The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival Begins… in Wine Country?

Sonoma County hit the big screen at the 59th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival with a screening of The Fixer, a film shot in West County last year and featuring a plethora of Sonoma County-based actors.

Directors Ian Olds, a documentarian, who had covered the life (and death) of a “fixer” – a war time “cultural translator” – in his award-winning documentary Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, decided to return to the subject matter for his first narrative feature.

A scene from Ian Olds’s THE FIXER, which played at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival on April 24

Osman (Dominic Rains) is an Afghan refugee and former “fixer” granted asylum and plopped into an unnamed Northern Califonia/Russian River community. He’s staying with Gloria (Melissa Leo), the mother of his American co-hort and local Sheriff. Osman thinks a job offer for a local newspaper awaits him. Offered the menial task of writing the police blotter for fifty bucks a week, Osman decides it may be the vehicle that allows him to begin to understand the new world in which he now must assimilate. On a ride with Sheriff Gloria, he has a run-in with a local hot tub craftsman (James Franco) and begins a relationship with him that will take him into dark and dangerous places.

Described by director Olds as an “existential mystery” at the talk-back following the screening, Olds and Cinematographer Adam Newport-Berra have managed to outdo Hitchcock in presenting a menacing Sonoma County. While insisting that the specific setting of the film is purposely generic (though any number of local landmarks are recognizable), co-writer Paul Felten did feel an apology might be due the Guerneville Chamber of Commerce for a number of the film’s nefarious fictional activities set and residents said to reside there.

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Tim Kniffin (3rd from left), Dominic Rains, Ian Olds (2nd from right)

Dominic Rains just took the Best Actor in a U.S. Narrative Feature Award at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Sonoma County actors acquit themselves quite nicely in a number of supporting roles, including Tim Kniffin in a substantial role as the leader (?) of a somewhat undefined group of local performers/followers. John Craven has some nice moments as the newspaper editor, as does Keith Baker as a deputy Sheriff. Young Ari Vozaitis is unrecognizable as he spends all of his screen time in a motorcycle helmet as “Pyro Kid”. Other local performers can be seen in several bits or background roles. Producer Caroline von Kuhn was quite proud of the fact the 90% of the casting was local, and director Olds was quite complimentary as to the level of talent found in the North Bay.

Key to that local casting was having Sonoma State University Theatre Arts graduates and and recently-returned Sonoma County residents Gabe and Michelle Maxson on board as associate producers. Besides both having roles in the film, Michelle also acted as local casting director and cast 22 of the film’s 27 speaking roles.

The Fixer is currently in negotiations for U.S. distribution and should do well on what used to be called the “art house” circuit. I would look for it to show up at Sonoma County’s Lakeside or Rialto theatres within the next year.

The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival continues through May 5, 2016.

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