number of foreign films programmed each year.MY MOTHER’S WOUNDis about as “international” as it gets – filmed in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina by an international film crew, with leading roles played by German and Turkish actors – complete with English subtitles!
Despite all the odds, in March 2017 MY MOTHER’S WOUND scored an almost perfect score to win the top audience award, so the bottom line must be because it’s A REALLY GOOD MOVIE!

Neil Travis Best in Fest Winner – 2010
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers

Over the many years I’ve been involved in the SLO Film Fest, I happily recall some favorite “festival moments”….experiences that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Daniel Ellsberg was responsible for two of my memorable moments, and I’m guessing many of the lucky audience present at the screening of this documentary will remember one of them very clearly.

To say we were all excited to honor this brave man who singlehandedly changed history and transformed our nation’s political discourse is an understatement. When I led Daniel Ellsberg and director/producer Judith Ehrlich into the back of the Downtown Cinemas theatre to be introduced before the movie began, the capacity audience instantly leapt to their feet to give him a standing ovation. It was a thrilling experience and the first time I’d seen someone get a standing O just for being in the room. He got another one at the end of the film of course, and the Q&A with him and Judith Ehrlich was also notable because not one person left the theatre during the credits!

My other “festival moment” that evening was the experience of having a cup of tea with him and Judith while the film was screening. I was literally starstruck at Starbucks! Being in the presence of this brilliant, soft spoken hero was truly one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had as the Festival Director. When you see this film, I think you’ll understand why.

Neil Travis Best in Fest Winner – 2016
An Act of Love

The SLO Film Fest strives to present an eclectic mix of films each year with the goal of attracting a wide ranging audience, as well as sharing current global, national and local issues. We bring the world to San Luis Obispo for those six days of film, wine and fun and we’re always excited to welcome truly awe-inspiring filmmakers to attend and bring their amazing stories to share with our festival audiences.

This was definitely the case with our 2016 Audience Award winner, AN ACT OF LOVE. Director/Producer Scott Sheppard remembers his visit to our festival very fondly. He attended with the subject of the documentary, Rev. Frank Schaefer. They had recently won the Audience Award at the Mill Valley Film Festival, which was just the start of their successful festival run.

“I had a great experience at the SLO Film Festival with Rev. Frank and Brigitte Schaefer. There was something truly special about the screenings there and the audiences really embraced our documentary. We enjoyed the parties, seeing other great films, and the gift baskets were amazing with locally produced foods and wine. I’ll be sure to come back with future projects.” – Scott Sheppard, May 2020

Neil Travis Best in Fest Winner – 2013

“…a movie that vitally captures an extraordinary character in extraordinary circumstances.” Variety, July 1, 2012 
This is another in a string of wonderful documentaries that have helped create important cultural and political change! G-DOG premiered at the prestigious Hot Docs International Documentary Festival in April 2012. It won our BEST IN FEST award the following spring, with Homeboy Industries Hector Verdugo attending and accepting the award for director/producer Freida Lee Mock.
In 2014, Homeboy Industries went worldwide when it launched The Global Homeboy Network. Since then, over 400 organizations from around the world have visited their Los Angeles campus and their global network continues to expand each year. In the summer of 2019, Homeboy Industries hosted individuals devoted to supporting marginalized populations in Los Angeles to learn from their model and to share best practices.
We are proud to have been a cog in the wheel to give this incredible film some added attention and help Father Greg Boyle fulfill his dream that began decades ago. In this film, Freida Lee Mock documents a particularly challenging time in the organization’s history.
Incidentally, Freida Lee Mock attended an exciting SLO Film Fest screening of ANITA in March 2014, sharing her award-winning film that profiles Anita Hill’s battle to expose sexual harassment at the Supreme Court level. 

Neil Travis Best in Fest Winner – 2019 – Love & Bananas

Anyone who loves elephants (and honestly, how could you not?) is bound to love this deeply moving documentary by actor/director Ashley Bell. She teams up with Lek Chailert, an amazing conservationist in Thailand, and together they do the near impossible – rescue an abused and elderly elephant from a life of captivity in the Thai tourist trade. The journey is unforgettable (you’ll definitely need some Kleenex for this one) and when I met the petite and adorable Ashley Bell at the Festival, I was reminded that small people can move mountains (in this case, elephants) when they have the passion and support to do so. She was yet another incredibly inspiring festival visitor, and Ashley had some nice things to say about our festival too:
“The SLO Film Fest had such a genuine and authentic feeling to it. Everyone felt like they were really there for the art and the films. That’s such a rarity and I can’t tell you how exciting it was to be part of that environment. Also, because everyone had a like-minded sensibility–it made it so easy to connect with other filmmakers!” – Ashley Bell, March 2019
We are delighted to share this beautiful film with you again, and want to congratulate Ashley Bell and her team for helping to make a difference in the lives of countless Asian elephants.

Neil Travis Best in Fest Winner – 2015 – Personal Goal: An Underdog Story

While our “Surf Nite in SLO” has become world renowned in some circles, cycling movies have always struck a chord with our audiences too! We’ve had some of our biggest and most passionate crowds attend movies about bicycles and we’ve screened some memorable ones over the years.
There was the grueling RACE ACROSS AMERICA, documenting the most challenging bicycle race on the planet. There was a fantastic documentary about the early days of velodrome racing. There was one about the invention of the mountain bike and another about a Tour de France  cycling team owned by a SLO County resident. More recently, we screened one about a group of Afghan women who defy all odds to start a cycling team in their war-torn country. And who could forget BREAKING AWAY, with stars Dennis Christopher and Paul Dooley in attendance for a hilarious Q&A? I could on….
But it was PERSONAL GOLD: AN UNDERDOG STORY that captured the hearts of our 2015 audiences and crossed the finish line with the Best in the Fest award that year. Local resident and former Olympian cyclist Adam Laurent was at the Festival, along with directors Sky and Tamara Christopherson. Their “underdog story” examined the success of tracking athletes physical data using what was cutting edge technology in 2012. Now ubiquitous in a wide variety of applications, wearable devices are being used to track everything from physical activity, caloric intake, sleep quality, posture and much more! What does that all have to do with a cycling movie? Check out this winning film and find out!