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