by Gil Mansergh

NOTE: Tommie Dell Smith’s Critics Award-winning film The Groove Is Not Trivial plays at 4:00 today, at the Sebastopol Center For the Arts!

Have you ever wondered how a movie wins an award? The answer lies in the eyes of the beholders.

For the Critic’s Award at the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, the beholder is me.

I screened thousands of films before and after becoming a movie columnist 22 years ago. In addition to watching movies, I took classes, read books and talked with filmmakers, critics and audiences. In other words, I learned HOW to watch films, and through my writing and teaching, I learned how to let others know what makes a movie worth their time and money.

The 10th Annual Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival (SDFF) opens Thursday, March 23rd, and runs through Sunday afternoon, March 25th. Presented by the Sebastopol Center for the Arts (SCA) as the centerpiece of their Film Arts Education Program, this much honored, “Coolest Film Fest,” is more than just a showcase for great documentaries. It also provides unique perspectives on how movies inspire, inform, and tell good stories.

When Eliza Hemenway garnered SCA director Linda Galletta’s support for a documentary-only film festival in 2006, I became part of the festival steering committee. The seemingly never-ending winnowing process of watching two hundred submissions, selecting the ones to invite and then deciding on a single movie as the “Jury Award Winner” came down to two excellent, but decidedly different choices. Eliza liked one movie best, and I liked the other. Someone asked, “Why can’t we have two winners?” and the SDFF Critic’s Award was born.

This year’s Critic’s Award winners are perfect examples of films that inspire, inform, and tell a good story. Here are the descriptions engraved on each award, followed by an elaboration of how each film was made:

SDFF 2017 Critic’s Award—Feature
“Bookended by the universal theme of music as a catalyst for cultural revival, Tommie Dell Smith captures the irrepressible fiddler Alasdair Fraser’s global odyssey from his native Scotland to California and on to Spain, by honoring the transformational power of both music and film in her toe-tappingly beautiful, The Groove Is Not Trivial.”

Director Dell Smith first met Fraser when her daughter joined the San Francisco Scottish Fiddler’s Club. Over time, the film director grew to appreciate the master fiddler’s belief that traditional music can have a profound impact not only on an individual, but on the future of an entire culture. Filming and sound recording took seven years and thousands of miles of travel from Northern California to Scotland, Nova Scotia and Spain, but that alone is not enough to make a film this great. The masterful editing shares sights and sounds so brilliantly, you can taste and feel the energy pouring forth. Underlying all, is the brilliantly presented story of “subversive empowerment” with musical people joining together to create a glorious future.

SDFF 2017 Critic’s Award—Short
“Tim Nackashi’s 6-minute, cinema verite’ masterpiece is made all the more powerful by avoiding politics or preaching as we join a young family’s hike to the U.S./Mexico border where the only physical contact dad can have with his wife and 2-year-old son are finger-touches Through the Wall.”

Director Nackashi originally thought his idea for a short film about undocumented immigrants separated by the U.S./Mexico border wall would be simple and easy to make. He did not understood the tremendous risk to the “stars” of his film. A year passed, then six months more until Maria Theresa Hernandez (a photographer who has been documenting interactions at the wall for a decade), put him in touch with Abriel and Uriel. Using two crews to film simultaneously on both sides of the border, Nackashi has created a film which is deceptively simple in its complexity—while at the same time presenting instantly identifiable access to the realities of survival in this politically charged present-day.