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In Kino Veritas at Wine Country Film Festival
August 16, 2007

Steve Ashton, founder, brains, and Number-One Honcho of the exclusive California "Wine Country Film Festival", is a fairly well-known figure on the European festival circuit, for he not only shows up regularly at some of the best ones in search of off-beat flicks for his own festival, but -- and this is what he's really known for -- sponsors a California Wine-tasting party at Berlin every chilly February to warm shivering festivaleers up a bit between mid-winter screenings. As northern California is not normally part of my mid-summer itinerary, I've never been anywhere near this one before, however this year, for various personal reasons not at all connected with film, finding myself on the American West Coast at the right time, I could not resist the temptation to look in on this outback American wine producing paradise to see where all those choice (and ever more acclaimed) California wines are coming from, and also to see what kind of people venture this far off the beaten track to imbibe some choice European films along with their favorite fruit of the vine.

It turns out that the "Wine Country" Film Festival is more a diffuse state of mind than an actual film festival in the conventional sense. Rather than being a concentrated set of films shown to audiences basically in one place, true to its name this festival wanders all over the Northern California wine country -- the Napa and Sonoma valleys -- is basically out IN the country, and is basically impossible to get to except by car over back roads, and you better have a good map! The films are therefore visited primarily by locals and, perhaps, some outside vino connoisseurs passing through this most pleasant part of California to ogle the redwoods and perhaps sample some of the local wines.

The festival proper takes place over three long weekends in three widely scattered small towns and features outdoor screenings each night under the stars -- which can be a chilling experience once the sun goes down and the night winds waft on down from the surrounding hillsides. Nevertheless, the
Al Fresco 35 mm mobile screenings, with vague echos of Locarno, are one of the festivals selling points and are better attended than technically primitive screenings held in an assortments of women's clubs and what-have-you venues, whatever is available in the communities in question.
The only real cinema around in this region is the stately, vintage 1933, SEBASTIAN THEATER, in picturesque downtown Sonoma, but for whatever unknown reasons, is not used. Too bad, because the use of a classic old movie house venue such as the Sebastian would give the entire fest a certain "cachet". On other weekends films were actually shown inside of major wineries in the region, which does gives this little festival a certain uniqueness if nothing else. And of course, the free flow of the wine in and around the screenings helps create a certain mood...

All this being said, festival founder Steve Ashton has managed to put together an interesting block of films specializing this year on new films from Spain, the first time in the 21 year history of this event that there has been a single country focus. Because of the difficult logistics involved in getting there, and because of the spacing out of the festival dates, I was only able to take in the final weekend in the picturesque little town of Sonoma, being ferried up there from San Francisco by filmmaker Leslie Streit who was presenting her most unusual Judeo-Tibetan semi-documentary fantasy, "God Wears My Underwear" (premiered last year at the Minneapolis fest), along with a fifteen minute preview of her new work in progress to be entitled "The Elly Glass Project".

This hour long documentary profiles Elly Glass, now a spry and sprightly 92, who through amazing will power and ingenuity rescued her architect husband Henry from the Dachau Concentration Camp in 1939. Henry P. Glass went on to build one of the first solar houses in the United States and became one of Chicago's foremost industrial designers. Now at age 92 still as amazing as ever, Elly finally has a chance to tell us her story. What emerges is a portrait of a couple whose ideas about “living green” were far ahead of their time. The fifteen minute segment I saw, showing among other things, how her husband drew the entire "floor plan" of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp from memory, was gripping, beautifully filmed, and certainly whets the appetite of the viewer to see the finished product. Leslie and her crew still have some footage to shoot in the Chicago area where "Elly Glass" still resides in her state-of-the-art solar home. This is one to watch for.

A couple of other films seen were rather disappointing. With very troubled projection in a women's club auditorium we watched a new, very low budget American indie entitled “Shadow People" about failed relationships among young people in Los Angeles, which I found most distasteful because the cocaine snorting main guy was simply uninteresting, either as an actor or as a character, and the women in the film, constantly uttering the f-word, were equally unappetizing. Moreover, the projection conditions were such that the film had to be stopped and restarted several times, which gave me an opportunity to slip out relatively unnoticed. I actually ankled it after about twenty minutes, but came back to find my friends and see the ending, but then had to walk out again, so as not to miss the al fresco screening of the full-scale Catalan film, "Fiction", out in the fields on the edge of town.

It took us nearly half an hour of wandering the back streets of Sonoma to find that one -- which, once found, turned out to be somewhat of an ordeal, (1) because I didn't have a blanket to cover my shivering body, and (2) because the hero of the film, Alex, was so emotionally constipated, that for two hours amidst the marvelous mountains of Catalonia, he couldn't get himself to admit he was in love with loveable Monica, although we, shivering out there in the meadow (and his probably gay bald-headed boy-friend, as well) knew that out front, practically from the word go.
At the final Wine tasting ceremony on Sunday, "Shadow People" was named "best film of the fest", which surely was not a popular audience acclamation, since only two other people were there beside myself and my three friends. It seems the ballot box was stuffed on this one -- or else the decision was taken before the festival began. In any case, "Shadow People" is not likely to emerge from the shadows any time soon despite the Wine Country award.

Altogether a fairly respectable number of pictures, (100 plus, with shorts) many culled from various European festivals, were screened over the three long weekends, so the wine country populace must have seen enough to hold them over yet another year. Mr. Ashton calls his festival "a Moveable Feast of Film with a special flavor", much of which is undoubtedly provided by the flavorful local wines. The thing I like best about this fest is the festival motto "In Kino Veritas", a take-off on the Latin phrase "In VINO Veritas" -- Yes folks, there can be truth in both Vino and "Kino" (the widespread European word for "MOVIES") -- but in this case I would be inclined to call it "IN KINO WINO" -- in the Cinema there was Wine – plenty of it.

ALEX DELEON, San Francisco


Comments (1)


At a festival like this or a huge party there are surely a few dealers who want to make some profit
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THE FESTIVALS BLOG by Alex Deleon. Watch for festival coverage from the circuit.

Ambiance and reviews from the hot spots. Welcoming your comments too.

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