By Gil Mansergh

With fifty-two documentary films to choose from, and over thirty filmmakers from all over the world to talk with, the official “cool” place to be the first weekend in March is at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival.

“Last year’s Festival was selected as one of the ’25 coolest film festivals’ by Moviemaker Magazine,” says Linda Galletta, director of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts—the organization which presents the Festival. “This year’s programs are even stronger. We’ve got filmmakers coming from as far away as Ireland, parties with Cuban/Salsa music from Pellejo Seco, and Bluegrass from Old Jawbone, five great downtown venues, fabulous films telling the stories of people in dozens of countries, and the opportunity for everyone to have fun, see some powerful films, and even talk about them live on our V-Pype/Facebook video channels. How cool is that?”

“We’re known as a filmmakers’ festival,” says SDFF director Jason Perdue, “They love the comfortable Sebastopol style and the knowledgeable appreciation of their work. Our selection committee only picks the best films—those telling a story in an engaging and technically proficient manner. With over three hundred entries submitted, we have the luxury of programming only those which will resound with Sonoma County audiences.”

“The Award winners reflect the tremendous depth of films this year,” Jason says. “Selected by people in the movie business, the Jury Awards went to Dustin Grella’s artfully animated short documentary “Prayers for Peace,” featuring video footage his brother shot Iraq, and Mai Iskandar’s “Garbage Dreams,” which features three young men who struggle to continue the centuries-old family tradition of recycling garbage in Cairo, Egypt. Three local film critics (including Gil Mansergh) picked the Critics Award winners. “Michael Fountain’s “Bonecrusher” is an intimate portrait of the powerful bond between a grizzled Virginia coal miner and his son, and Eddie Rosenstein’s “Miss Shade is Missing” is a humorous recounting by 3rd graders of their worst day in school. It was surprisingly bad—and surprisingly funny.”

A new sponsor this year is the Humane Society of the United States, and several films feature animals. Geralyn Pezanoski’s “Mine” tells what happened after thousand of pets left homeless by Hurricane Katrina were adopted by people across the country—until residents returned to New Orleans and wanted their pets back. “Green” is the name of a displaced Indonesian Oranguntan in Patrick Rouxel’s narrator-less documentary about the effects of deforestation. Christie Callan-Jones film “Cat Ladies,” is about several women (formally labeled “cat hoarders”) who have rescued numerous felines because of their sincere desire to make the world a kinder place.

Screened in five locations around town, the Festival’s films have been “matched” to the different venues. Screenings at the Sebastopol Cinemas will feature the crispness provided by digital hard drives, films and special programs shown at the Center for the Arts have artistic themes, the movies at the Viva Culinary Institute are enhanced by the intimacy of this unique room, the Latino Programs like the Cuban-based films about Olympic boxing hopefuls (“Sons of Cuba”), or international health workers (“Salud”) resound with the vibrancy of the Hopmonk Tavern, and the newest venue, the Community Center’s Youth Annex, features movies (including the Critics Award winners) especially suited for multi-generational audiences.

The future of the world is in the hands of the younger generation, and several films showcase the diverse creative spark and resiliency of youth. Marshall Curry’s “Racing Dreams” rumbles with the sounds of powerful engines as Anabeth, Josh and Brandon compete for the World Karting Association national title and a chance to move up to NASCAR. Irish filmmaker Anna Rodgers first met two Laotian boys when she stumbled upon their village while backpacking. Over four years, she captured their journey to the big city to train as Buddhist monks in the beautifully made “Today Is Better Than Two Tomorrows.” The challenges of forming  (and then continuing) a garage band are shown in Gord More’s “Potential,” and the challenges of learning to create photographs when cerebral palsy keeps you in a motorized wheelchair are well-told in George Katchadorian’s transformational film “Shooting Beauty.”

Schools provide opportunities for youngsters and documentary makers alike, and in addition to the already mentioned “Miss Shade is Missing,” and “Sons of Cuba,” several other selections are shot in classrooms, gyms and playgrounds. High school science fair winners from across the country astound us with their dedication and knowledge in Tom Shepard’s “Whiz Kids,” students from several schools candidly talk about trying to figure out what it means to be labeled as male or female in Debra Chasnoff’s “Straightlaced,” students at Lafayette Middle school train to be future “Iron Chefs” in Michael Attie’s “Mr Mack’s Kitchen,” while the students at Mr. Tom’s South Bronx high school grab on to the chance to have a future in Christopher Wong’s “Whatever It Takes.”

In a phone interview, Christopher Wong explained how his first feature film came together and what he hoped to accomplish: “When I was a banker in New York, I had a friend who was an executive with Saks Fifth Avenue…when we switched careers, he went into public education and I wanted to tell his story but wasn’t quite ready. Flash forward five years, and he did so well…that they made him a principal and he said he wanted to open up this new school in the South Bronx and so at that time I said I have to tell the story—It’s an Asian-American man opening a new small school in the South Bronx, and his kids are all at-risk Latino, African-American—and I just wanted to see what happened—because I think generally with these kind of stories you only hear the bad parts—schools are failing, kids are all in gangs—and I thought that my friend, who’s just an amazing person, could really make a difference and I wanted to see if that would happen.”

In addition to the opportunity to talk with Christopher Wong, you can also chat with Anne Rodgers, Michael Fountain, Eddie Rosenstein, Dustin Grella, Geralyn Pezanoski, Tom Shepard and dozens of other filmmakers. To learn some of the skill sets needed to create an effective documentary, don’t miss “The Art of Shooting Docs,” a special presentation by Bay Area documentary pioneer Emiko Omori using film clips to prompt discussion of various documentary approaches.

Movies, music, food, drink, conversations, dancing, artworks, live broadcasts, and the coolness of the March 5th to 7th Sebastopol Film Festival are all accessible with tickets from the Sebastopol Center for the Arts, 6780 Depot Street, (707) 829-4797 or online at sebastopolfilmfestival.org

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