By Jonathan J. Cavallero, Bates Film Festival Founding Director
Two days before the start of the 2022 Bates Film Festival, we received some devastating news. Santo Pelletier, a BFF board member in 2019, had passed away at the age of 23. We dedicated the program to them, and I made mention of their loss at the first screening but neither was a sufficient way to remember Santo. Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to write this remembrance, but every time I start to put finger to keyboard, I wonder if I can do Santo justice. I only knew them as a student, and that was only one part of their life. But one of the many things that made Santo stand out was their willingness to bring their life experience to bear on the material discussed in class. It was that brave approach to class discussion that won Santo many fans at Bates. In fact, in The Bates Student, Maria Gray offered a heartfelt narrative that effectively communicated what a compelling presence Santo was on campus.
With a few comments, Santo could send a discussion in a direction no one anticipated, and we would always end up in a better place because of it. As the instructor, I was grateful for whatever Santo offered. The class was infinitely better when they were there – whether it was introductory classes like “Introduction to Screen Studies” or advanced-level seminars like “Film Festival Studies.” Without fail, Santo left their mark, and their comments brought new energy and perspectives that left many of us rethinking our positions. I learned so much from them, and I am grateful for the time Santo spent teaching me.
Santo was a dynamo. Their passion and intelligence, garnered the respect of their classmates, and ended up being very persuasive. Such was the case in the lead-up to the 2019 BFF. To program the festival’s films, students use a scoring rubric that serves as the starting point for the discussion. The rubric asks students to consider, among other things, a prospective film’s fit with Bates curriculum, its relevance to a BFF audience, and its formal properties. In Santo’s year, the class was considering a film that took on an especially important topic but did not score particularly high on the rubric. We had a very strong list of possible films and a limited number of programming spots. If memory serves, we could select four documentary features, and we were considering 9 films (which had already been narrowed down from about 30 titles). As we entered the classroom for decision day, I looked at the averages for each film and thought there was no way this film would make the cut. As the team started discussing possible films, they targeted those that ranked third, fourth, and fifth based on their scores. This made sense because of the limited time they had to make their choices and the number of films they could select. Enter Santo. They asked that the group discuss this particular film individually. Had anyone in the class even known this issue existed before watching the film? Why hadn’t they heard about it? Should they have heard about it? If they didn’t select this film, weren’t they just as guilty of marginalizing this story as the news outlets that had failed to adequately cover it? By the end of the discussion, the film easily made the cut. It played at the Bates Film Festival, and that was all because of Santo. That kind of thing happened a lot when Santo was in your class. It wasn’t always so dramatic, and the effects weren’t always so obvious, but it happened a lot.
The other aspect of Santo that I was grateful for was their willingness to ask all of us to live up to the standards we publicly espouse. The Bates Film Festival has a decided social justice bent. It’s been a part of our mission statement for each of our first three iterations. We select films that inspire discussion about important social issues. In the days leading up to Santo’s graduation, George Floyd was murdered and protests spread across the nation. Along with several other leaders, Bates College president Clayton Spencer made a public statement of support for marginalized peoples and social movements like #BlackLivesMatter. As a festival that is an outgrowth of a Bates College class, it didn’t occur to me that the festival might make its own statement, but it did to Santo. They reached out through social media channels encouraging the festival to make a statement. We did on the day Santo graduated from Bates College (remotely, due to the COVID-19 pandemic). That was another occurrence that wouldn’t have happened without Santo. They definitely left their mark on this festival and this college.
Through their actions and their passion, Santo encouraged everyone around them to be better because they knew we could be. Their loss is a loss not just for those who knew them, but for the world as a whole. Santo genuinely made this world a better place. They hoped that those of us who embraced the same ideals and vision as them would join them not just in words but in actions. As the festival moves forward, Santo’s way of being will guide future discussions about the films we consider and their willingness to engage social issues publicly will be a standard to which we strive. Thank you, Santo, for all that you did for the festival and the world. You are missed, but your example guides us.