Sonoma Film Festival Brings Wine, Food to the Table

Wine, women and — film?

Starting Thursday, the seventh Sonoma Valley Film Festival, Cinema Epicuria, will showcase award-winning wine and food from local producers, honor three generations of film actresses, and show more than 90 independent features, documentaries and shorts.

New program director Tiffany Naiman has assembled an event that’s nearly double the size of last year’s.

Naiman enjoyed the gig, in part, she says, because of the enthusiasm of local audiences.

“The excitement from the community is always great. It’s so refreshing,” Naiman said. She credits local audiences with giving her a fresh perspective to the programming.

“The feedback I’ve gotten about how excited people are is why I do film festivals. So many festivals are into the stars and this, that and the other thing,” she says. “We have all those things, but also educating a community like Sonoma about independent film is a lot of fun as well.”

While programming the festival, Naiman borrowed some tricks from her former career as a disc jockey.

“Putting a festival program together, for me, is like DJ-ing. You want there to be a certain rhythm to it and you want to keep people dancing the entire time and give them highs and lows and all that sort of stuff,” she says. “That’s really how I approach programming. It is, in a sense, very musical to me.”

Given Naiman’s interest in music, it stands to reason that Cinema Epicuria features its share of music-themed programming.

Opening the festival is director George Hickenlooper’s “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” which profiles disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer of Los Angeles’ seminal rock station KROQ. Bingenheimer is credited with introducing U.S. listeners to acts such as David Bowie and Coldplay.

Also featured is the documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster,” which chronicles two years in the life of the Bay Area heavy metal band as it records an album and attends group therapy.

Sidney Poitier’s daughter Anika Poitier taps the spirit of simulated rockers Spinal Tap for her film “Devil Cats,” a mock documentary about members of a pre-fabricated girl group who rail against their overhyped image by actually learning to play their instruments.

“It wasn’t something where I went in and said ‘I’m going to program a bunch of music,’ ” Naiman says. “It just sort of evolved that way.”

Similarly, Cinema Epicuria’s annual Imagery Honors Tribute Program developed its own theme — all the honorees are women. They include newcomer Jena Malone (“Cold Mountain,” “Donnie Darko”), Deborah Kara Unger (“Thirteen,” “Crash”), Fionnula Flanagan (“The Others,” “The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”) and Blythe Danner (“Prince of Tides,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs”).

Among the highlights of this year’s films are “One Point O,” written and directed by Jeff Renfroe and Marteinn Thorsson, and starring indie darling Jeremy Sisto, honoree Unger and Udo Kier. The film is a nightmarish depiction of a computer programmer embroiled in a sinister corporate experiment.

Hilary Swank, Patrick Swayze and Rachael Leigh Cook star in “11:14,” an exploration of several disparate characters whose lives lead them to the same car crash. The story is relayed in reverse chronological order.

“The United States of Leland,” starring and co-produced by Kevin Spacey, centers on an introverted teen who shocks his community when he murders an autistic child. The film also stars Imagery honoree Malone.

Lars von Trier’s controversial and innovative “Dogville” stars Nicole Kidman as a fugitive fleeing the mob only to find refuge and then abuse in a fictional Colorado mountain town in the 1930s.

The festival also offers panel discussions on screenwriting, stunt work and animation, as well as locally produced works and documentaries. A standout among the documentaries is “Heir to an Execution,” director Ivy Meeropol’s examination of the trial, conviction and execution of her grandparents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, for selling atomic secrets during the Cold War.

The festival’s Lounge Series, an eclectic mix of films that push the boundaries of cinematic storytelling, opens with Eric Weber’s “Second Best,” starring Joe Pantoliano and Jennifer Tilly as part of a group of friends facing career-envy and their own ever-looming mortality.

Also appearing in the Lounge Series is director John Putch’s “BachelorMan,” which finds its title character (played by David DeLuise, son of Dom DeLuise) squaring off with a beautiful girl next door (Missi Pyle) who is immune to his charms.

“Swingers” scribe and star Jon Favreau helms an ensemble cast of Rachael Leigh Cook, Kelsey Grammer and Daryl Hannah in director Steve Anderson’s surreal “The Big Empty.” In it, Favreau’s character embarks on a misguided mission to safeguard a mysterious suitcase that ends up linking him to several murders.

Following many of the screenings are VIP events and receptions. There will be wine and food tasting at all the screenings. “It’s a nice festival because it’s small, it has a concept and it also allows me to build concepts within that concept,” Naiman says.

One innovation is a screening of silent film star Theda Bara’s breakout film “A Fool There Was,” with a new score by composer Marika Tjelios that will be performed live. The film will be followed by a seance to contact the spirit of screen vamp Bara, who died in 1955.

“It’s only happening once,” Naiman says. “It kind of feeds into the idea of making it an experience — not just going to see a movie.”

Petaluma’s Jewish Ranchers Portrayed and Adele Uddo’s Yin/Yang

Although Cinema Epicuria will feature movies from all over the world, several of the filmmakers are from the Bay Area.

Among them are Bonnie Burt and Judith Montell, whose “Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma” examines the often united, frequently divided community of Jews who fled the pogroms of Eastern Europe to become a cornerstone of Petaluma’s once-thriving poultry industry.

“One of the reasons I wanted to do the film is that I think that remembering where we come from is very important,” explains Burt, who has made several documentaries with Jewish themes.

Before World War II, Petaluma was heralded as the “world’s egg basket.” Beneath the whimsical appellation, however, lurked the specter of anti- Semitism, which once manifested in a local Nazi party marching down Main Street (now Petaluma Boulevard) and Jewish leaders being kidnapped, tarred and feathered.

“The part about the Nazis, the part about the tar and feathering, all the different aspects that bring us to who we are today, are really important.” Burt said. “Even though (the film) is about a Jewish group within Petaluma, there were a lot of ethnic groups in Petaluma and this is just one of many stories.”

Petaluma’s legacy of anti-Semitism is only one part of the complicated and often colorful stories covered in Burt and Montell’s film. The issues facing Jews involved with Petaluma’s burgeoning agribusiness were complicated and manifold, spanning the ideological gamut from communism to Zionism.

“Petaluma was kind of a microcosm; it reflected what was going on in the country in terms of unionizing, the left and right, McCarthy — I think you can see it all by looking at Petaluma,” Burt said.

Ultimately, Burt sees “Home on the Range” as an immigrant story that reflects universal themes.

“It goes beyond just a Jewish story,” Burt says. “It’s our duty to remember it and try to preserve it and say ‘Look, this is what happened. Can we learn from this? Can we see what happens here?’ ”

The film has been shown in festivals as far as Jerusalem and London. Burt is pleased that “Home on the Range” is playing locally.

“One of my best moments was at a screening in Miami, and someone came up to me and said, ‘I’m Irish, but I can totally relate to this. It reminds me so much of my family.’ That’s what I’m hoping for, that people can see the commonality,” said Burt, who maintains a Web site for the film at www.jewishchickenranchers.com.

Another of Burt’s films, “Song of a Jewish Cowboy,” a short documentary about Scott Gerber, a Petaluma man who embodies both Yiddish and cowboy culture, is also featured at the festival.

“He entertains, he rides the range and sings cowboy and Yiddish songs,” Burt said.

Other Bay Area-made films featured include San Francisco director Amanda Micheli’s documentary “Double Dare,” a profile of the stuntwomen behind “Wonder Woman” and “Xena: Warrior Princess.”

“American Dancer,” by director Adam Ballachey, explores action of a different sort — the kind one would find at a male strip club. The San Francisco director’s feature-length documentary tracks the experiences of four male strippers in Tampa, Fla., over three years as they strive for a sense of celebrity.

“Yin Yang,” by Sebastopol native Adele Uddo, is a short comic study of the emotional aftermath following a couple’s first sexual encounter. Afterward, the lovers convene with their best pals, but the macho banter one might expect from the young men is reserved for Uddo’s female characters, while the male characters vent anxieties in a manner stereotypically ascribed to women.

“I hope I portray both sexes in a mutually unflattering way,” Uddo says. “That’s what I was going for.”

Uddo, who stars in the film with local actress Shana Barret, moved quickly once inspiration struck.

“I woke up one morning and thought, ‘Isn’t that a funny idea? I wrote it down in a few hours, shot it in digital video and cast my high school friends, ” she recalls. The result was as Uddo hoped: “A funny gender spoof.”

Selected from more than 1,800 submissions for the Slamdance Film Festival at Park City, Utah, Uddo’s nine-minute film has garnered numerous festival screenings and accolades, including a four-star rating from online independent film tome FilmThreat.com.

Uddo, who now lives in Los Angeles where she is working on a one-woman show, said she is looking forward to Cinema Epicuria, in part, to reunite with her cast and crew, most of whom still reside in Sonoma County.

“One of the most exciting things is to return to Sonoma, which is like my hometown,” Uddo says.