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2012 Sonoma International Film Festival
updated: Apr 21, 2012, 12:00 PM

By Mark McDonald

The Sonoma International Film Festival rolled out the red carpet, served food and wine and a mighty good time last week as it celebrated its 15th year. Executive Director Kevin McNeely welcomed everyone to "Break some bread, sip some wine, see some flicks, and live the Sonoma Dream." There was plenty of it, including music and dancing, and over a hundred films to see during the sunny, balmy spring weather which held off the predicted rain.

I drove to Sonoma with two media associates, Tim and Rick who were doing interviews for Inside Media TV. After arriving on Wednesday afternoon, checking into hotels, and going to pick up badges at the opening reception party at Saddles Steakhouse, we were ready for the fest.

SIFF paid tribute to actors Christopher Lloyd and Director John Waters; Shirley Bassey attended the world premiere of Sir Billi. Two French films, The Lady and The Source, were chosen to open and close the event that brought upwards of four thousand guests and entertainers to the wine country.

Thursday morning, Tim and Rick filmed their interview with Christopher Lloyd held at his Fairmont Hotel room. I picked them up and we headed into town to attend a reception party at El Dorado Kitchen and meet various film makers, directors, and general guests, while enjoying the energy and spirit of these movers and shakers gathered in the center of Sonoma's downtown plaza.

That night, inside the Sebastiani Theater on the plaza, Christopher Lloyd received the Award of Excellence following the showing of two films in which he stars, Cadaver, a short animated film by Jonah D. Ansell, and Last Call, a feature film by Greg Garthe.

Christopher Lloyd at the Fairmont Hotel. Photo by Richard Carter

On Friday at the Sebastiani Theater, Goldfinger songstress, Dame Shirley Bassey arrived in a classic black Rolls Royce for the World Premiere of Sir Billi, which stars Sean Connery in the lead of this first animated feature film from the UK. Dame Bassey sings the title song "Guardian of the Highlands" in the film.

Dame Shirley Bassey on the red carpet

Tim and Rick stayed to watch the film, and I headed down the nearby passage to Murphy's Irish Pub where I met the director and producer of Cigars: The Heart and Soul of Cuba and watched this fascinating short documentary (53 minutes). It covered everything in the production and packaging of the often elusive Cuban cigar. People who don't smoke are fascinated by this film and even more so are the people of Latin America, who have literally wondered how an American was able to film their lives in such accurate detail. It is directed by James Orr (Three Men and a Baby) and features Producer James Suckling, who started Cigar Aficionado magazine and has traveled to Cuba many times since the 1990s.

James Suckling and Director James Orr at Murphy's Irish Pub

Earlier in the day, we had headed a few miles away to Olive and Vine, an upscale restaurant in Glen Ellen where we met Owner and Executive Chef Catherine Venturini. Catherine worked with SIFF to create food venues. We met her Chef de Cuisine, Julie Warner, who was preparing a "wagyu" dish for the Inside Reel interview. I took a few photos while Catherine told me "From 2004 until 2008, I was culinary director for the Sonoma Film Festival. I would create food and film pairings in various venues to go along with the film fest. All the people from the film fest know us and this fest is really important to us. We're all supportive of each other. Food and film have always been art to me."

Tim filmed at the stove and in the recently restyled dining room. Before we left, Catherine invited us to Sunday afternoon dinner with live music and friends. Sunday hours are from 5-8pm only, which is a special short day for the restaurant, located at 14301 Arnold Drive. It is reputed as Bruce Willis' favorite place to eat.

Owner Catherine Venturini and Chef de Cuisine Julie Warner with masami wagyu

Saturday morning arrived, and we were in need of some R&R, but the schedule was unrelenting. After a somewhat early wake-up, we all headed to the 9 a.m. Media Breakfast in the Backlot Tent where among the coffee, donuts, and other food, we met Claudia Mendoza-Carruth, La Quinceañera Film Fiesta Program Director. Claudia ran this Fest Within the Fest. It was a celebration of Latino film and culture, and La Quinceañera (the 15th year) is also a coming of age celebration for young women in Mexico culture. It is coordinated with SIFF's 15th year. Two young ladies were also there celebrating their Quinceañera. I also met Peter Hansen, a media arts teacher at Sonoma Valley High School, who has been training his students in the arts. He received a substantial donation from SIFF to acquire much needed media equipment.

Las Quinceañeras, Janeth Cabrera & Lupita Ayala

I bumped into Cevin Cathell, former staff member of Santa Barbara International Film Fest. Cathell is now living near the east coast. He was in Sonoma participating in SIFF as a film jurist and presenter. I had just been speaking with Jonah Ansell, director of Cadaver about his connection with Santa Barbara, and we got together with Cevin and the "Cadaver" marquee poster for a photo opp. Ansell told us he had recorded Lloyd's voice over dialogue in Santa Barbara.

Director Jonah Ansell with Cevin Cathell, intrepid reporter on left Photo by JJ Michaels

Across the plaza outside the Sebastiani Theater, roller derby girls were on the sidewalk lacing up their skates for a ride around the town square. This was the perfect opportunity for photos featuring an actual derby demonstration in front of the theater. I asked Amnasty International (Amaroq Weiss) publicity person and competitor for the Resurrection Rollers out of Rohnert Park, what roller derby's main attraction was. She said it is the independence of the sport. I also mentioned our local team, the Mission City Brawlin Betties. She asked me to get them in contact with her, because Resurrection Rollers are always looking for more teams to play.

On the sidewalk was Hot Rod (with her Gotham Girls team jacket) from the movie Derby Baby!, which later sold out the Sebastiani Theater. Hell on Wheels, a 20-something, eight-year veteran of the sport with the Windy City Rollers team was also there with about a hundred other roller derby women. They were all there to support the film which sheds light on the independent spirit and self-supported aspect of derby competition. It is now viewed as a major growing commercial enterprise.

Resurrection Roller's Amnasty International fourth from right in back

We were ready for a break and headed for the Jacuzzi at Rick's hotel where we soaked out the kinks and smoked a cigar. Saturday night was the big event. Director John Waters (Hairspray and Cry Baby, took the stage performing his stand-up routine, titled This Filthy Life, looking like a well-seasoned lounge act from Las Vegas. As the routine began, he immediately mentioned he was gay which identified that aspect of his life and recapped his films and other events throughout his life. As a director, he appears comfortable with an audience and delivers his monologue with a well-honed manner that kept the sold out crowd laughing all night at the Sonoma Veteran's Memorial Building. Waters ended by saying, "If you want to make movies, you must realize no one will come up to you and say, 'Do you want to make a movie?' You have to make the movies and tell them you made them, to get them made."

After that he took questions from the stage. I was surprised during the Q&A when an audience member asked him to talk about his closeness with Patty Hearst, the kidnapped heir of William Randolph Hearst, Jr. (in the 1970s.) He said, "Everything [Ms. Hearst] said was absolutely true," (concerning her control by her kidnappers, the SLA terrorist group.) He also praised her as a good actress saying he had used her in five of his films.

Following the Q&A, the rock band 617 began the after party. I found Waters among the audience graciously posing for photos. He actually set up his own photo for me when I asked him to show his "Paul Smith" orange boots and sox.

John Waters performing "This Filthy World"

Sunday, the closing day, we collected our gear, made a few last-minute notes and appointments. Before we knew it, we were headed to Olive and Vine for dinner and wine. When we arrived, a local guitar player was strumming some tunes, Catherine and her waitresses were buzzing around the room, and we took a table near the center to enjoy the evening. A menu was passed around, suggestions were accepted and the wine glasses appeared, bread plates and grapes, mushroom soup and sour dough bread, another glass of wine and the salads arrived, as the courses continued the musicians traded places. Soon we had three guitar players, and the house was beginning to rock. That's when the singers began to join in singing "Love Me Like a Man" and other traditional tunes. We left having made some new friends and with a wonderful time to remember.

We headed to one more closing night wrap party at the Backlot Tent, where everyone was happy dancing the night away. On Monday morning we said farewell to this year's Sonoma International Film Festival and promised to return next year.

Claudia Mendoza-Carruth, SIFF Director Kevin McNeely, Supervisor Efren Carrillo

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