Six Films Take Home Honors from Sebastopol's 10th Annual Festival

Highlights from this year’s festival:

  • Keith Maitland wins the Jury Award for his feature “Tower.”
  • Aaron Schock wins the Jury Award for his short “La Laguna.”
  • Tommie Dell Smith wins the Critic’s Award for her feature “The Groove Is Not Trivial.” (Smith is a founding member of SDFF and served as its Artistic Director for several years)
  • Tim Nakashi wins the Critic’s Award for his short “Through the Wall.”
  • Eddie Rosenstein wins the Audience Award for his feature “The Freedom to Marry.” (This is Rosenstein’s 3rd film at SDFF, each time he has won an award from the festival)
  • Jessica Bernstein-Wax wins the Audience Award for her short “Double Talk.”

SEBASTOPOL, Calif., March 27, 2017 — Today, the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival publicly announces its award winners for the 10th Annual Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, which screened 63 films from over 20 countries over the course of four days.

Jury Awards

Top feature documentary honors from the SDFF Jury Award goes to Keith Maitland’s “Tower,” which recounts the University of Texas tower shooting of 1966 in a novel mix of animation and archival footage mixed with interviews of survivors and using their own words to tell the story. Coordinating Producer Hillary Pierce was in attendance to accept the award on behalf of Producer/Director Keith Maitland.

In the shorts category, the SDFF Jury Award goes to Aaron Shock and the riveting “La Laguna,” which tells the story of two young brothers and their struggles as tribal Mayans growing and adapting to a changing world and society, embodying their family’s hope for the future. The screening was sold out and received considerable audience acclaim for it’s bittersweet coming-of-age story and contemplation of the oppression of tribal Mayans to this day.

Critic's Awards

SDFF founding member and North Bay movie critic Gil Mansergh presented his awards for feature and short documentary.

The feature that Mansergh gave top honors to was local filmmaker (and another SDFF founding member) Tommie Dell Smith’s rousing documentary “The Groove Is Not Trivial,” recounting the quest of Scottish fiddler Alasdair Frasier for his musical and cultural identity, along the way discovering the universal “groove” that drives the human capacity for hope. Smith was in attendance to accept the award.

For the short documentary category, Mansergh selected the touching (and brief) bittersweet story of a family divided by a very real obstacle in Tim Nackashi’s “Through the Wall.” Nackashi’s story presents the timely notion of one family’s struggle with the aftermath of deportation, trying to maintain a family unit through a very tight grille of wire fencing.

Audience Awards

This year, as a first for SDFF, the audience balloting was simplified significantly, leading to a swift tally and the ability to announce the winners of the Audience Award during the closing night party festivities as Sebastopol Center for the Arts.

This year, the audience favorite for feature documentary went to Eddie Rosenstein and his very popular “The Freedom to Marry,” which provides the account of the hidden story of how marriage equality became the law of the land. Rosenstein was in attendance throughout the festival, and noted that “Freedom,” his third documentary selected for SDFF, was also the third time he won an award at the festival. Rosenstein had previously brought the feature “School Play” to SDFF 2009 and the short documentary “Miss Shade is Missing” to SDFF 2010. Both of his previous films were featured in this year’s festival program “Spotlight on Filmmakers,” celebrating the achievements of filmmakers who have built their careers in documentary film and grown along with SDFF over the years.

Finally, the audience choice for short documentary was awarded to Jessica Bernstein-Wax for her entertaining short documentary “Double Talk,” which profiles Spanish-language voiceover and dubbing artist Joan Pera, whose voice has portrayed Hollywood stars such as Woody Allen and Jerry Lewis. Bernstein-Wax’s film was programmed as part of the always popular Saturday Shorts program of SDFF, geared toward satisfying the never-ending hunger of the Sebastopol audience for short documentary films.

Sebastopol and North Bay audiences will have additional opportunities to see these award-winners along with several other popular and engaging documentaries during the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival’s “Best of the Fest” summertime encore series. Final selections, along with dates and times, will be announced on or before May 1, 2017.


Best of the Fest: Mischa Hedges Q&A

On Wednesday, May 25, Festival Director Randy Hall sat down at his computer and tweeted questions to Mischa Hedges, director of the upcoming Best of the Fest documentary Of The Sea. Here is what they talked about over the course of 90 minutes or so.

The Easy Preliminaries

Just like all interviews, we had to warm things up, and were reminded to let everyone know that Best of the Fest is actually happening (go figure!)

The Interview Actually Gets Underway

Randy, as it turns out, was curious about why doing a documentary about seafood was on Mischa’s mind…

About Mischa's Background

Randy then went on to talk about Mischa’s start in filmmaking.

The Audience Weighs in With Questions

And the audience was there! A few very helpful questions along with Mischa’s responses.

Stories That Didn't Make the Cut

Inevitably, in documentary a lot of the footage and storylines that get captured don’t make the final film. Randy asked Mischa about this and got an interesting reply.

Working With the Fishermen Profiled in the Film

Working on a boat ranks pretty low in Randy’s workplace preference, and the fishing industry is known to be a close-knit group of very independent-minded folks. Here Mischa talks a bit about how he got plugged into that community.

A Momentary Detour About Technical Aspects

Randy is a confessed gear head when it comes to equipment. He also wanted to call attention to the musical score of the film.

Wrapping it Up

And thanks all around. Mischa was a very capable interview subject!

What's Next

We will be conducting another one of these Twitter interviews with Alina Taalman, director of the SDFF 2016 Jury Award Short Quiet Title, next week as we approach the first of our Best of the Fest events!

The "Why" of Our Festival

When figuring out our festival's purpose, start with "why"So, if you have ever heard the 2009 TEDx Puget Sound talk by Simon Sinek, the title of this article will make perfect sense to you. For those of you who haven’t seen or heard Simon’s original talk, you should take a few minutes and watch it right now. Go ahead, I’ll wait:


When I arrived at the job of Festival Director here, I struggled a bit with understanding what the festival is doing. It’s not that the Doc Fest isn’t doing things right – in fact, the festival is a on streak of doing things very right – but rather that I wasn’t sure that I knew what the festival should be doing. And in that moment of reflection it hit me that I should go through Simon’s exercise of “starting with why” and perhaps things would make a lot more sense. So here goes.

We believe in the power of cinema to reach people and change their lives

Photo Credit - Paula Silva - BY-NC-ND 2.0

Photo Credit – Paula Silva – BY-NC-ND 2.0

I’ll admit it’s a little high-handed, but hey you gotta aim high in order to reach there.

This is definitely my personal belief manifested into the heartbeat of the festival organization. I need everyone involved in the festival to subscribe to this particular world view. The reason is simple: this is what the festival sets out to do every year when the audiences walk in, sit down, and put their trust (not to mention what they paid for admission) in our ability to not only put on a great show, but to show them something that touches them emotionally. Good cinema, whether narrative or documentary, should strive for this outcome; in fact, directors sweat and toil to craft films that they hope will achieve this. Some manage it, but many don’t.

We believe in the power of community, and to serve one another selflessly

Photo Credit - U.S. Navy - BY 2.0

Photo Credit – U.S. Navy – BY 2.0

Again, another lofty sounding belief, but genuinely held. If there’s one thing that our film festival demonstrates, it is that the community comes out and opens it’s collective arms wide to welcome the world in for that four day stretch. During this, we express our generosity and hospitality to everyone who walks in the door. The best part of this festival is not just the great feeling of community during the event itself, but the ripple effect that spreads outward, affecting lives and careers, creating lasting friendships that sometimes evolve into collaborations and creating new projects. Throughout it all, we provide this bedrock of community without expectation of any return other than to see you all again the next festival season, welcoming old friends back as well as those newly met.

We believe in nourishing the craft of filmmaking and visual storytelling in our community

Peer Pitch

Jason Osder and Nels Bangerter talking to the assembled group at Peer Pitch West. An example of how we are sharing the craft outwards.

It’s often difficult to provide a meaningful and collaborative environment in which to expand one’s own craft and repertoire while also building community. Peer Pitch West is a fine example of how we do this, but more important is the reason behind a program like Peer Pitch West: that we provide filmmakers the opportunity to learn from and to teach others who are building their craft or those who are just starting out to learn the craft of documentary film. It’s a long road, fraught with pitfalls and other traps along the way, but with a community of supportive and sharing skilled individuals, the craft of documentary film is not only preserved, it’s strengthened. Our festival absolutely exists to fulfill this goal, and as a documentary filmmaker myself, I’m fully engaged with seeing that our educational programs are legendary in their impact and reach.

So, what's next?

I think next up, continuing with Simon Sinek’s model, I’m going to talk about “how” we use these beliefs and values to create programs of lasting impact to the community and the world. Stick around.

Every Film is a Snowflake.

A picture of a snowflake

Photo Credit: Alexey Kljatov, CC-BY-NC

I admit that, as a filmmaker myself, I appreciate more than most that a film project is a labor of love for the director. Directors and producers of documentaries pour themselves into a project with little or no expectation of commercial success, to say the least. Still, the filmmakers have actually produced something, and it takes a lot of guts to put it out there to a group of people you likely never get to meet, who privately critique and pass judgement on your work.

And so, at the end of the process, when the filmmaker gets a message that informs them that their snowflake was not selected for such-and-such film festival, they are often left to wonder why. Sure, sometimes it’s that the work is genuinely not up to a quality standard that the festival is looking for. Other times it’s that the subject matter is too edgy, not edgy enough, too broad, too narrow, too violent, or too syrupy (you get the idea). And then there are those times that there just wasn’t enough screening slots in the program, and a heartbreaking choice has to be made by the programmers.

Any and all of these are possible outcomes when a film doesn’t make it to the final program for our festival. And sadly, we never tell these filmmakers which of those reasons were why their film didn’t make it. Part of it is fear of consequences and liabilities, but mostly it’s a that we have a job to do here. The job isn’t to tell the filmmaker why their unique snowflake isn’t right for us. The job is to build as strong a film festival program as possible, and to do that, we found that that snowflake didn’t fit well enough with the other snowflakes.

Okay, enough with the snowflake metaphor.

Film Judging Criteria: Not Created Equal

A very accurate Toledo scale

Photo Credit [BY-NC]

In judging a film for inclusion into a film festival, you hope to have a capable team of judges who are

  • fast (meaning they can cover a lot of ground, or content, in a relatively short period of time);
  • considerate (meaning they are present when viewing these films and are paying attention to the criteria they are expected to measure); and
  • articulate (meaning they can translate their impressions of any given film into a rating and a narrative review that others can read and make sense of it).

But, how do you take all of these individual and very subjective data points and compile them into a numeric value that fairly represents how suitable a film is for the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival? That’s where the algorithm comes in.

"The Algorithm"? Are you for real?

Absolutely. I’m super cereal.

You will recall from my last blog post that we have several data points that we collect from judges for each film.

  • Picture
  • Sound
  • Personal Interest
  • Community Interest
  • Story Cohesion
  • Pacing
  • Bonus Points

If we were to value all the judging criteria the same and toss it into a simple arithmetic mean (i.e. the “average” as people like to call it), then each of those various criteria would have an equivalent influence on the score that the film receives.

But that’s not what we want. It may not be obvious, but some of those criteria are more important than the others. In some cases, they are much more important. To accomplish this, I use weighting, or numerically boosting some scores, to assign a kind of priority for one criteria over another. In our case, if you listed them in decreasing order of priority, it would look like this:

  • A pie chart showing the relative weights of each judging criteria

    Pretty colors, indicating the priority of the different judging criteria

    Story Cohesion & Editing (23.6%)

  • Story Pacing (18.9%)
  • Bonus Points (17%)
  • Sound Quality (14.2%)
  • Community Interest (14.2%)
  • Picture Quality (7.5%)
  • Personal Interest (4.7%)

To be perfectly honest, “the Algorithm” is subject to tweaks. It has only been tweaked a couple of times since I developed it, so the good news is that it seems to be working as intended.

You can clearly see that the important parts of judging are storypacing, and (with the exception of the boost that bonus points represent), film sound. These three components represent what most filmmakers would agree are the key components of storytelling.

Why is sound more important than picture quality?

Glad you asked. The key reason for this is the understanding that sometimes, in the process of capturing a documentary, camera work may be a bit tough. Sometimes you won’t hit your focus exactly right; sometimes in the moment the camera shakes, the exposure is too bright or dark, or any other of a number of quality problems. But you’d be surprised how much an audience will tolerate these visual flaws, assuming they are not hopelessly chronic, and assuming that the other components of the film (i.e. story, pacing and sound) are working.

On the other hand, if a film sounds bad (i.e. not recorded well, or with significant audio issues like interference, general noise and other deficiencies), audiences will get up and walk out. Film sound, as any competent filmmaker will agree, is more important than picture when considering its technical quality.

And so it is when we judge films.

All judges aren't equal either.

What do you do when you have a large community of judges, each with their own level of experience in evaluating films and providing feedback?

We treat our judges much the same as we treat our judging criteria: each judge is assigned a multiplier that we use to scale their influence on the overall composite score of a film. That way, rookie and relatively inexperienced judges can still have a say in the outcome of a particular submission, but when teamed with more experienced judges on a particular film, their scores will affect the full composite score of any film by a smaller amount.

Finally, we mix and match judges from one set of films to the next, so that the same judges aren’t always teamed against the same people. That way, any particular submission has an equal chance of having judges with a wide range of experience.

So, you're left with a number.

At the end of this process, every film gets a numeric score. Based on “the Algorithm”, we claim that, at least as far as Sebastopol is concerned, it’s a fair indication of that film’s potential fit with our program.

We also have a value that we consider our “cutoff” (which is itself rather arbitrary) that we don’t disclose to anyone. Nor do we publicize any particular scores of films that are sent to us for consideration. That’s a key part of the trust we have with our filmmaking community, to be fair and discrete in our dealings. I hope that, after reading this, you agree that we’re taking good care of your films.

Up next: what happens to films that don’t necessarily fit our program.

How Sebastopol Judges Submissions

A giant judges gavel.

Photo Credit: Andrew Scott BY-NC-ND

We take the job of considering films for inclusion to any film program very seriously. For the last several years, the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival was using a very basic judging method (which worked up until last year, to be honest), but which left the programming committee with too many films to watch when the time came to go through and select the projects for the festival.

When I came aboard as Director of Film Programs, the steering committee was in the middle of devising an alternate and more detailed way to judge and score films as part of the initial judging process. And, as I have a background in mathematics and statistics, I was able, over the course of the past couple months, to create a relatively robust and semi-automatic way of managing scoring and initial judging of the films that are submitted for consideration. This means that we can accept nearly any number of films and be able to score them such that we can quickly arrive at a starting point for the programming committee.

We check each film for the following things (asking the questions that go along with each category):

  • Picture: Does the picture look good? Was it captured with a sense of composition, with a steady hand and the skill to point the camera at whatever was happening? Or, was it shaky, out of focus or overly static?
  • Sound: Does the film sound good? Can you clearly hear what’s being said? Is it distorted or overdriven? Does it sound like it was recorded in a bathtub? Is the music over-the-top or melodramatic?
  • Personal Interest: Does the film subject hold any interest for you on a personal level? Even if it’s not a subject you’re passionate about, was this film’s treatment of the subject interesting?
  • Community Interest: Is the film likely to resonate with the audience that normally comes to the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival? (This admittedly means that you know the audience here, but being that it’s West Sonoma County, there are certain assumptions one can make)
  • Story Cohesion: Does the film make sense to you? Could you follow it? Does it have a reasonable beginning, middle and end? Does it have a strong finish? Did it “hook” you in the beginning?
  • Pacing: Does the film move too slow? Did you lose interest or get bored? Did it move too fast? Were you not able to follow it without possibly backing the film up and re-watching it? Does the pace of the film match the subject?
  • Bonus Points: For those films that really rise above the others, that represent a really well-told story or a novel approach, that are truly excellent in one or more ways, we give our judges five bonus points that they can award to the film. They don’t mean anything more than “I really liked this, and I think the programming committee might want to have a look at it.”

We also have the judges provide their own “narrative” review, where they can describe the film subject as well as what worked and what didn’t when they screened it. These are used by the program committee, usually to understand why a judge scored a film one way or another.

Finally, each and every film gets seen by three judges. In very few cases are there exceptions to this, usually only those submissions that are scored such that they are numerically eliminated from consideration by two judges. Mercifully, this is really rare.


Up Next: I describe how we convert those criteria into a numeric score that we can reliably use to indicate a submission’s quality.

The Many Faces of Film Festivals

Clay masks laid out in a grid

Photo Credit: Laura Bell BY-NC-ND

There are a few different types of festival formats out there. Of these, the most common that you will find are:

  • Invitationals, in which every film that is considered is specifically invited to do so (i.e. no public submission of films). Usually this is invitational for a reason, sometimes the reason is valid, sometimes contrived.
  • Programmed/curated, in which every film is more or less hand-picked by a curator or jury for inclusion, without a specific judging process. Many festivals start out using this, and indeed SDFF has over the years had several special programs as part of the larger festival that are run exactly this way.
  • Open call for entries, which most established film festivals use, partly because the submission fees of submitted films help the festival to operate, but mostly because there is an opportunity to find those “diamonds in the rough” that otherwise might not ever be discovered.

For the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, we definitely run an open call for entries. Apart from SDFF, we also run a couple of curated festivals (that are, by the way, not limited to documentaries!): OUTwatch, our Wine Country LGBTQI Film Festival (which happens to be coming up in November) and this summer’s surprisingly popular Sonoma County Cuban Film Festival (co-organized along with the Numina Center for Spirituality and the Arts).

Anyhow, for a “call for entries”-style of festival, there are submissions that come in from anywhere and everywhere. Some are out-of-the-blue, some are solicited to enter, but all go into a database that tracks their journey through the judging process. Some submission websites provide a rudimentary ability to track this judging process, but usually it’s a thumbs-up/thumbs-down rating, without any detailed or meaningful criteria that can help a programming committee to understand why a film should move forward through the process. And it absolutely falls flat when you want to judge it on a more complex set of criteria. That’s where our new judging process comes into play.

Up next: I bring you an inside look at how we rate the documentaries that come to us.