Film Fest includes locals
SONOMA NATIVE Alden Olmsted (left) explores his complicated relationship with his dad, conservationist John Olmsted (right) in “My Father Who Art in Nature.”
When the Sonoma International Film Festival was born 15 years ago, back when it was simply known as the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, it made an effort to support and promote local filmmakers. That mission continues on today, with a slate of films produced by Sonoma filmmakers, shot within the Valley or featuring local residents being shown throughout the festival, which runs April 11 through 15.
Not only did Jerry Seltzer help launch the Sonoma Valley Film Festival with Carolyn Stolman; he was also the man who revitalized the sport of Roller Derby in the 1950s, a game his father invented. His two passions collided this year with the West Coast premiere of “Derby, Baby,” a film about the current state of the game, which is played in dozens of countries.
“These filmmakers, they used their own money, how stupid is that?” Seltzer, a Valley resident since 1993, joked. “It’s (roller derby) a whole different sports niche. The whole thing of the film is capturing what that means.”
Seltzer, who is currently commissioner of the derby, met the filmmakers at an event in Denver celebrating the 70th anniversary of the birth of the sport. Seltzer grew up on the derby track, often traveling with his father from city to city to put on exhibitions. He turned the game from a spectacle to a competitive sport that was televised 52 weeks a year from 1950-53. Not surprisingly, the filmmakers wanted to pick his brain.
“I am the link between the history and the modern,” he said.
He was also the link to the Sonoma International Film Festival, which agreed to showcase the fast-paced documentary, which screens Saturday, April 14, at 3 p.m. at the Sebastiani Theatre. Prior to the screening at 2 p.m., more than 70 local derby players will descend on the Plaza to meet and greet fans.
“We put it out to all the Bay Area Roller Derby girls,” Seltzer said. Tickets to the “Derby, Baby” screening are $15 and available online at www.sonomafilmfest.org.
For Alden Olmsted, the process of making “My Father, Who Art In Nature” was both heart-wrenching and cathartic. The film explores the complex life and death of his father, John Olmsted, a protector of open spaces and a devotee of John Muir.
“Even before I started making films, I knew my father was a great story. You just assume someone is going to make a movie about him sometime … Gosh darn it, it was going to have to be me,” Alden Olmsted said.
While Alden Olmsted was growing up in Sonoma, his father was traveling the state, working to establish state parks such as Jug Handle State Natural Reserve and South Yuba River. He all but abandoned his family, driven by a bigger mission of securing open space for public access.
“My father called himself an ‘Undeveloper’ …It (the film) is about how one man’s choices impacted the whole family,” Alden Olmsted said, explaining that he reconnected with his dad in the 1990s. In the film, which was shot in 2010, Alden returns to his father’s rustic cabin to care for him after prostate cancer ravaged his body.
“I’m alone in a house with my dad 24 hours a day in the middle of the freaking woods,” Olmsted said, adding family tensions quickly rose. “I only lasted a month up there.”
While making the film, he explored the life his father had left his family to pursue, talking to the people and organizations John Olmsted worked closely with throughout his years. He gained an appreciation for how his father’s privileged roots branched into a life dedicated to preservation of the environment, not necessarily the people in his life.
“As his life went on, he wouldn’t admit it, but he was grasping for significance,” Alden Olmsted said. “He got to see it (the film) five days before he died.”
Alden Olmsted will be at the screening of “My Father Who Art in Nature” for a Q&A on Sunday, April 15, at 10 a.m. at Sebastiani Winery’s Barrel Room.
Sonoma County filmmaker John Beck also found his way to the Valley while filming his documentary, “Harvest,” which offers a play-by-play of what happened in five family vineyards during the hectic 2011 season.
“It is kind of the blue-collar side. Once the grapes hit the winery, I’m kind of not interested anymore,” Beck said, explaining that he wanted to show a slice of life on what happens in the fields. “I think when you buy a bottle off the shelf at Safeway or whatever, you don’t know what went into that wine,” he said.
Beck sought to share the hard work, personal attention and overall “organized chaos” that goes into making wine. He highlights the Valley’s Robledo Family Winery, the first winery owned by a vineyard worker, along with Robert Hunter Winery. Using stunning visuals of the Valley and county, the documentary explores the daily grind, so much so that it might feel like work to those in the wine industry. The film also depicts an all-female grape-picking crew that Bacchus Vineyard Management hired for their attention to detail. The women not only prove they have the same stamina as their male counterparts, but also share the emotional stories of how they ended up in Sonoma County.
“Those women kind of steal this movie,” Beck said.
Beck spent long hours filming all aspects of the 2011 harvest, from night picks at 2 a.m. to the rain storms that plagued growers, causing Reynoldo Robledo to call the season the worst he’s seen in 43 years. Many vineyards featured in the movie lost anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent of their grapes in certain vineyard blocks, something Beck could never have anticipated when he launched the project.
“Their misfortune kind of became my fortune,” he said.
The film will première at the festival on Friday, April 13, at 5 p.m. and will include a wine tasting with some of the wineries featured in the film. The film will be screened again on Saturday, April 14, at 3:15 p.m. at Sebastiani Winery.
Most everyone in Sonoma knows the Whiskey Thieves, a hometown band formed out of years of friendship and playing music throughout the Valley. They will share their second official music video, “Stars Above,” off their album “Almost Time,” as part of the Sixth Sense Short Program, which screens on Friday at 1 p.m. and again on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. at Vintage House senior center. The video was created entirely within Sonoma County.
“We looked for really cool scenery spots,” said Codi Binkley, the band’s lead singer. “We just drove around and kept our eyes open for interesting places to shoot.”
The video was written, directed and produced by Jake Langhoff, and tells the story of a young boy coming of age in Wine Country. In addition to showing their film, the Whiskey Thieves will be performing live several times throughout the weekend. They’ll offer an acoustic performance in the Backlot Tent on the Plaza from 11 to 11:45 a.m. on Friday; followed by a live show in the tent at the Awards Ceremony after party on Sunday around 8 p.m. The tent is only open to pass-holders. The band will also perform Friday around 10 p.m. at Steiners Tavern, which has no cover charge.
Peter McEvilley highlights the Valley in the feature film, “On Falling,” about a road trip a couple of 23-year-olds take from Big Sur to Sonoma. It screens Friday at 8:30 p.m. at Vintage House.
Also a part of the Sixth Sense Short Program is “Outro” by Sonoma Valley High School senior Ky Newman; and “Alarm Clock Alley” by SVHS alum Mike Lee. The students of the high school’s Media Arts Program will show their work during a free public screening on Thursday at 9 a.m. at the Sebastiani Theatre, which will also repeat at noon on Sunday at the Sebastiani Theatre.
Tickets can be purchased for a single show or the entire weekend of events. The festival recently unveiled two-day passes that allow ciné-philes to attend as many movies as they like on Friday and Saturday, or Saturday and Sunday. Get tickets and a list of all of the film festival movies and highlights at www.sonomafilmfest.org.