The World Comes to Sonoma

25 countries, 102 movies but no Alan Rickman.

mcneely_window-webIt’s days away from the Sonoma International Film Festival and Kevin McNeely, Claudia Mendoza-Carruth, Ginny Krieger, Chay Woerz, and a hive of colleagues are cheek-by-jowl in a space not much larger than Deborah Emery’s walk-in closet, racing to finalize the configuration of Post-It note schedules stuck to white poster boards, checking to see what who’s who is coming when, and wondering whether Alan Rickman will call.

For 17 years, in repeated paroxysms of loosely organized creative chaos, SIFF has fused a love for films and the majesty of Sonoma’s Wine Country, peppered it with crowds of black-frocked filmmakers and periodically punctuated the resulting festival with superstar visitors like Bruce Willis, Robin Williams, Susan Sarandon, Lauren Hutton, Mary-Louise Parker, Demian Bichir, and Danny Glover.

Mendoza-Carruth, who directs programming and public relations with vivacious bursts of Colombian-accented energy, brings Latina fire to the process—and if there’s a question about anything, she has the answer before you can tap Google into your smartphone.

McNeely, who has served in every role from volunteer to board member, and is now the executive director, brings a calm, laid-back vibe to a process that seems perpetually on the verge of spinning out of Sonoma’s gravitational pull and disappearing over some event horizon into an organizational black hole.

But ask him anything about the festival and he has a composed and confident response. “For people who have no opportunity to travel the world,” McNeely says, “the world comes to Sonoma for five days. It’s 102 films, from 25 countries, and there’s something for everyone.”

This year, the 18th annual film festival will run from its opening night, Wednesday, March 25, to the closing gala on Sunday, March 29, with a cinematic cioppino, merging movies from Pakistan, South Africa, and Bolivia, among countries represented here for the first time.

This year, says Mendoza-Carruth, SIFF received 600 submissions. Films make it into the festival through either the submission process or by direct selection by Mendoza-Carruth and her peers after visiting other festivals.

Films from three categories—narrative features, world cinema, and documentaries—will be screened at seven venues, six of which are centered around the Backlot Tent that will be erected beside Sonoma’s City Hall on the historic Plaza.

The final venue, La Luz Center in Boyes Hot Springs, furthers SIFF’s mission to bring arts appreciation to underserved communities and is a cornerstone of the festival’s Latin cinema program, Vamos al Cine.

The event, McNeely boasts, is the “only truly walkable festival” out of more than a thousand film festivals in the United States.

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McNeely virtually vibrates with excitement over the vast selection of films from all over the globe. “We have 200 filmmakers coming from 14 countries,” he says through an ear-to-ear grin.

In past years, SIFF has traditionally honored celebrities, paying tribute to their contributions to the film industry while hosting them as visiting royalty at the festival. But celebrity availability is both capricious and expensive, and while expectations were high for a while that British virtuoso Alan Rickman would come to accompany the showing of his new directorial release, A Little Chaos, Rickman couldn’t make it (See “Waiting for Rickman” on page 28). So this year, SIFF is repeating a tradition started in 2014 of honoring the festival itself to better focus on the wide array of films and the filmmakers behind them.

“We’ve never hung our hat on being a celebrity film festival, but rather on the quality of our films,” McNeely says.

SIFF is produced by Sonoma International Film Society, a nonprofit foundation that works to provide audiences with independent films from around the world, to create opportunities for underserved community members to experience cultural enrichment, and to support visual arts education in Sonoma Valley schools.

Since the society was created in 1997, by Ed and Carolyn Stolman and Jerry Seltzer, it has remained committed to these goals, using the film festival to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for the visual arts program at Sonoma Valley High School and to sustain the historic Sebastiani Theatre on First Street East. In 2008 the Sonoma Valley Film Festival became Sonoma International Film Festival when it welcomed 200 films from over a dozen countries. As the festivals became more successful, McNeely says, the staff went from a few volunteers to the dedicated, salaried team who make SIFF a destination for innovative filmmakers to display their work.

Over the years, McNeely admits, SIFF has had its share of turbulent times, with full staff overhauls and years when there almost wasn’t a festival. But now, he says, with a steady team united by their passion for SIFF’s success, it’s all coasting—giving the team more ability to focus on what matters most—great films.

And McNeely is quick to insist that the film festival would not be possible without community support, from the patrons who donate money and pay top dollar to attend to local businesses who sponsor the event or provide food and lodging.

While the festival has grown over the last two decades, McNeely says the staff is working to keep the actual production intimate. Filmmakers feel their films are treated with respect at the festival, he says, noting how proud he and his team are when a film shown at SIFF gets picked up for distribution. “Less than 20 percent of films in all festivals ever get picked up for distribution,” he explains, adding, “We strive to be an effective launch pad for indie films.” For counterpoint, SIFF uses studio features to kick off and close the event.

“Sonoma is a unique community reflected in the film festival,” McNeely says, “and is so supportive of filmmakers in their plight to get their films distributed. We want filmmakers to know how much we care about their films and how much we want them to be successful.”

 

Story K.R. Cosgrove
Photos David Bolling

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