opening night
Opening night at SDFF. Photo: sebastopolfilmfestival

The Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival is presented by Sebastopol Center for the Arts (SCA), a grassroots, nonprofit arts center created in 1988 by a coalition of art, business and community members to provide art programs and services for all sectors of the community.

Located primarily in Sebastopol, CA, the event spans four days and is usually held in the spring. This year (2016) the festival played films at five venues including the SCA Brent Auditorium, the SCA Little Red Hen, the Rialto Cinemas in downtown Sebastopol, and the Barlow Event Center, which also housed various wine tasting rooms, local restaurants and retailers that catered to festival-goers.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”SDFF prides itself on consistently bringing excellence in documentary to the Festival as well as treating documentary filmmakers honorably and respectfully.” – Cynthia Stefenoni[/pullquote]

As the festival celebrates its ninth year, it continues to celebrate and support both new and experienced filmmakers while endeavoring to educate, entertain and inspire its audiences by showcasing cinematic excellence in documentary film projects each year. “We believe in the power of cinema to reach people and change their lives,” states Program Director Randy Hall in an SDFF blog. The mission of SDFF is “to bring the best independent documentary films in the world, and their filmmakers, to Sonoma County.”1

Apart from SDFF, the SCA puts on several other curated festivals such as OUTwatch, which is Wine Country’s LGBTQI Film Festival, and the Sonoma County Cuban Film Festival that will debut this summer.


The Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival (SDFF) was founded in 2007 by documentary filmmaker and author Eliza Hemenway “with a vision to showcase strong, independent documentary films in West Sonoma County, and to network the local film community.”

Sebastopol Center for the Arts
The Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Photo: sebastopolfilmfestival

The festival has twice been named “One of the Coolest Film Festivals” by MovieMaker Magazine, and is considered  one of the most important stops on the documentary festival circuit. SDFF 2016 screened 71 films in 4 days with over 90 filmmakers and guests from all over the world in attendance. “We believe in nourishing the craft of filmmaking and visual storytelling in our community, writes Hall as he outlines the “why” of SDFF.2

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”My favorite thing about SDFF is the level of commitment that our volunteers have to making the festival experience a pleasant one for audiences and filmmakers alike.” – Cynthia Stefenoni[/pullquote]

SDFF supports the craft of documentary as a way to reach out to people and change the world.  “In the documentary filmmaking community, Sebastopol’s Documentary Film Festival is a known quantity, respected for its attention to and focus on filmmakers, the quality of its offerings and the level of engagement and intelligence of its audiences,” declares Stefenoni adding that they “will continue to uphold and build upon that reputation.”

This passion and dedication is evident among those who make up the festival staff. Over 80 percent, says Stefenoni, are strictly volunteers, many who work year-round to bring the festival to fruition. SDFF is currently working on the expansion and re-branding of a Student Invitational program, which will assist high school-age filmmakers in making short documentaries with input from professional filmmakers.


SDFF invites documentary filmmakers to submit their films to be considered for screenings and awards. They screen short and feature length documentaries, hybrid docs, and any other types of film that can be described as “documentary.”  Several awards in both short and feature categories are given, including Jury, Critic’s and Audience Awards.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We look for documentaries that play like narratives and are at the top of their game in terms of sound, editing, cinematography, and story.  Our tagline is that we entertain, educate and inspire and we look for films that do just that. – Cynthia Stefenoni[/pullquote]

Filmmakers honored with a Jury Award. Photo:

“We have featured a retrospective of Les Blank’s work as well as programs about cinematography, sound design and editing that feature well respected professionals in their fields., says Stefenoni. “We are currently just finishing a 3 part educational program on how to watch films like a pro lead by Gil Mansergh, Sonoma County film critic. This final program is on Film Construction and features an Academy Award winning Production Sound Mixer, his Boom Operator and an Assistant Director talking about filmmaking from their perspectives.”

2016 marked the first year that SDFF featured a “Soft Opening.” This was free for SDFF members, sponsors and donors. The festival opened with a film about actor Ed Asner.  “Ed and his daughter Liza were with us for the event and he was lovely with our audience.  He lead a wonderful Q & A and stayed at the reception afterwards just to hang out.  It was a big hit and something that we will continue to do in future years, said Stefenoni. “Moments like this make my heart sing.”

To see what caught the attention of judges and audiences alike at SDFF, check out the trailers for some of this year’s (2016) winners:

Jury Award: Best Feature Documentary
The Trials of Spring
Director: Gini Reticker

Jury Award: Best Short Documentary
Quiet Title
Director: Alina Taalman

Audience Award: Feature Documentary
Ghost Town to Havana
Director: Eugene Corr

Audience Award: Short Documentary
50 Feet From Syria
Director: Skye Fitzgerald

Critic’s Award: Feature Documentary
The Anima Profile
Sophie Deraspe

Critic’s Award: Short Documentary
At Midnight
Director: Amber McBride

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