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Sonoma Film Festival captivates film-lovers


Under blue skies on Sonoma's historic plaza, corridors of trees bristling with springtime greenery lead to a large white tent directly behind the stone City Hall.

A sign announces the tent is "The Backlot."

If that isn't enough to establish the setting, in front of City Hall is a sign of cut-out letters about 12 feet tall that spell "SONOMAWOOD." It's a nod, of course, to Hollywood, the dream factory that independent film festivals like the Sonoma International Film Festival both veer from and aspire toward.

Cut to the front of the landmark Sebastiani Theatre on The Plaza's east side, the festival's premiere venue. Festival executive director Kevin McNeely stands outside; the theatre's restored Italianate facade rises above him.

"Less than 20 percent of films that go to film festivals, it doesn't matter if it's Cannes, Sundance or Sonoma, get distribution," says an animated McNeely, cutting to the heart of the film festival's reason for being.

Cut to the foyer of The Backlot tent, where festival Director of Operations Mary Catherine Cutcliffe is fielding reports from venues around town over her radio headset.

Sunday was the event's closing act. More than 100 films were shown through its five-day run, including selections from 22 countries. Some 200 volunteers helped out. At least 3,500 people came last year and more did this year, Cutcliffe says.

"We've had amazing attendance," she says, sitting in The Backlot tent. "We have people from out of town, from out of state... A lot of turnout from the larger Bay Area."

And, oh, the parties. A Saturday night dance party celebrated the screening of the documentary "Queens & Cowboys," about a season with the International Gay Rodeo Association.

Cutcliffe leans forward: "We went through 1,000 pieces of glassware in an hour," she says. "I shouldn't say that, probably, but it's true."

Cut to the front of the The Backlot tent, where filmmaking partners Thom Canalichio and Giorgio Litt are finishing each other's sentences.

It's a fantastically run and organized festival," says Litt of Los Angeles.

"The hospitality of the town is fantastic..." says Canalichio, of Charlottesville, Va.

"...It's unparalleled," says Litt.

The pair are hustling to arrange an extra screening of their film, "Waking Marshall Walker," a 15-minute narrative short involving a vintner whose wife dies and the family's struggle "to reconnect in the afterlife," Litt says.

"We thought it would resonate with the audience here," says Canalichio.

Cut to McNeely, still in the front of the Sebastiani Theatre. He wears canvas tennis shoes and yellow pants and talks fast.

"He came a day early, he was so excited," McNeely says of Litt, whose film is premiering in Sonoma at Murphy's Pub, one of seven festival venues.

"It's great when you can feel that excitement," says McNeely.

Fade to a few minutes later when, at the same location, filmmakers Noah Wagner of New York and Bryant Boesen gather.

A passing mother and daughter stop to talk to Wagner, whose short film, "Fortissimo," is "about an old, washed-up vaudeville mime who's struggling for inspiration and attention until he meets this little girl who has the ability to produce music with her every touch."

"I'm still blown away," says Wagner. "I made a film in New York and it landed here and everybody loves it."

"My daughter wants to be a filmmaker when she grows up," the mother says.

"Well, then she will be," says Boesen, whose feature-length film, "Taking My Parents to Burning Man," (he took his "normal" parents to the once-and-still-somewhat-alternative desert party Burning Man) is a festival hit.

Letitia Hanke and Malia Anderson, who are walking in front of the theater, tried to see Boesen's film.

"There's lines and lines of people trying to get in the Burning Man one," says Hanke, president of the North Bay Black Chamber of Commerce and a first-time festival visitor.

The women leave for lunch and to hatch a film-going strategy for the rest of the day.

"We're having a great time," Hanke says. She beams. "We're walking around, we're talking to people, we're standing in lines, we're making connections."

Fade to dim light inside the theater. Near the screen sit 17-year-olds Gina Peil and Kyra Hinton, filmmaking students in Sonoma Valley High School's Media Arts class, of which the festival is a major financial benefactor. A two-hour screening of films by Media Arts students is about to start.

"Film Fest inspired me to move forward with my video career into the future," says Hinton, whose film, "Create," explores creativity and the process of creating.

"It really gives us the real experience of making movies," says Peil.

As the screening begins with a stirring musical theme, cut to the sunlit day outside the theater.

Boesen, a Vancouver resident, is in a giddy mood.

"This is absolutely fantastic," he says. "And my mom, walking around with a glass of wine in the sunshine saying, 'I could get used to it.' And we're going, 'Don't, they're not all like this.' "

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.