Student Filmmakers Get a Shot in Sonoma International Film Festival

The Sonoma Valley International Film Festival will mark its 20th run on Wednesday with a slew of 130 films spanning some 27 countries. But among the 200 filmmakers expected to turn up — some will come from just down the street - and won’t be even old enough to drive themselves to the theater.

Several students from Sonoma Valley High School’s intense media arts program will showcase short films during a student segment at the festival - with a pair of the school’s budding filmmakers showing films among the regular festival fare.

“It’s cool to see it on the big screen along with the other filmmakers,” said student Owen Summers whose claymation film titled “Magic Beans” will show in the main festival. “Hopefully it shows well and people like it.”

Summers’ filmmaking is a byproduct of a class that exceeds the creative rigors of most high school media arts programs. The program launched in 2002 with teacher Peter Hansen at the helm and has launched the careers of filmmakers who’ve wound up at Pixar and in Hollywood. In addition to a high tech broadcast studio, the school supplies students with cameras, lighting and computers to make their own films.

“That’s all they do is edit and film and they love it,” Hansen said, adding that he sometimes has to shoo his over-enthusiastic students back to algebra and science classes.

Hansen said the students are from a generation weened on media — video-ready smart phones at their fingertips — constantly documenting the world around them. Hansen endeavors to shape those impulses into serious filming chops.

“They were born into a world where it’s 24-7 nonstop glowing boxes,” Hansen said. “That’s what they know.”

On a recent day inside the class’s broadcast studio, lighting was set-up with fussy precision, cameras were aimed at the on-air talent dutifully seated behind the news desk — as a director barked orders to the crews. The class broadcasts a weekly live newscast with sports and weather. Beyond the studio, students sat at computer stations making last-minute tweaks to films, promotional videos and music videos.

“I’m here on Saturdays and there’s eight to 20 kids editing filming, lighting,” Hansen said. “There’s no bells.”

Summers spent months shooting his stop-motion film, eking out motion one frame at a time with his clay characters.

“It’s very slow,” Summers said, “you’re basically watching a movie as it goes — frame by frame.”

A few monitors away, Alex Epstein edited a film starring his charismatic brother who effected a convincing British accent in a riotous slapstick-esque short film. Epstein’s film is also scheduled to show in the festival

“I’ve never had my own film, any of my movies shown to many people,” Epstein said. “We actually have a chance to make a name for ourselves in this film fest.”

Sonoma International Film Festival director Kevin McNeely said the inclusion of student films in the festival wasn’t just throwing a bone to local kids, but rather the reflection of the high degree of Hansen’s media arts program it helps support.

“These students are making important films,” McNeely said. “These short films kind of tell what’s going on in their mind.”

Hansen said the program helps students find their footing in a digital landscape that is heavy on DIY — in the process helping them veer onto their own paths as filmmakers early in life.

“My kids are mostly the art kids — they’re not the quarterback, they’re not the star athlete,” Hansen said. “But for that one day when they’re in the film festival, they are the quarterback.”

The film fest runs March 29th - April 2nd. For more information, visit

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