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B-BOY STYLE: Global hip-hop documentary 'The Furious Force of Rhymes' is among the 102 films screening at the Santa Rosa International Film Festival.

Jumping Off

Santa Rosa gets a jam-packed film festival

By Gabe Meline

Stephen Ashton is sitting at Cafe Citti in Kenwood, talking about the films at the Santa Rosa International Film Festival. "The indomitable spirit of art is a subtext of our whole festival," he says between a passionate rundown of the festival's slate. "It shows up in so many different films."

There's festival opener My Afternoons with Margueritte, starring G–rard Depardieu; Reconciliation, a documentary on Nelson Mandela; Currency, which looks at life and death through the migration of an ancient coin; The Furious Force of Rhymes, "the world's greatest hip-hop film"; Heaven's Mirror, a documentary on Portugal's fado music; Silent Sonata, from Slovenia, a film with no dialogue about a circus troupe surviving in a war zone . . . The list goes on and on.

Ashton is adept at talking about films. He knows their nuances, their messages, the many reasons for meeting his selection process. Memorizing them all is no small feat; there are 102 films playing at this week's festival, an incredible number that was announced with the full schedule only three days before opening night.

Ashton himself has lived a life in film, bouncing from coast to coast as editor, producer and cameraman (he once lived with Kenneth Anger in San Francisco, and worked the camera for Anger's Invocation of My Demon Brother and scenes from Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi).

After moving to Glen Ellen in the early '70s, he says, "I essentially really kind of missed the cultural scene that I had grown up with. At that time, there were no art cinema screens. Every now and then, the old Rio Theater in Monte Rio would show something like El Topo, but by the '80s, there was really nobody around that was showing any independent film."

So for the past 25 years, Ashton and his wife, Justine, have produced the Wine Country Film Festival, which Ashton describes as "really a festival on the road." Over the years, they've hosted stars like Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, Kirk Douglas, Lynn Redgrave and Richard Dreyfuss in cities such as Sonoma, Guerneville, Calistoga, Petaluma, Tiburon and Napa, among other locales.

One of their first events ever was in Santa Rosa. In 1985, the Ashtons hosted a screening of Hoosiers at Coddingtown Cinemas in Santa Rosa, with Dennis Hopper as a guest. ("It was black-tie optional," recalls Ashton, "and everybody optioned to not wear a black tie—except Dennis Hopper.")

This year, the Ashtons bring their festival back to a welcoming Santa Rosa, where a downtown arts district makes an evident fit and where the Santa Rosa Entertainment Group—which will screen the festival's fare at the Roxy Stadium 14, Third Street Cinemas and Summerfield Cinemas—is no doubt eager to show the community that they can host a festival of independent film after their takeover of the Rialto Cinemas site last year.

Nobody can ignore the fact that since the Ashtons' first festival 25 years ago, dozens of other film festivals in the North Bay have been founded, some in their former host cities, like Sonoma, Napa and Tiburon. Does Ashton ever feel that other festivals have stolen his thunder? "I'm trying to look at it from a standpoint that we've come up with a lot of great stuff," he says.

"To be honest with you," he adds, "I really think that there is an appreciation among the population, particularly the kind of population that we have in Sonoma County, that really, really craves that information. I mean, they dig it, they love it. You know, even the most obscure film, like, on plankton. Goddamn! We fill the house! For a film on plankton! Wow, man, that's amazing."

The Santa Rosa International Film Festival runs Sept. 14–20 at various venues in Santa Rosa and Kenwood. For full schedule, see

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