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The Sonoma Valley Film Festival

I've been to film festivals across the country, seeing movies from around the world, but it took an invite from a friend to do the pre-film announcement on their documentary to force me to make the 86.7 mile trip up to the heart of wine country for the Sonoma Valley Film Festival.

I'm an attention whore, so naturally I couldn't turn down the opportunity to make an ass out of myself in front of the Wine Country set, and I am so happy that I didn't pass. The Sonoma Valley Film Festival far outshined my expectations, brought some good people together, and reminded me exactly why I love films and the people who make them.

First, it's not just a festival that happens in Sonoma; it's the festival that Sonoma becomes for five days. Everyone in town seems to come down, from high school kids who help out to the viewers themselves. The local wineries donate wine that is given out free before most showings. At least one shop that I know of closed so certain films could get seen by the most people. The entire town felt like the heart of most festivals that I have been to, and everyone made you feel welcome, and would always ask, "So, seen anything good?"

And the answer to that is an emphatic YES.

I should mention that I only saw documentaries and shorts. Not on purpose, though I am a huge fan of docs; it just worked out that way. They were, for the most part, the finest set of docs I have seen at a smaller film festival.

The festival had a deal called a Lounge Lizard Pass, where for 25 dollars, you could watch all the films and panel discussions that took place at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center. This did my roommate fine, as all the movies she wanted to see were there.

The Lounge featured films that you wouldn't think were Sonoma Valley movies: things like The Backyard, the doc on backyard wrestling complete with pre-show performance by the guy who did all the music; and You'll Never Wiez In This Town Again, Pauley Shore's film.

The panels ranged from how to break into film, to how to avoid messing up your movies, and featured actors, directors and critics who were almost universally entertaining.

The narrative films were apparently great, or so my companions informed me. I caught the last ten minutes of Making Arrangements, one of my favorites from Cinequest, and it killed like Rickles' Midnight Show. The highly hailed favorite, Mitchell Goes to Dinner, played to raves from everyone around the fest. The Man Without A Past, an Oscar-nominated Finnish Film, got great praise for an early Sunday showing.

The shorts were fantastic, many of them familiar to me from my days selecting shorts for Cinequest. Back 2 One, a hilarious movie about making movies, got great response. The Boy Scout, a funny Superhero take-off, showed and got big laughs from an audience that I never would have guessed to be the type to get it. The best short I saw, Sticky Fingers, detailed a man and his devotion to his porno collection.

I'll write up the individual docs that I saw in the coming weeks, but let me say that the selectors of the films were sharp and courageous, choosing material that ranged from wrestling to neo-burlesque, to Burning Man, to the amazing tale of a 103 year old who may be living proof that age is all attitude. I was blown away by the overall quality, and will be happy to come back next year to see if they can get one up on themselves.

The highlight for me had to be the final panel: Do Critics Really Matter?

Moderated by Film Threat editor Chris Gore, the panel featured critics from both print and net publications, giving them equal footing, something that is rare in the festival world. Everyone was holding open the vest, showing the guns they were about to draw, as some people, like Roger Ebert, Gene Shalit and even some of the folks in attendace, were savaged. The discussion was lively, the questions brilliant, and the f-bomb dropped as if the audience were a Cambodian village.

The fact that two of the reviewers fessed up to having given Tim Burton's re-imagining of Planet of The Apes a good review and admitting that they are far from infallible restored my faith in criticism…and allowed me to keep writing without fear of being the only guy who knows he has egg on his face.

Personal Stand Out Moments: Marin and I meeting up with Melissa Scaramucci from Making Arrangements and getting her encouragement towards my up-coming attempt at filmmaking. Watching the swirling Confessions of a Burning Man in a beautiful 1930's era theatre on a screen that I believe may be cut from the stuff dreams are made of. Having a Howdy, Hey exchange with Pauley Shore on the street. Having someone yell "We Love You, Chris," as I announced the film.

And of course, the most surreal experience of my life: standing in front of the tent party at the Fairmont Mission Valley Inn and Spa, swigging straight from a bottle of white, and talking wrestling with the Lizard and the Vince McMahon of Backyard Wrestling about the business. Here we were, surrounded by Porsches that cost more than my college loans (barely), with filmmakers all about, and we're going off on ECW, the Indy Scene, and my days as Mr. Fabulous.

All in all, one of the greatest festival experiences of my life in a town that I would never suspect of being so willing to turn themselves over to the festival crowd. I have to agree with one of the panelists at the Critic panel: "A good film festival makes you want to go and make a movie now."

And as soon as I am done with this, I'm working on my screenplay.

Chris Garcia

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