According to Northern California lore, summer is a time for festivals, fun and frolic, and winter is a time for hunkering down, battling depression and staring dully at heating bills. Justine Ashton, founder of the Sonoma Environmental Film Festival, inaugurating Jan. 25, believes that winter has so much more potential. To this end, Ashton has organized and produced a new film festival that promises to be as invigorating as January is predictably dull. As cofounder of the Wine Country Film Festival, held every summer for the last 22 years, Ashton is no stranger to the art form that is the indie film festival. Not only does she understand good film, but she has an intense passion for earth conservation, two skills which, now that they have been coupled, should be of service and inspiration to anyone willing to battle the damp and travel the distance.
When I speak to Ashton, she is in Nevada City at the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival, doing what she loves to do: seeing great films, meeting great film makers and scouting out good material. Ashton, who owns Ashton Vineyards in Glen Ellen, speaks passionately about her commitment to changing the way she lives every day in order to reduce her impact on the planet. The Environmental Film Festival is a direct extension of her desire to live every day as if it were Earth Day. This is an event intended to be not just informative, and entertaining, but transformational as well.
Boasting a total of 25 films submitted from all over the world, this three-day festival—curated by Ashton with the help of students from a local high school and individuals from Sonoma Valley's green community—covers such topics as water, green building, sustainable economy, alternative energy, organic agriculture and wilderness conservation. The films range in length from five to 87 minutes and cover a gamut of emotional trajectories that Ashton says are meant to be inspiring, entertaining and easy to understand. After the films, there will be discussions led by an array of individuals knowledgeable in the varying fields of inquiry, whose goal it is to help the viewers examine how the films relate to us and to our communities. I browse the list of upcoming films, as disparate in subject matter as they are in length, and find that, given the opportunity, there isn't a single one I would miss. Unable to decide, I allow myself to be drawn in by the titles alone. There's The Weeping Camel (Jan. 25), a Mongolian film in which, after a difficult birth, a mother camel rejects her newborn, and a musician must be summoned to perform a ceremony in an attempt to coax the camel mother into nursing her baby. Waiting to Inhale (Jan. 26) is a documentary that investigates the controversy over cannabis legalization, a matter whose importance, the summary claims, is "of life and death." The short doc Carbon Nation (Jan. 27) follows 10 Utah teenagers as they experiment with a carbon-neutral lifestyle. One Man, One Cow, One Planet (Jan. 26) is a film about a man who, at the age of 78, leaves home to live in India to teach biodynamic farming. The screening, naturally, is paired with biodynamic wines and other organic local fare. Buddha's Lost Children (Jan. 27) tells the story of a Thai boxer turned monk who travels Thailand's Golden Triangle in order to help the region's children.
For the better part of January, I have been either at home watching uninteresting movies on my little television set while folding laundry, or at the theater watching depressing movies and eating too much candy. With this reality as a backdrop, the Environmental Film Festival offers a level of intrigue that comes as a sort of oasis amid the cinematic crap that veritably rises around me. To further push the constraints of the month, the festival is striving to be a zero-waste event, a goal that seems entirely feasible given that Green Mary, event-greener extraordinaire, will be there. This is a ticket-free weekend promoted without the use of flyers or posters. Home-made meals composed of organic, locally grown produce will be available; organic wine will be served in biodegradable cups; and on Saturday, there is a crab feed, followed by a round-table discussion that includes filmmakers and selected speakers.
All net proceeds are to be donated to the Sonoma Valley School district, where the money will be used for the creation of an organic garden at Sonoma Valley High School. While a January drive through wine country may not be recommended in any of the guide books, after considering the bounty offered by the Environmental Film Festival, it seems prudent, in this case, to make an exception.
The Sonoma Environmental Film Festival runs Friday-Sunday, Jan. 25-27. All films and activities take place at the Sonoma Valley Women's Club, 574 First St. E., Sonoma. Films, $8-$10. For details, go to www.seff.us or call 707.935.3456.