Founded in 2007, the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival is the North Bay’s premier showcase of independent documentaries from both international filmmakers and homegrown talent.
Randy Hall is one such homegrown talent. Currently the festival director, the Santa Rosa resident’s first experience with the film festival was as a filmmaker. His short documentary on a Fresno-based raw milk producer, Udderly Direct, was selected and screened at the SDFF in 2013.
“It was an amazing experience,” Hall says. “They treat you like family. There’s a focus on hospitality” toward the filmmakers.
That welcoming sense of community is big part of what draws filmmakers to the festival, which turns 10 this year and boasts its biggest and most engaging program yet. The festival runs March 23 through 26 at Rialto Cinemas and the Sebastopol Center for the Arts.
“The interesting thing about documentary is the way you go about finding the subject,” Hall says. “Sometimes, the story or the subject finds you.”
Given that the topics in documentaries are often close to the filmmaker’s heart, Hall explains that the best of them always have an opinion about the subject.
“It’s important to understand that while documentaries are nonfiction, they’re not necessarily journalistic in their approach,” he says. “They are espousing a point of view, and the filmmaker is trying to say something about the world.”
To that effect, the SDFF’s opening-night film is 2016’s far-reaching Sacred, directed by Academy Award winner Thomas Lennon. Spanning the globe and employing over 40 independent filmmakers, Sacred is a portrait of diverse religious faiths and ceremonies told entirely through visuals, lending an eye to deeply personal beliefs without the use of narration or talking heads.
Lennon, who won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2007 as the producer of the AIDS documentary The Blood of Yingzhou District, will be on hand for a post-screening reception on March 23, at the SCA’s Brent Auditorium.
Some selections at this year’s festival are personal stories, such as Big Sonia, which follows Holocaust survivor and inspiring public speaker Sonia Warshawski, whose tireless work is threatened when she receives an eviction notice.
Other selections tell universal stories through a personal lens, like the 2016 Danish-produced film Les Sauteurs (“Those Who Jump”), about a group of Moroccan youth who attempt to jump the enormous fence system that separates Morocco from a tiny land spit of Spain, and which parallels the current immigration situation with America’s own southern border.
Through it all, the SDFF’s commitment to showing truthful films is highlighted quite literally in selections like The Truth Beneath the Ground, which sheds light on the massive armed conflict against Guatemala’s indigenous people that lasted from 1960 to the 1990s, seen through testimonials and photographs.
One of the big focuses of the SDFF this year is welcoming back filmmakers who’ve previously showed documentaries in past years and pairing their older films with new works to show their progress and range.
For example, Brooklyn-based director Eddie Rosenstein is showing three films, starting with his 2008 selection, School Play, in which a grade-school theater production of The Wizard of Oz doubles as a real life coming-of-age drama, and including his most recent, The Freedom to Marry, following Marriage Equality architects and key litigators Evan Wolfson and Mary Bonauto’s fight in the Supreme Court. Like several other filmmakers, Rosenstein will be on hand for his screenings to meet the audience and tell stories.
In the 10 years since the SDFF’s founding, Hall says that documentaries have become more popular than ever, and he believes much of it has to do with the current social and political Zeitgeist in this country.
“There’s a feeling, especially here in West Sonoma County, that events are hurdling towards some kind of climax,” he says “The world stage is more chaotic than usual, and people are questioning what’s going on.
“In that void, in that questioning, documentaries are an opportunity to explore and find out the answers to their questions.”
Another factor drawing audiences, Hall points out, is the way documentaries are increasingly crafting their real-life narratives through structures used by fictional films.
“Audiences get interested in the person onscreen, but also they get the perspective of that person,” says Hall. “The audience gets to expand their horizons through this personal experience.”