Celebrate food, wine and film at Sonoma International Film Festival

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Dinner and a movie may have never had it so good. Especially for five straight days in spring, in Wine Country, with world-class wines and farm-to-table fare.

That’s the promise of the Sonoma International Film Festival, running March 27-31, where independent and provocative films are the heart of the festival, and exceptional local wines and extraordinary food are the soul.

“We celebrate food, film and wine,” said SIFF director Kevin McNeely, adding that the festival showcases work that’s “motivating, stimulating and thought-provoking.”

McNeely wants “people to come away thinking: I never would have seen that on Netflix or in a theater.”

In its 22nd year, the festival includes screenings of more than 90 films from around the world, live-band dance parties, wine tastings and epicurean delights, all within a “walkable” few blocks in downtown Sonoma, McNeely said.

The marquee event is a 150-seat dinner featuring Food Network chef Tyler Florence at Ramekins Culinary School in Sonoma on Friday, March 29 at 5:30 p.m.

Known for his restaurants, including Wayfare Tavern in San Francisco and El Paseo in Mill Valley, the charismatic chef will screen his film “Uncrushable” about the North Bay’s path to recovery after the October 2017 fires.

The film will also be shown in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center, Saturday, March 30, at 7:30 p.m.

A passionate advocate for action to reduce the effects of climate change, Florence said he’s “honored” to be invited to the festival and to show his film in the region affected by horrific fires in 2017.

“I feel like I’ve done a lot of really cool stuff in my career, but I think hands down this is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Florence said in a phone interview.

“Most of the film takes place in Santa Rosa in the neighborhoods of Fountaingrove and Coffey Park, so it’s incredibly touching to get an opportunity and go back and tell the story with the neighbors and our community,” he said.

While the fires were still burning, Florence, who lives in Corte Madera, and a crew of volunteers organized to feed firefighters and other first responders.

“It was such a devastating thing that we had to jump in, we had to help,” he said. “We wanted to tell the story of what was left behind after the news trucks left, so we started to document the stories of the recovery efforts.”

The film includes scenes of fire and ash that turned the landscape gray, but it doesn’t end there.

“Uncrushable” recounts stories of resilience and rebuilding, showing vineyards bursting with the vibrant greens of spring and the burgundy and golden hues of summer.

The film got a rousing reception in Napa and has been screened in New York, Toronto and Palm Springs.

With “Uncrushable,” Florence sought to do more than document fire recovery in the North Bay. He hoped to convey a message about climate change.

“People need to see the damage that is being done with our climate spiraling out of control,” he said.

“We were screening the film at the Napa Valley Film Festival the same day that the fires in Paradise broke out” last November, Florence said.

Some thought the fires that ravaged the North Bay in 2017 were a once-in-a-generation occurrence, but barely a year later, he said, “we walked out of the Uptown Theatre in Napa, and the skies were filled with smoke again.”

Asked what he hopes viewers will do after watching “Uncrushable,” Florence said: “The first thing is to have a conversation about climate change with somebody in the next five days.”

The other thing is “to do one kind thing that somebody around you didn’t ask for, but you just feel that it’s the right thing to do. If we could inspire humanity, and inspire people to reach out to neighbors and just do one kind thing, we are creating a better tomorrow by starting today.”

Florence enjoyed the depth that the film allowed: “Instead of a 30-minute television show, we made a 70-minute movie,” he said. “This is my first film,” he said, “not my last.”

Another first-time filmmaker at the festival is Erin Palmquist, the Oakland-based director of “From Baghdad to the Bay.”

The 70-minute documentary chronicles the journey of Ghazwan Alsharif, an Iraqi man who served as a translator and advisor for U.S. military forces.

Ostracized by his family and community for helping the United States, Alsharif was later wrongfully accused by U.S. forces of being a double agent. He was detained for 75 days and tortured.

With no safe haven in Iraq, Alsharif emigrated and found refuge in San Francisco. The film traces his life from 2008 (shortly after he arrived in the Bay Area) to 2016. He’s now executive chef at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

“From Baghdad to the Bay” is being shown both at SIFF (5:30 p.m. on Saturday March 30, Andrews Hall) as well as at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 31 at the Rialto Cinemas. (See story above.)

Alsharif and Palmquist plan to attend the film’s screening at both festivals.

Palmquist met Alsharif through the International Rescue Committee, and thought his view would be a good lens through which to tell the story of the Iraq war.

His story “raises questions about what it would be like to rebuild your life in the country that was ultimately responsible for your displacement,” she said.

“Resettling is never easy: customs, culture, language, these are basic concepts that we take for granted. And in 2008, anti-Arab sentiment was at an all-time high.”

Palmquist met several refugees, but everyone except the gregarious Alsharif said they’d rather not be in a film.

“We asked Ghazwan if he would be willing to be on camera,” Palmquist said. “And he said, ‘Heck yeah, I’ve got a story to tell.’ ”

Palmquist had no idea she’d be filming for eight years and that “Baghdad by the Bay” would require 10 years to complete.

However, she now feels that the “longitudinal look really lent power” to the film, as viewers can see Alsharif’s struggles and triumphs over the course of nearly a decade.

Alsharif appears on a Food Network show hosted by Guy Fieri in one of the highlights of the film.

We also see Alsharif struggle with a decision to share that he’s gay, which could have had repercussions for family members who remained in Iraq.

“The film is being made for Ghazwan as well as for audiences,” Palmquist said. She hopes viewers will “feel inspired to believe in themselves and feel confident that they are not alone and not give up on being true to themselves.”


The Sonoma International Film Festival begins Wednesday, March 27, with an opening night party and film called “Ladies in Black.” The festival concludes March 31 with a film called “Sir” about a live-in maid working for a wealthy family. Venues include the Sebastiani Theater, Veterans Hall and Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

For film descriptions, screening times, tickets and event information, see:

Michael Shapiro writes about travel, food and the arts for national magazines and The Press Democrat,

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