SIFF Summerfest brings back the film-going experience
The simple pleasure of watching a movie in the dark with friends has been a rare one over the last year, but that’s changing rapidly – almost as rapidly as COVID-19 shut down the local entertainment economy in Sonoma 16 months ago.
The pandemic caught the Sonoma International Film Festival planners on the verge of launching their robust 23rd annual festival, as they were all primed to open the doors on March 25, 2020. That door slammed shut less than two weeks earlier and Kevin McNeely, artistic director of SIFF, reluctantly canceled the scheduled cinema carousel “for the sake of health, wellness and safety of our festivalgoers.”
The organization pivoted quickly, running a “pandemic-adjusted” festival online from July 30 to Aug. 2, with passholder tickets to a reduced slate of films from a fewer-than-usual 26 countries – an experience the festival informally dubbed “SIFF 2.0” but marketed as the 2020 film festival.
Earlier this year, the festival again offered a robust series of screenings in March, but again all online only aside from a couple “drive-in” experiences.
Welcome to the post-pandemic
This August, “SIFF Summerfest” is all live and in person, continuing the 24-year-old nonprofit’s tradition of “an entirely walkable film festival,” as they say, “dedicated to promoting the best in independent film and filmmakers from around the world.”
“We wanted to be the ﬁrst to bring folks together again in Sonoma,” said McNeely. “While our virtual festivals over the past two years were successful and expanded our audience, there is nothing quite like the collective experience of enjoying new ﬁlms, and our unique brand of live entertainment, in person with others.”
There are limitations: the festival is presenting about half its usual schedule, with some 40 films representing 15 countries in the five-day festival. The venues, too, are limited: the Sebastiani Theatre and Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center are the only two screens, although several events will cast the magic glow of cinema on outdoor screens at area wineries.
As always, if you’re a film fan in the North Bay, this is one weekend you don’t want to stay home – unless you live in Sonoma.
Any good festival has an opening night, and SIFF Summerfest’s will be on Thursday, Aug. 5, in a Tom Petty-themed celebration. Both the Sebastiani and Andrews Hall will separately screen a new documentary on the late rock star, “Somewhere You Feel Free,” and the local tribute band Petty Theft will play an acoustic set prior to the screening at the Sebastiani.
You don’t bring Petty Theft to town for just an acoustic set, however, so the band goes electric at the after-party at the Reel & Brand starting at 8 p.m. Tickets for the event, and the other screenings and events, are either included in the price of a Patron Pass ($525) or by individual tickets.
Having learned the lesson that sometimes old is new, outdoor screenings return as well, led by the age-related romantic comedy “Senior Moment” (William Shatner, Jean Smart, Christopher Lloyd and Esai Morales) at the Chateau St. Jean Winery, on Aug. 6 at 6 p.m. The film will be preceded by a short, “Old Dog,” and food and wine will be available for purchase.
The next night, Aug. 7 at 6 p.m., “SIFF Screen & Cuisine” at Cornerstone gives “Top Chef” all-star Casey Thompson a chance to build a film-inspired dinner, with wines from Sojourn Cellars, to accompany the documentary “The Ventures: Stars on Guitars.” You guessed it: There’s music here this night, too, as San Francisco surf band The Mermen twangs prior to the screening, bringing their “psychedelic instrumental ocean music” to Sonoma from 8 to 9 p.m.
Sunday’s event — the closing night party — is on Aug. 8, again 6 p.m., this time at Viansa Winery. Live music to dance to, oven-baked pizza to eat and wines to enjoy will be available prior to the North American premiere of the Australian dramedy “June Again” with Noni Hazelhurst, introduced by fimmaker JJ Winlove.
Other events include two programs that are virtually synonymous with the Sonoma International Film Festival – the “UFOs are Real” program with Sonoma’s Jim Ledwith, on Aug. 7 at the Sebastiani (5:30); and the SVHS Media Arts program’s showcase of student films, on Sunday, Aug. 8 at noon, at Andrews Hall.
Other hot tickets
Dog-lovers and romantics of every stripe can look forward to feature films such as “23 Walks,” about a couple who bond over their daily rituals of pet care; “The Bright Side,” a feature about a pair who meet on Tinder but end up living together through the COVID pandemic; and “Voodoo Macbeth,” which recounts the first all-Black New York production in 1936, directed by the 21-year-old phenom Orson Welles.
Film Festivals are always good places to find documentaries, and SIFF Summerfest doesn’t disappoint. Among them: “Vinyl Nation” about the resurgence of LP collectibles and new releases; “Girls Can’t Surf,” which exhumes the 1980s world of professional surfing in glorious color; and the world premiere of “A Perfect Vintage,” following the near-perfect 2013 viticultural conditions in Napa and Sonoma and the winemakers, vintners and sommeliers who share their passions of bringing that perfect bottle of wine from the vine to the table.