Sonoma gears up for 17th film festival

In three weeks, Sonoma’s historic Plaza will be bustling with at least a partial who’s who in the film industry – from promising new filmmakers and award-winning directors to veteran producers and renowned actors – and thousands of eager event attendees. The Plaza park will transform into Sonomawood as the Sonoma International Film Festival kicks off its 17th year with opening activities starting on Wednesday, April 2, and closing events slated for Sunday, April 6.

This year, according to Claudia Mendoza-Carruth, SIFF programming and public relations manager, the festival received 497 film submissions that a team of screeners and SIFF staff have narrowed down to 100 films from 22 countries to feature at the festival. There will be films from the United States, Cuba, Venezuela, Mexico, Tehran, Germany, France and Canada, ranging from independent features to documentaries to shorts, SIFF Executive Director Kevin McNeely said.

The films are chosen based on what McNeely, his staff and their screeners see as “welcoming, entertaining and inspiring.” McNeely and Mendoza-Carruth explained that, when selecting the films, they look to feature those that are uplifting.

“We try not to baffle the audience,” McNeely said.

“Filmmakers now see Sonoma and this film festival as a great window to their audience,” McNeely said, adding that films featured in the festival vary from those that are very distinguished, winning Oscars and other international recognition, to those that are premiering at the festival and begging for first-look feedback.

This year, the festival received a record high number of documentary submissions, with four or five documentaries for every American indie or feature film. “There are so many incredible stories out there that can be told through a documentary,” McNeely said. “Less than 20 percent of films that go through film festivals make it to the mainstream circuit,” he added, “so for some of these (films) this is the first or only chance they have for exposure.”

SIFF is produced by the nonprofit Sonoma International Film Society, which aims to provide audiences with independent films from around the world and to create opportunities for underserved community members to experience cultural enrichment. The nonprofit also works to support visual arts education in Sonoma Valley schools. Since its inception in 1997, the film society has established year-round education programs at both middle and high school levels and worked to sustain the historic Sebastiani Theatre. The film festival is a platform in which the society can fulfill its mission.

The film festival directly benefits Sonoma Valley schools with donations and programs that foster visual arts and youth involvement. Since 2002, SIFF has supported the media arts program at Sonoma Valley High School, with $25,000 donated to the program this year and nearly $450,000 donated over the last 12 years. These donations fund equipment for the state-of-the-art media department at the high school.This student program opens doorways to creativity in the digital arts through filmmaking classes, animation, scriptwriting, film theory, and – most of all – storytelling.

The film festival also supplements SVHS media arts teacher Peter Hansen’s salary to further students’ education. SIFF’s Youth Education Program brings the same support of youth filmmaking to local middle schools. Students in Sonoma Valley High School’s media arts program also have an opportunity to show their films at the Sebastiani Theatre during the festival, with middle-school filmmakers’ shorts also featured.

SIFF’s Vamos al Cine brings Latino films to Sonoma and also breaks down cultural and economic barriers by presenting films in Boyes Hot Springs to members of the Latino community in cooperation with La Luz Center. The program provides a unique opportunity for Sonoma’s Latino community to meet and talk with celebrated filmmakers and actors. “We are providing a bridge to the Latino community and La Luz through Vamos al Cine,” said Mendoza-Carruth, who is also president of La Luz’s board of directors. “Film is the bridge.”

The most unique aspect about Sonoma’s film festival, McNeely said, is that it is walkable, with events circulating around a central hub in the center of the Plaza. The event also banks on the beauty and intimacy of Sonoma Valley and its distinguished Wine Country. McNeely noted the festival encourages attendees to take advantage of Sonoma Valley and boosts the local economy. He said festival week would not be successful without the support of lodging and restaurant partners.

Highlights at this year’s festival include the opening reception on Wednesday evening, April 2, in the centrally-located Backlot Tent (behind City Hall), with filmmakers, sponsors and Cinema Soiree and Patron passholders enjoying food and wine from local restaurants and wineries. As part of the Vamos al Cine program, a Latin fiesta will be held in the Plaza with prominent directors and actors from Cuba, Venezuela and Mexico in attendance. Saturday morning, the Sebastiani Theatre will show a French short with performing dogs as part of the festival’s children’s program.The Sebastiani Theatre will also showcase films from the SVHS media arts program on Thursday and Sunday mornings. A special celebrity guest will also make an appearance at the festival.

Among the films shown are American independent productions “Beside Still Waters,” “The Fourth Noble Truth,” “Roxie” and “Neon Sky;” documentaries “Backyard,” “Starfish Throwers,” “Born in Chicago,” and “Face;” and world cinema features “Tasting Menu,” “Volcano” and “City Slacker.”

But the most thrilling part of the film festival, McNeely said, is the energy that surrounds it. “I’m most looking forward to the excitement … It’s fun to see the reaction that the audience gets from the films.”

For more information about the film festival, ticket prices, movie lineups and program details, go to sonomafilmfest.org.