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The 17th Sonoma International Film Festival: Wine, Docs and Food Films (Award-Winners)

The 17th Sonoma International Film Festival: Wine, Docs and Food Films (Award-Winners)

The Sonoma International Film Festival is an essential rite of spring.  

One of the attractions of this five-day festival– where you do spend the better part of your day in the dark– is its beautiful setting. If you have to stroll from venue to venue (all but one within a block or two of the parklike town square, the Plaza), it might as well be past tempting restaurants, wine and chocolate tasting bars, interesting retailers, and historic buildings — under sunny skies. Walking around Sonoma, I remembered that last year I named it “the town of good smells”: jasmine, roses, citrus, sometimes briefly overwhelmed by garlic, grilled meat, beer. 

Within seemingly minutes after leaving the East Bay, you’re driving through exquisitely-staked fields of grapevines, climbing up the gentle slopes of the echt-California landscape of golden hills dotted with green oaks. Many of the Sonoma festivalgoers are local, but over the years, the festival has attracted a host of wordly regulars. A pair of festival friends I met last year were making their eleventh annual visit, from Chicago.

This Little Film Festival that Could can change me from a humorless scold who demands perfect screening conditions to a more relaxed one who is happy to perch in a 30-seat pub while those around me consume chicken wings, or a rec room with uncomfortable folding seats, as long as I’m surrounded by an enthusiastic audience and watching something interesting.  

At Sonoma, whose logo features a wine glass and grapes as well as a film can and celluloid, there is the added perk of free wine and food (ranging from popcorn through assorted pastries, fresh fruit, and even pasta topped with one of the sponsor’s sauces) at almost every venue. And wine and food tastings are on offer all day long in the Backlot Tent on the Square.  At one screening, I was delighted to overhear the ticket taker offer filmgoers a glass of wine even before he asked if they had a ticket. Ebullient and omnipresent festival director Kevin McNeely sets the relaxed and hedonistic tone — his BMW and profile, along with a glass of wine, were featured in the short animated logo film that introduced each screening.

Every film festival needs an identity. Sonoma, with its over 110 films from 22 different countries, does try to be all things to all people. There’s a smattering of world cinema titles, this year including “The Great Beauty,” this year’s foreign film Oscar winner, from Italy; Bertrand Tavernier’s “The French Minister,” aka “Quai d’Orsay;” “Everything is Fine Here,” about a gang-rape in Tehran, Iran; “Siddharth,” about a father who fears his son has been taken by child-traffickers, and “Butterfly’s Dream,” a poetic period piece from Turkey. 

Also, a focus on American independent cinema, some of it local — “Neon Sky,” following carnies and shot in Northern California; “Along the Roadside,” a buddy comedy also largely shot in the Bay Area; “Roxie,” a rueful midlife-crisis story shot in San Francisco — as well as “I’m Obsessed With You (but you’ve got to leave me alone),” a quirky coming-of-age story set in NYC and Long Island), and the somewhat-starrier “Brahmin Bulls,” with Roshan Seth, the gorgeous Sendhil Ramamurthy, Mary Steenburgen, and Michael Lerner, set in Southern California.  

Documentaries are always a strong suit, including “Maidentrip,” chronicling a 14-year-old Dutch schoolgirl’s attempt to be the youngest person to sail around the world; “Bella Vita,” about a surfer seeking waves in Italy; and the crowd-pleasing “Queens & Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo.” There’s even a kiddie matinee (gotta indoctrinate the next generation of filmgoers into a genuine movie theater experience), this year’s featuring the animated “Rio 2,” a week before its release.

But Sonoma has had great success with two specialized areas: a Latin American program entitled “Vamos El Cine,” intelligently curated by the indefatigable and knowledgable Claudia Mendozza Carruth — I’d follow Claudia anywhere — with ten movies this year from Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Cuba.  The lineup included “Chronic Love,” interesting blend of documentary footage of Cuban-American singer Cucu Diamantes on her first tour of Cuba (with a rockin’ Afro-Cuban band) and surreal interludes with a dwarf companion, a seductive and brightly-colored view of contemporary Cuba, that I followed immediately with “Melaza,” a rather bleaker view of life there today, set in one of the many ghost towns that were created by the 2006 closing of most of Cuba’s sugar mills.  “Chronic Love” was directed by the prolific actor/director Jorge Perugorria (star of “Strawberries and Chocolate”), also represented at the festival with his “Se Vende” (“For Sale”), his new black comedy.

What did I most enjoy? “Viva Cuba,” a delightful 2005 film about kids who run away together, by Juan Carlos Cremata, that won the Gran Priz Ecrans Junior at Cannes. “How do you feel about seeing a ten-year-old film in the festival?,” was the response, and I said “I don’t care how old a film is or where I see it if it’s good!”

And Sonoma also offered an eclectic slate of food films — a weakness of mine: “Love and Lemons,” about a young Swedish woman who’s an aspiring restauranteur; “Jadoo,” two feuding Indian brother chefs enter a cooking competition as partners; “The Chef,” aka “Comme un Chef,” starring Jean Reno as a three-star chef in danger of losing his restaurant; “Tasting Menu,” about the last night at “the world’s best restaurant,” clearly modeled on Ferran Adria’s elBulli; “The Golden Scallop,” about a fried-fish competition in the US Northeast. There were also a number of related documentaries, including “Starfish Throwers,” showing three different passionate approaches to feeding the homeless; “The Organic Life,” about the future of the family farm; and “In the Magic of the Green Mountains,” Vermont farmers growing medical herbs organically.  (I was soothed by this lineup, since Sonoma was running directly against San Francisco’s mostly-documentary alluring Food Farm and Film Festival. Programming director Steve Shor noted the popularity of these films and promised even more in years to come.

The Festival is also famed for its nightly parties, highlighting delicious local food and wines, with lively music, mostly held in the huge Backlot Tent.  They ranged from a down-home event catered by famed local restaurant The Girl and the Fig — the best picnic menu ever, fried chicken, pork ribs, coleslaw, and deviled eggs — to a Latin Fiesta, hosting all the partying Vamos El Cine crew, and a Queens & Cowboy dance party in which Wade Earp, hero of the documentary and a direct descendant of Wyatt’s brother Virgil, tore up the dance floor.  An amazing concert followed the documentary “Born In Chicago,” about the musicians who learned their craft there from venerable blues guys, featuring musicians from the film, including Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Nick Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, and Barry Goldberg. 

I could hear that blues concert from my enviable perch a few blocks up the hill, overlooking Sonoma and a seductive landscape of grapevines and flowers, a view it was hard to leave a couple of days later.  

The last film I saw was a surprise TBA screening of “Taking My Parents to Burning Man,” a good-natured documentary that presents both the famed anarchic arts festival and the titular family in a pleasing light. It was introduced by its twentysomething co-directors, Bryant “Spry Bry” Boesen (he of the parents), and Joel Ashton McCarthy. They returned for the q-and-a, having in the meantime gone to the closing-night awards ceremony and won the Audience Awards for Best Documentary, rendering them so giddy that q’s and a’s were beside the point.

A lovely way to end a lovely weekend.  And I was also cheered by the fact that I’d actually managed to see some of the award-winners, having seen about twenty films over four days. The Features Jury (manager Beth Holden-Garland, producer Ted Hope, and distributor Kate Edwards) chose “Brahmin Bulls” as the best American independent feature, and “Siddharth” as the best world feature, with an honorable mention for “Everything is Fine Here.” Best Narrative Short went to “Door God,” from China. The Documentary jury (programmer and producer Helen du Toit, entertainment attorney E. Barry Haldeman, and documentary funder Emily Verellen) awarded Best Documentary Feature to “The Human Experiment,” about the many chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis.  Best Documentary Short went to “Happy Hands,” about how Tippi Hedren inspired a generation of immigrant Vietnamese manicurists.  The Audience Awards, which include $1000, went to “Butterfly’s Dream” for Best World Feature, and “The Fourth Noble Truth” for Best American Independent Film.

I’d stumbled into both “Happy Hands” and “The Fourth Noble Truth” as happy accidents. I’d just suggested to my Chicago friend, Darlene, that we take a break from movies, having seen two each already that day, when she said “I feel GUILTY if I’m not in a movie!,” and we joined a catchall shorts program entitled “Fact & Fiction” in progress, catching part of “Happy Hands,” as well as a documentary, “The Art of Beer,” and two good narrative shorts, “Great,” a shaggy-dog story about a Serbian projectionist risking his life by showing “The Great Dictator” instead of a patriotic German film to a roomful of German soldiers and officers, and the tour-de-force “No One is Listening Anymore,” in which a patient pours her heart out to the wrong doctor. And I chose “The Fourth Noble Truth,” in which bad-boy actor Harry Hamlin is introduced to Buddhist meditation by a serious young (and beautiful) instructor (Kristen Kerr) because, after three movies in alternative spaces with uncomfortable seats, I wanted some back and arms support. 

And yet when it was over I was hungry for more. I brought home two DVDs, both documentaries–  “Bringing it Home,” about the future uses of industrial hemp, and “Going Attractions,” the story of how drive-in theaters have gone from 5000 to less than 400 in the past sixty years–to create my own little domestic film festival: Sonoma in My Bedroom.

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