Sonoma International Film Festival

Story  Jonah Raskin (At press time, this event had been postponed.)

Cities and towns all over California, from Mill Valley and San Francisco to Palm Springs and beyond, have a film festival. But none may be as truly committed to global cinema as the annual film festival held in Sonoma. The operative word here is “International.” And few film festivals are as festive as ours. The dour Russian Bolshevik V. I. Lenin called revolutions, “festivals of the oppressed.” He had a one-track mind and clearly didn’t know how festive the film festival in Sonoma could be. There was no Sonoma International Film Festival in Lenin’s day, though there were Hollywood films, including several adaptations of the novels of Jack London, who loved the movies and who surely would applaud the latest version of The Call of the Wild, with its computer-generated dog.

The Valley of the Moon has attracted producers, directors, screenwriters, and actors ever since London’s day. Kevin McNeely knows that as well as anyone, though many other Sonomans, prominently including Roger Rhoten, are versed in the many cinematic connections between Sonoma and Hollywood. Rhoten has spent years at the Sebastiani, bringing both new and old films to the theater and winning the hearts and minds of moviegoers.

On the eve of this year’s annual extravaganza, McNeely took a break from around-the-clock meetings to talk about the movies and community. “The Sonoma International Film Festival is a unique cultural asset,” he says. “It brings cultures, countries, customs, and languages here, and it’s especially appreciated by those who can’t or don’t travel far and wide but are fascinated by what goes on around the world.”

Did McNeely enjoy the new version of The Call of the Wild, which was screened at the Sebastiani before a packed house as a fundraiser for Jack London State Historic Park? “I did like it,” McNeely says, “though at the start of the film I had to buy into Buck as a dog that winks at you.”

McNeely raves about the lineup of this year’s films, especially because they bring the big world to Sonoma big time. Born a King, which kicks off the festival, tells the more or less real coming-of age story about the 14-year-old Saudi Prince Faisal, whose royal father sends him on a diplomatic mission to London in 1919 to secure the future of a country not yet formed. The little prince meets commoners, aristocrats, and adventurers, including Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, and Britain’s Princess Mary, who has been most recently dramatized in Downton Abbey. “It’s a feature- length narrative, and it’s a great way to start our run of films,” McNeely says. “On closing night, there’s The Cave, which is also a feature film and tells the story of a group of boys on a soccer team who are trapped underground.” No spoiler here. You’ll have to see it to find out how it ends.

The Cave was controversial in Thailand, where the real boys were trapped and where the movie was filmed. But what might be really controversial for Sonoma audiences is Vaxxed II, a documentary produced by Bobby Kennedy Jr. and that explores the widely discredited connections between the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. It appears on the heels of the 2016 film Vaxxed, which was also widely discredited and rejected by the Tribeca Film Festival after co-founder Robert De Niro, who has an autistic son, decided to research the film’s claims and concluded they were false. The film purports to expose a conspiracy and is meant to shock, outrage, and prompt viewers to take action, although its underlying claims have been overwhelmingly discredited by the international scientific community.

On an entirely higher plane, The Cuban, with Lou Gossett Jr., is set in a nursing home and traces the friendship between a young woman from Afghanistan and an older man from the Caribbean locked in a state of deep depression. Cuban music and Cuban food help to revive him. “It will melt your heart,” McNeely says.

The festival also boasts a bevy of shorts, documentaries, comedies, and animated films that are four to five minutes long.

As if the festival in and of itself didn’t give enough to the community by showing top-notch films every year, there’s also the ample financial support it provides to the movie-making program at Sonoma Valley High School, now in its 18th year. Students love it. Several have also gone on to work in the film industry. Peter Hansen, a movie buff who runs the program, says, “We’re stronger than ever before. In fact, I added a podcast room/recording studio.”

Every year, Sonoma Valley High School students watch their own films and the films of their classmates on the big screen at the Sebastiani Theatre. McNeely says, “It’s a big lift for them.” He adds, “There are at least four great things about the Sonoma International Film Festival: the movies themselves, the terrific food, and the wonderful wine, and the fact that it’s walk-able.” In fact, the entire program of festival films is shown at a total of eight venues, none more than a 10-minute walk from each other.

The Sonoma International Film Festival runs from March 25 to 29, 2020. For more information and a complete festival guide go to sonomafilmfest.org.   

Jonah Raskin co-wrote the story for the feature film, Homecoming. He also has a bit part.