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Wine Country Film Festival: A sneak peek


Twenty-seven years ago, when Stephen Ashton founded the Wine Country Film Festival, the mission was simple: "We wanted to use cinema as a means for transformation," he said.

The budget was tiny and the venues were the Raven Film Center in Healdsburg and the Palace Theater in Petaluma, where they had to fight for space amid the blockbusters of 1986 like "Top Gun" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." One of the inaugural film programs was "Cinema of Conscience" focusing on South African and apartheid films.

Over the years, festival highlights have included director Jonathan Demme's surprise screening of "Married to the Mob," a visit by actor Gregory Peck and packing the house for the gypsy documentary, "Latcho Drom," solely by word of mouth in a pre-Internet age.

Now, more than a quarter of a century later, as everything once celluloid is now digital, "the vision remains the same," Ashton said. "We love film and we love to bring it to those who also love film."

For Ashton, a Long Island native who migrated westward in the 1960s while working with documentarian Hilary Harris, it's been a dream to merge his passion for cinema with his passion for wine. (He and his wife, Justine Ashton, started farming Ashton Vineyards in Glen Ellen in 1970.)

Before the 27th annual Wine Country Film Festival kicks off on Sept. 25 at Deerfield Ranch Winery in Kenwood, we chatted with the winemaking cinephile about four of the films in this year's program:

<strong>"A Portrait of Artist Adam Shaw"</strong> — 32 minutes: Bay Area filmmaker John Knoop's documentary short film goes behind the scenes with widely collected Glen Ellen artist Adam Shaw, who once studied poetry and practiced as a physician before taking on the role of painter.

"Adam stepped into the shoes of the 1950s movement, not as a copycat but as a guy who's been able to see the soul of abstract expressionism," Ashton said.

6:15 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 25 at Deerfield Ranch Winery, 10200 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood.

Note: "A Portrait of Artist Adam Shaw" screens before the opening night feature "The Artist and the Model."

<strong>"Enzo Avitabile Music Life"</strong> — 80 minutes: Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme's 2012 documentary is as much about enigmatic Italian musician Enzo Avitabile as his magical native city of Naples.

"It's a reflection of Demme's tradition of sharing a passion for music that most of us can't understand," Ashton said. "He did it with 'Stop Making Sense' (featuring the Talking Heads) and with lots of musicians since. Enzo is just an amazing trip in itself. Demme was driving across the George Washington Bridge and heard this music on the radio and said, 'Oh my God, what is that?' Then he made a trip to Italy to track down the guy."

6:15 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 26 at Deerfield Ranch Winery.

<strong>"Growing Cities"</strong> — 93 minutes: A road trip for the love of food, this homegrown documentary explores the national urban farming movement one chicken coop and vacant lot at a time.

"It's emblematic of the movement afoot in the United States to be able to have more control over our food sources by growing our own foods," Ashton said. "It's about worm bins and composting and converting empty lots in cities."

Noon Saturday, Sept. 28 at Dunbar School, 11700 Dunbar Road, Glen Ellen, with a panel on grassroots Sonoma community gardening.

<strong>"Touch of the Light"</strong> — 110 minutes: Bridging the gap between fiction and nonfiction, a blind Taiwanese piano player takes on the lead role in a drama about himself.

"This is one of my favorite films in the last several years," Ashton said. "Here's a guy who's blind from birth and from childhood turns out to be a prodigy, and his blindness never hinders his attitude nor his abilities."

7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 28 at Deerfield Ranch Winery.

<em>Bay Area freelancer John Beck writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. You can reach him at 280-8014, john@sideshowvideo.com and follow on Twitter @becksay.</em>