Ben Kingsley Starrer ‘Jules’ Wins Audience Award at 26th Sonoma International Film Festival — Exclusive

The festival provides a heady celebration of food, wine, and film over five days amid the lush vineyards of California wine country.
Ben kingsley in jules
Courtesy Sonoma International Film Festival

Launching with the opening night world premiere of Marc Turtletaub’s “Jules,” a crowdpleaser sales title starring Ben Kingsley, the 26th annual Sonoma International Film Festival (March 22-26) drew its highest audience attendance to date. The wine country film festival combined a robust film slate programmed by newly appointed artistic director Carl Spence (working with Executive Director Ginny Krieger), from upcoming specialty fare like Paul Schrader’s “The Master Gardener,” starring Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver, and Searchlight’s period biopic “Chevalier,” starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., with a smattering of yummy wine and food events with top chefs, from Martin Yan’s Shaking Beef with Three Onions to Joanne Weir’s herb-covered goat cheese tarte.

The five-day festival curated by Spence along with senior programmers Amanda Salazar and Ken Jacobson, showcased 110 films, including seven films making their US premieres as well as films acclaimed on the festival circuit. Thirty-two countries are represented in this year’s lineup of 38 narrative features, 20 documentary features, and 52 short films collectively selected by the curatorial team and led by shorts programmer Oscar Arce Naranjo.

Spence pulled in such industry heavyweights for his dramatic jury as John Cooper (Director Emeritus, Sundance Film Festival), Marcus Hu (Co-President, Strand Releasing), Laura Kim (Executive Vice President, Marketing, Participant Films), Fred Tsui (Founder & CEO, Moebius Entertainment Limited), and Christine Vachon (Co-Founder, Killer Films).

The dramatic, documentary, and shorts juries chose the jury prize winners, while the audience, both local and visitors from surrounding counties as well as the Bay area, voted for the audience awards.

“Jules” scored the Stolman Audience Award for Best Feature; the A3 Audience Award for Best Documentary went to “Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection,” and “Nina & Irena” took The McNeely Audience Award for Best Short Film.

“The Grab”

Among the jury prizes, the Grand Jury Best Narrative Feature went to Turkish filmmaker Emin Alper’s Cannes entry “Burning Days,” about a young prosecutor appointed to a turbulent small town, which Match Factory is selling. The jury also highlighted the performances of Sadaf Asgari and Ghazal Shojaei in the feature film “Until Tomorrow” with a Special Jury Award.

The Grand Jury Best Documentary Feature went to “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s TIFF entry “The Grab,” a frightening expose about foreign countries’ drive to buy resource-rich U.S. land.

The Grand Jury Best Live Action Short Film winner was “The Vacation,” while “Historias de Cultura: Comida” scored the Grand Jury Best Documentary Short Film and “Christopher At Sea” the Grand Jury Best Animated Short Film.

The SIFF Filmmaker Award went to Sarah T. Schwab for cancer drama “A Stage of Twilight,” starring Karen Allen. The prize includes a  a $10,000 production grant from Cinelease to Schwab for her next project.

Sonoma industry panelAnne Thompson

The entire dramatic jury, plus Sundance director Eugene Hernandez, participated on a lively industry panel “Film Veterans Tell All” moderated by Cooper, which covered many topics including the challenges facing the specialty distribution, where theater attendance has declined dramatically since the pandemic. Summing up the conundrum facing film creators and backers, Vachon, whose most recent title “Past Lives” scored raves in Sundance and Berlin, said: “How do you get people to take risks? There are some companies that built themselves on taking crazy big swings. The only way independence is to continue is to be as original as possible, to truly be an alternative. The ones that do succeed in the independent field tend to succeed for that very reason, because you can’t see anything else like it anywhere else. And how do you get companies to get in line with that? We’re lucky that we have A24 and Neon, that we have companies still that are doing that. But they’re few and far between.”

The view at the Wing and Barrel gun club in Sonoma.Anne Thompson

I conducted another film industry conversation at the gun club Wing and Barrel (complete with a giant stuffed bear) with producer David Dinerstein, who not only revealed how he landed Questlove to direct the Oscar-winning 1969 concert film “Summer of Soul,” but told colorful stories from his days working with Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, Tom Rothman at Searchlight, and Ruth Vitale at Paramount Vantage. No question, he said, there’s a more robust market for documentaries these days than two-hour indie narrative features.

And San Francisco food and film critic Meredith Brody moderated “A Conversation about Food and Cinema” with attending culinary filmmakers. At Thursday’s Devour’s Chefs & Shorts Dinner, the menu was inspired by the shorts playing during the five-course meal (with a different wine for every course) including Ben Proudfoot’s tearjerker “The Best Chef in the World,” about groundbreaking California chef Sally Schmidt, whose charming cookbook “Six California Kitchens,” published after her death in 2022, was on sale in the local Sonoma bookstore Reader’s Books. That’s the Sonoma experience: an eye-opening film combined with tasty gastronomy and a touch of local color.

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