Space travel to social issues at the Wine Country Film Festival

Get lost in space with George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, visit the rooftop gardens of New York City and head to Spain for some American jazz played to perfection by elementary school children – all without ever leaving the comforts of the Valley. The Wine Country Film Festival is in full swing, bringing more than 50 films from dramas to documentaries this weekend.

“What our forte is and what our passion is, comes from the communication value these films have. We really feel a lot of our films have an impact on the people who watch them,” said Stephen Ashton, who founded the festival 27 years ago with his wife, Justine. “We look for something in the film that communicates with the heart. It has to touch us.”

Stephen Ashton’s film history is long and rich. He studied under film legend Martin Scorsese at New York University, followed by a 10-year stint as a director and producer with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). In 1985, he established the Wine Country Film Festival along with the nonprofit Society for the Advancement of Arts and Film, of which he remains the president. Since 1999, he has also served as the publisher of FilmVision International magazine, and has served on juries at film festivals from Bulgaria to the U.S. Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C. He and Justine have cultivated relationships in the film industry that offer unique access to an array of celebrated cinema.

Take the critical darling “Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Academy Award winners Clooney and Bullock. While the film doesn’t open to the general public until Oct. 4, attendees of the Wine Country Film Festival can see it under the stars at Glen Ellen’s Deerfield Ranch Winery on Friday, Sept. 27, at 8:30 p.m.

“That came from a relationship we’ve had for two decades with Warner Brothers,” Justine Ashton said.

A similar personal relationship brought Jonathan Demme’s latest documentary, “Enzo Avitabile Music Life” to the Wine Country Film Festival. Demme was spotlighted at a celebrity tribute at the festival in 1988, and has remained friendly with the Ashtons ever since.

“We have the West Coast premiere of that film,” Stephen Ashton said, explaining that the film spotlights musical legends around the globe. “Jonathan Demme leads us on a journey, and it’s just a trip as Enzo plays with all of the world’s best musicians.”

But more than chasing stars, the Ashtons strive to awaken audiences to issues and efforts that can change the world. The festival’s “Cinema of Consciousness” program includes everything from “Walk On,” a comedy about a wheelchair-bound man born with HIV; to “Don’t Shout Too Loud” about South Africa’s efforts to combat human trafficking before the World Cup arrived in 2010, driving up demand for sexual salves.

“It’s films with a social conscience,” Stephen Ashton said. “That is one thing we actually feel is really important at our festival.”

Whenever possible, the screenings include a live component, whether it be a Q&A with a film’s director, a panel discussion or a live performance, to allow audiences a deeper knowledge of and appreciation for the film’s subject. Prior to the Taiwanese film “Touch of the Light,” audiences can enjoy authentic foods and live music from the San Francisco Guzheng Music Society, followed by a sword dance by Kung Fu Master Justin Eggert and an interactive Tai Chi experience. After Sunday’s screening of “Amazônia Eterna,” Glen Ellen resident Bernie Krause, a noted archivist of natural sounds, will presented a soundscape to give audiences a listen to life in the Amazon.

While over its history the festival has spanned Napa to Santa Rosa, this year the Wine Country Film Festival will take place exclusively in Sonoma Valley at Deerfield Ranch Winery, which has created an al fresco screening area in its vineyards, at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church in Kenwood and at Dunbar Elementary School. New this year, the festival will include a program of ecologically minded films at Dunbar, such as “Growing Cities,” about the urban gardening movement, or “Slow Food Story,” which highlights the world’s emerging Slow Food movement.

“All films at Dunbar School are free to any Sonoma County student, from kindergarten through 12th grade,” Justine Ashton said. Furthermore, the festival seeks to give back to Dunbar by supporting its school garden.

“We had an anonymous donor come through with a $1,000 matching grant,” Justine Ashton said. Through Jan. 4, the festival will be collecting donations towards that grant, with the hopes of handing over $2,000 to provide gardening supplies from wheelbarrows to drip irrigation systems.

The festival has re-launched its website, wcff.us, which includes a full lineup of films and programs as well as a place to buy festival passes and special event tickets. But unlike most festivals where passes are critical for access to films, the Wine Country Film Festival allows patrons to buy tickets at the front door.

“It’s just like a movie theater, you just come and enjoy, you don’t need a pass,” Justine Ashton said. “It’s for the community, it’s meant to be affordable and accessible for everyone.”