Ben Kingsley’s Jules wins Audience Award at Sonoma Film Festival

The festival offers five days of exhilarating celebration of food, wine and film amidst the lush vineyards of California’s wine country.

The 26th Sonoma International Film Festival (March 22-26) kicked off with the world premiere of Marc Turtletaub’s ‘Jules’, a hit starring Ben Kingsley, on opening night and drew its highest attendance ever. The Weinland Film Festival combined a robust film slate programmed by newly appointed Artistic Director Carl Spence (in collaboration with Executive Director Ginny Krieger) with upcoming specialties such as Paul Schrader’s The Master Gardener, starring Joel Edgerton and Sigourney Weaver, and Searchlight’s period biopic “Chevalier,” starring Kelvin Harrison Jr., features some scrumptious wine and food events with top chefs, from Martin Yan’s Shaking Beef with Three Onions to Joanne Weir’s Herb Covered Goat’s Cheese Tart.

The five-day festival, curated by Spence along with senior programmers Amanda Salazar and Ken Jacobson, screened 110 films, including seven films that had their US premieres as well as films celebrated at the festival. Thirty-two countries are represented in this year’s lineup of 38 narrative feature films, 20 documentaries and 52 short films, jointly selected by the curatorial team and directed by short film programmer Oscar Arce Naranjo.

Spence drew industry heavyweights for his dramatic judging panel such as John Cooper (Director Emeritus, Sundance Film Festival), Marcus Hu (Co-President, Strand Releasing), Laura Kim (Executive Vice President, Marketing, Participant Films), Fred Tsui (Founder & CEO, Moebius Entertainment Limited) and Christine Vachon (Co-founder, Killer Films).

The Drama, Documentary and Short Film juries selected the Jury Award winners, while audiences, both locals and visitors from surrounding counties and the Bay Area, voted for the Audience Awards.

Jules received the Stolman Audience Award for Best Feature Film; The A3 Audience Award for Best Documentary went to “Karen Carpenter: Starving for Perfection” and “Nina & Irena” received the McNeely Audience Award for Best Short Film.

“The Grave”

Among the jury awards, the Grand Jury Best Narrative Feature went to Turkish filmmaker Emin Alper’s Cannes entry “Burning Days,” about a young prosecutor who is called to a turbulent small town and who sells Match Factory. The jury also recognized the performances of Sadaf Asgari and Ghazal Shojaei in the feature film “Until Tomorrow” with a Special Jury Award.

The grand jury’s Best Documentary went to Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite for her TIFF entry The Grab, a chilling revelation about foreign countries’ moves to buy resource-rich land in the United States.

The winner of Grand Jury Best Live Action Short Film was “The Vacation”, while “Historias de Cultura: Comida” received Grand Jury Best Documentary Short Film and “Christopher At Sea” received Grand Jury Best Animated Short Film.

The SIFF Filmmaker Award went to Sarah T. Schwab for the cancer drama A Stage of Twilight, starring Karen Allen. The award includes a $10,000 production grant from Cinelease to Schwab for their next project.


Sonoma Industry Panel

Anne Thompson

The full dramatic panel, along with Sundance director Eugene Hernandez, participated in a lively industry panel, “Film Veterans Tell All,” moderated by Cooper, that covered many topics, including the challenges facing specialty distribution, which has seen its admissions fall dramatically since the pandemic. Summarizing the conundrum facing filmmakers and supporters, Vachon, whose recent title Past Lives caused rave reviews at Sundance and Berlin, said: “How do you get people to take risks? There are some companies that are built on making crazy big swings. The only way to continue independence is to be as original as possible, to really be an alternative. Those who are successful in the independent space tend to be successful precisely for this reason, because you can’t see anything quite like it anywhere else. And how do you get companies to get involved? We’re lucky that we have A24 and Neon, that we still have companies that do that. But they are few and far between.”


The view of the Wing and Barrel Gun Club in Sonoma.

Anne Thompson

I had another movie industry chat at the Wing and Barrel Gun Club (complete with a giant stuffed bear) with producer David Dinerstein, who not only revealed how he landed Questlove to make the Oscar-winning 1969 concert film Summer of Soul but also told colorful stories from his time working with Harvey Weinstein at Miramax, Tom Rothman at Searchlight and Ruth Vitale at Paramount Vantage. There’s no question, he said, that there’s a more robust market for documentaries these days than indie two-hour fiction.

And San Francisco food and film critic Meredith Brody moderated “A Conversation about Food and Cinema” with culinary filmmakers in attendance. At Devour’s Chefs & Shorts Dinner on Thursday, the menu was inspired by the shorts played during the five-course meal (with a different wine for each course), including Ben Proudfoot’s tearjerker “The Best Chef in the World” about the pioneering California chef Sally Schmidt, whose charming cookbook Six California Kitchens, published after her death in 2022, was available at the local Sonoma bookstore Reader’s Books. This is the Sonoma experience: an eye-opening film combined with tasty gastronomy and a touch of local color.

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