Rebecca Ezrin
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The San Luis Obispo International Film Festival kicks off Thursday night, featuring something a little bit different — a film about the lives of those who grow giant pumpkins, created by journalism lecturer Daria Matza.

“Rise of the Giants” will show at 4 p.m. on Thursday March 12, at the San Luis Obispo Downtown Cinema, as well as at 4 p.m. on Friday March 13, at the San Luis Obispo Mission Cinema.

“I am a professor part time. I balance being an independent filmmaker, teacher and a mother. It’s messy, but I can’t imagine letting go of any of them. In some ways, I wish I could stop creating films, but I can’t,” Matza said.

Matza, who received her master’s degree at film school, had previously been working on another film for four years. When she completed that project, she began making lists of ideas for her next film.

At the time, her mother had recently passed away.

“It all started when I found a photo of a man rowing in a giant pumpkin. I was trying to decide if there was potentially a story there. In my old house, pumpkin plants began growing everywhere out of nowhere, so I took that as a sign to go ahead and make the movie,” Matza said. “Making the film and working with the pumpkin-growing communities, who were such kind people, really helped me get through that rough time.”

“Rise of the Giants” took about 14 months to create. Matza and her husband, who was also largely involved in the film’s creation, used the website Kickstarter to raise most of the movie’s funds. From that, they raised about $20,000 in addition to donations from sponsors. Most of the funding went toward travel, since much of the film takes place in Utah and different areas of California.

“The film meant taking a financial risk,” Matza said. “We were putting money on my own credit card for a while, just hoping that we’d end up getting that money back.”

Matza and her husband directed, produced and shot “Rise of the Giants” themselves, and saved a lot of money by doing so.

Last June, Matza sent out emails to members of large pumpkin-growing communities. Initially she got no response. However, when she visited Utah, which has a large pumpkin-growing community, she sent out another email and got a response from Kyle Fox, who lives there.

The two met up soon after to discuss Fox potentially being featured in the film, and he ended up taking a leading role.

“Meeting Daria was really cool. She was just like all the pumpkin growers. The people that I linked her up with are kind of like super stars in my mind. They were out of reach for me, but after I made the connection with her, it tied all of us growers together and started a relationship with us all that hadn’t been there before,” Fox said.

Fox, who lives the full-time life of a competitive giant pumpkin grower, has been growing for nine years now.

“It was love at first site, for real. There’s a spot off the road in Southern Utah called Red Barn, which is a farm site store,” Fox said. “I saw their giant pumpkins, talked to the guy who worked there and got some seeds. That was how it all started. I love the growers. It’s the friendships that I love. I love watching it blow people’s minds.”

Fox’s family even participates in their own competition. He holds the household record at 1,171.5 pounds.

The key to Fox’s success is his dedication.

“A lot of folks that don’t know a lot about pumpkin growing treat it likes it’s just a garden,” he said. “You really need to take all the extra steps and set goals to beat your past records. There are three things involved in pumpkin growing: seeds, soil and love. It can involve up to an hour of work a day.”

Fox explained that Utah usually has one competition every year and on top of that, they have other festivities, which include a pumpkin rowing event, as well as a huge pumpkin dropping event.

For competitions, the competitive pumpkin-growing clubs run under a world-wide organization called the Great Pumpkin Commonwealth, and there are strict rules that have to be followed.

“As a club, we show up early in the morning of the competition,” Fox said. “We have a number of volunteers that help out with setting up tables and booths and then we have some judges that we select. We’ll organize all the pumpkins by size and lay them out in the parking lot. At about 11 a.m., we’ll start off with the kids division. We have an emcee there too.”

Those who participate in pumpkin growing, however, do it mostly as a hobby, not for financial gain.

After creating the documentary, Matza has plans to start pumpkin growing as well.

“I want to grow one now,” she said. “I have seeds that are worth $500 to $600 per seed, and I always wonder what I can do with it.”