Opening night of Sonoma's film festival brings the glitz to town

The crowds were giddy with the excitement of the 19th annual Sonoma International Film Festival.|

'This is all pretty wonderful! Just super! We've had some bumps along the way, here and there, but this film festival is always the event of the year!'

So exclaimed Sonoma's Jerry Seltzer early Wednesday evening, as he stood with friends just outside the sprawling Back Lot Tent during the well-attended kick-off reception of the 19th annual Sonoma International Film Festival. The opening-night party – which featured dozens of food and drink stations, live music, and a trio of artists from the Alchemia program, in Petaluma and Santa Rosa – a partner with Sonoma's 'Everybody's a Star' – painting vivid pictures as the swirling crowd of merry-making film fans frequently stopped by to watch – was just the beginning of a busy night of screenings, tributes, more parties, Gypsy jazz, and plenty of high-energy inside talk about the pitfalls and pleasures of making movies.

Inspired by the escalating film-positive vibe at the Back Lot tent – located, throughout the five-day festival, near the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building – original Film Festival founder Seltzer told stories about his early days as the founder of BASS Tickets, his operation of the International Roller Derby League, and his own brushes with filmmaking. In particular, he talked about the documentary movie he produced in 1971, titled 'Derby,' telling the story of real life roller derby skaters.

'Skaters hated it. Audiences hated it. But the critics loved it,' Seltzer laughed. 'Roger Ebert called it the best film of the year.'

Inside the tent, Liz Jahren, program director of Alchemia, an arts-based program for adults with disabilities, talked to partiers about the Alchemia and Everybody's A Star artists.

'This is fun for them, to show off what they do by actually doing it in front of a crowd,' she said, standing beside artist Rosie Dawson, who was adding brown fur-like swirls to a painting of a mythological minotaur. A group of singers from Everybody's A Star will be performing during the Saturday morning screening of the Australian dog-and-penguin comedy 'Oddball' (9 a.m., at the Sebastiani Theatre).

As screenwriter Robert Kamen ('Karate Kid,' 'The Fifth Element,' 'Taken') chatted with Festival director Kevin McNeeley and a group of fans, just before leaving for his onstage tribute at the Sebastiani Theatre, the Sonoma resident and winemaker happily admitted, 'It's so embarrassing! I've always turned it down before, but when Kevin said they'd be giving me a Tiffany wine bucket as part of the tribute, I said, 'OK! I'll do it!'

At the opposite side of the tent, near the less busy of two Stella Artois tap stations, one of the servers demonstrated the fine art of pouring a perfect glass of beer, adding, 'We need people to come down here! Spread the word that we pour beer better on this side of the tent!'

Nearby, filmmaker Steven Bassett, of the UFO website Paradigm Research, approached Neeley to express his enthusiasm for the Film Fest's annual UFO Symposium, this year featuring a certified alien abduction superstar, Travis Walton, the subject of two movies at this year's Symposium.

'This film festival has played a significant role in spreading the word about UFOs,' Bassett said. 'It's given us legitimacy, and that is about to pay off. Hillary Clinton recently admitted that we may have been visited, and word is that we may have an announcement this year, from President Obama, that there is physical proof we are not alone in the universe.'

A bit later on, just before the Kamen tribute at the Sebastiani, word spread quickly that an anticipated performance by the Oakland-based Bandaloop Dance Company, whose short-film 'Shift' would play after the tribute, had been canceled. The troupe, which uses climbing equipment to dance on the sides of building, cliffs and other dangerous places, was planning to demonstrate on the side of the Sebastiani, but at the last minute, but according to McNeeley, the building's owners decided to withhold permission.

Nevertheless, after causing the packed-audience to hold their collective breath for the full 11-minute running time of the Yosemite-set cliff-dancing short, Bandaloop founder Amelia Rudolph was as graceful standing upright as she is shown dancing sideways in the film.

'People ask why we so often dance on cliffs in Yosemite,' she told the audience after the film. 'People go to the mountains, they go to Yosemite, for so many reasons, for recreation and to get in touch with the spiritual. To be able to celebrate those beautiful natural spaces by actually dancing in them, and in the case of the mountains actually dancing on them, it's truly special, and brings dance and nature together in a way that makes people appreciate both even more.'

Following two simultaneous screenings of the French drama 'Louder Than Bombs,' at the Sebastiani and the Veterans Building, hardy partiers eventually converged on Hopmonk Tavern for 'The Chaser,' the film fest's first official late-night after-party, where a literal mountain of food, nearly two feet high, was waiting for post-film consumption.

Amongst the guests was Oscar-winning animator Jon Lasseter, who dropped by to visit his son, Bennett, himself a filmmaker with a short movie, 'Stealth,' appearing at the festival on Saturday, April 2, at 2:15 p.m. along with the Cuban film 'Viva.' Lasseter, dressed in one of his signature Pixar-themed Hawaiian shirts – this one featuring characters from 'Cars' – chatted for a while with guests, trading jokes, before steering the conversation to his son's film.

'I'm really not saying this because I'm his dad,' Lasseter says, 'but this is a beautiful, beautiful film, about a transgender girl coming out to her friends at a slumber party, and what happens next. It's very soulful, and very wise, and I couldn't be prouder.'

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