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What: The Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival
When: March 26-29
Where: Rialto Cinema, 6868 McKinley St. and Sebastopol Center for the Arts, 282 S. High St.
Tickets: $10 regular screenings, $30 for opening night gala ($35 day of event), all-access pass $250
Information: sebastopolfilmfestival.org

The Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival begins Thursday with an opening night gala featuring the California premiere of “How to Change the World,” a riveting movie about the early days of Greenpeace.

The filmmaker and two Greenpeace founders will be at the screening, in the Brent Auditorium at the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

Among the other highlights of the eighth annual festival are a series of films directed by noted Bay Area filmmaker Les Blank, including the unofficial premiere of his final work. Blank died in 2013.

A local favorite is sure to be “On Her Own,” the story of Nancy Prebilich’s struggle to save her family’s century-old farm, Gleason Ranch, near the Bodega coastline.

The film documents Prebilich’s effort to earn enough to keep the land in the family, the land that she says in the film “holds our family together,” as she endures the death of her father and then her mother, both at age 64.

Festival director Jason Perdue said this year brought more than 500 submissions (for 70 slots), far more than ever before.

“It’s a sign for us that filmmakers want to be here. Films came in from every corner of the world,” he said. “It gave us a lot of choices, and I think the program shows that.”

Perdue is especially thrilled that “How to Change the World” will have its first California screening in Sebastopol.

The film shows how a group of wildly idealistic activists came together to try to stop a nuclear test on an island west of Alaska.

The group managed to delay the test but didn’t stop it. They named their group Greenpeace and embarked on a new campaign: Whales were being slaughtered, some species to the point of near-extinction, so the eco-warriors went to sea to try to stop the whaling ships.

Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler said founder Bob Hunter, the group’s first leader, understood that “demonstrating one’s opposition to something” would have “a minor effect” but creating “a story, a legend so to speak, a narrative that would... feel compelling to people” was the way to move the needle of public opinion.

Hunter and Weyler, both journalists, and their motley band of co-conspirators sought a confrontation with a Russian whaling ship, and that’s just what they got.

A couple of Greenpeace Zodiacs (skiffs) got between the whalers and a pod of sperm whales in the Pacific Ocean, but that didn’t stop the Russians from firing their harpoons. A high-powered harpoon whizzed just 15 feet over the heads of one Zodiac and hit a female whale. Despite the turbulent seas, a Greenpeace cameraman caught the dramatic moment and filmed the pool of blood emanating from the stricken whale.

Returning to San Francisco, the eco-warriors received a hero’s welcome, visibly thrilled that with a decrepit bucket of a boat and a few rolls of film they’d made such an enormous impact.

“How to Change the World” is an “extraordinary piece of documentation,” says Weyler, who will be at Thursday’s screening. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t deify the activists. Viewers see the internal struggles and battles for power among the sometimes bull-headed environmentalists.

Calling the group a “dysfunctional family would not be unfair,” Weyler said, noting that “in the heat of the movement, we came face-to-face with our shortcomings and challenges. I’m thrilled that Jerry Rothwell dealt with this stuff in the film because this is real history. It’s really the way things happened.”

Which is how Sebastopol resident Nancy Prebilich feels about “On Her Own,” made by Bay Area filmmaker Morgan Schmidt-Feng, who will join Prebilich at the screening on Saturday (March 28) at 11:30 a.m.

The film doesn’t shy away from showing the disharmony between Prebilich and her sister as they try to save Gleason Ranch. But the essence of the story is how hard Prebilich and her family work to keep their ancestral land.

We see Prebilich, her sister and her sister’s kids shoveling excrement from pig pens, imploring butchering plants to process their meat in time for the farmers market, and rising before dawn to feed their animals. But after the loss of Prebilich’s parents, it’s not enough.

“What our story tells is how this simple, predictable change in the family structure can make it or break it for the farm,” Prebilich said.

Every week in the U.S., 330 families leave their land forever, she said, a tragedy she believes is largely unnoticed. And when a farming family loses a piece of land and it’s transformed into a private home, it’s hard to go back.

Prebilich was the fifth generation of her family to steward the land of Gleason Ranch; the home she inhabited was built from old-growth redwood harvested from the property.

“It’s like 100 years of history just disappears, like it never existed. It really was wiping our legacy out,” Prebilich said.

“People ask me all the time, what makes you and your farm so special? I say, well really nothing except that I happened to have a guy with a camera,” recording her family’s last years on the farm.

“There are another 329 farmers every week that this happens to. It’s almost the fact that we are not special that I want people to understand. It’s a tragedy when any family that’s been in a place for 100 years can just be dismissed so readily and quickly, and without a thought.”

To raise funds to appear at the Toronto film festival, Hot Docs, Nancy Prebilich is hosting a picnic lunch at 1:30 p.m., at her new home and farm near Ives Park, $30. A filmmaker’s dinner with “On Her Own” director Morgan Schmidt-Feng at Zazu starts at 6 p.m., $89, with food sourced from local farms. Both events: Saturday, March 28. For more info, see www.onherownfilm.com

Michael Shapiro, author of “A Sense of Place,” writes about entertainment for The Press Democrat. Contact him through his site: www.michaelshapiro.net.


Following are top picks for the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival (March 26-29) from its director, Jason Perdue. Note: both venues are near downtown Sebastopol and have multiple screens.

In “The Last Season,” two veterans from different countries connect in a profound way after meeting during the matsutake mushroom hunting season in the forests of Oregon. Director Sara Dosa in attendance. Rialto, Friday, 4:15 p.m.

A sneak preview of Les Blank’s final documentary, finished posthumously by his collaborator Gina Leibrecht, kicks off the festival’s tribute to the Bay Area director who died in 2013. The film’s name will not be revealed until the screening because it’s slated for an official premiere at another festival. Rialto, Friday, 7 p.m.

Before WikiLeaks or Edward Snowden, there was the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI. “1971,” tells this remarkable story. Director Johanna Hamilton in attendance. Sebastopol Center for the Arts, Friday, 7 p.m.

“Meet the Patels” is a really funny film that provides insight into arranged marriages and Indian culture and its clash with American values. Sebastopol Center for the Arts, Friday, 7:15 p.m.

“Olga – To My Friends” is a gorgeously shot film set in the Lapland region of Russia about a woman’s struggle to live in this brutal place. Director Paul Simma in attendance. Rialto, Saturday, 11:45 a.m.

“112 Weddings” is a hilarious and poignant film about weddings, marriage, and the gulf between them, told through the lens of wedding videographer and filmmaker Doug Block, who will be in attendance. Rialto, Saturday, 4:15 p.m.

In “David & Me” filmmaker Ray Klonsky works to free his friend and mentor from prison, a moving story of faith, friendship, and justice. Co-director Marc Lamy and special guest in attendance. Sebastopol Center for the Arts, Saturday, 7:15 p.m.

In “Almost There” two filmmakers meet an artist and start to film him and his work. Directors Aaron Wickenden and Dan Rybicky in attendance. Rialto, Sunday, 12:45 p.m.

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