Cynthi Stefenoni, Festival Producer of SDFF. Photo:

Cynthi Stefenoni is a member of the Board of Directors of Sebastopol Center for the Arts and Festival Producer for the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival and the OUTwatch Film Festival.  Interview conducted by Tanya Ruys.

Q:  What is the purpose of the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival? How did it begin?

Stefenoni:  The purpose of the Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival (SDFF) is to bring the best in documentary film to the North Bay audience. It was started in 2007 by Eliza Hemenway in conjunction with the Sebastopol Center of the Arts (SCA). It has continued as the centerpiece of the film programs of SCA and will celebrate its 10th anniversary in 2017.

Q:  What is your role in this festival? How long have you been involved?

Stefenoni:  I am currently the Festival Producer. I began as a Room Manager in 2009, became the Volunteer Coordinator in 2010 and Festival Producer in 2014. 2017 will be my seventh year with SDFF.

Q:  How did you select your special guests? What was the process for selection like?

Stefenoni: Our Special Programs have been programmed by the Festival Director and one of our Artistic Directors/Founders.  The criteria is fluid, but the programs are chosen for their relevance to our audience and also to inform, educate and inspire those who attend the Festival.  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.  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.

If you are also interested in how we select films for our Festival, we do that by opening a Call For Entries in June that closes in September.  Each film we receive is screened by 3 members of the screening committee in Round 1.  Favorable reviews via our judging response sheet from at least two screeners moves a film into Round 2.  Round 2 films are then screened by our programmers.  Films who get the thumbs up from them are put on the short list for the Festival.  That list is refined until a program emerges that is cohesive and features the best of the films we have received.

Q:  How is the festival funded? What kind of support does it receive? How does this festival support the local economy?

Stefenoni:  SDFF is funded by donations large and small.  The monies come from businesses and individuals via various fundraising events as well as from memberships, advertising sales, ticket sales and sponsorships.  We also apply for (and have received) grants from various organizations.

As a program of the SCA, we have the use of the Center for our home venue.  We also screen at The Rialto Cinemas (c) in Sebastopol.  Our audiences, therefore, support The Rialto by visiting their concession and buying food and drink.  And we usually have at least one pop up venue.  In 2016, that venue was The Barlow, home to various wine tasting rooms, restaurants and retailers which were patronized by audience members. Our filmmakers (of which there are many) stay at homes in the community as well as hotels and pay for meals at restaurants in town, visit wineries and coffee houses and buy souvenirs at various retailers.  We send out a survey to every filmmaker in attendance, in which we ask what retailers they visited in Sebastopol; many of them tell us that they have visited the vendors who donated food and drink to the Opening Night Reception.  This information is passed on to the many community partners who support us.

And, just in passing, it should be noted that this Festival is run 80% by a volunteer staff.  Only the Festival Director is paid, dedicated staff and, although the staff of the Sebastopol Center for the Arts is very involved in Festival weekend, the rest of us are volunteers, some of whom work all year long in some capacity to bring this to fruition.

Q:  How many people traditionally attend this festival, locally and from out of town?

Stefenoni:  Audience numbers for the past two years have been between 5500 and 6500 for the 4 day Festival.  Data has shown that about 82% of our audience comes from the North Bay.  An additional 8% comes from the Bay Area, with the balance shared between other California communities and the rest of the country.  Filmmakers have joined us from as close as Sebastopol and as far as New Zealand and Sweden.

Q:  What kind of goals does this festival hope to achieve? What kind of future do you envision for this festival?

Stefenoni:  SDFF prides itself on consistently bringing excellence in documentary to the Festival as well as treating documentary filmmakers honorably and respectfully.  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.

As for our future plans, there are many.  We want to grow the Festival in terms of the amount of films we screen by adding more screening slots at venues.  We want to expand our year round presence by offering even more during the weeks leading up to the Festival as well as more during our Best of the Fest series.  We are currently engaged in the expansion and re-branding of our Student Invitational program which assists high school age filmmakers in making short documentaries with input from professional filmmakers.

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.  We will continue to uphold and build upon that reputation.

Q: What is your favorite thing about this festival? What does this festival mean to you personally?

Stefenoni:  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.  They train, they show up and they own this Festival for four days every Spring, knowing that they are the face of the Festival and that each of them plays an important role in keeping SDFF the quality festival that it is.

I am personally connected to this festival for so many reasons: I grew up in Sebastopol, went away to have a career in the non-profit sector as well as the TV/Film industry that took me all over the world and have come back, able to continue my commitment to causes and my love of excellent filmmaking via this Festival.

Q:  Do you have any festival stories, anecdotes, or memories you would like to share?

Stefenoni:  My proudest moments are when we hear from filmmakers about how well they were treated here.  And, also, when filmmakers tell us that coming to Sebastopol is high on their list when they get accepted here.

2016 marked the first year that we had a Soft Opening… an opening night that was free for SDFF members, sponsors and donors… and we showed a film about Ed Asner, the actor.  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.  Moments like this make my heart sing.

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