This year, I’ve dedicated much space in this column to female empowerment. A theme that I’m excited to report extends to this month’s Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF), November 7 to 11. In the buzzed-about documentary, This Changes Everything, a star-studded cast speaks out over gender inequality in the entertainment industry. The film includes more than 90 interviews including Geena Davis, Reese Witherspoon, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham. Davis, who was a driving force behind the film, will extend the conversation when she is presented with the Davis Estate Visionary award on Friday, Nov. 9.
The list of hard-hitting documentaries continues with the #ArtInspiringAction series, featuring films with powerful messages. Soufra follows the journey of Mariam Shaar, a generational refugee, who spent her whole life in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Shaar changed her fate when she launched a catering company and food truck with an army of refugee women. Afghan Cycles trails a group of Afghan women who, despite cultural barriers, oppression and death threats, rally against the patriarchal hold of the Taliban for the simple freedom of riding a bicycle. Attendees will leave the theater not only inspired by the subject matter, but with a means to take “action.”
Diversity reigns with new screening and event venues. The Napa box office and opening night party will happen at the new Feast it Forward Studio. The first national concept of its kind to shake up the traditional showroom model with a progressive approach to food, wine, design, art, music and philanthropy. The swanky indoor-outdoor space will host culinary demos with chefs and celebrities who prepare film-inspired food and wine parings. The site will sport another fest first—the Glenfiddich whiskey dome. Festival goers will enjoy a 50s throwback at the Calistoga Drive-In at the fairgrounds. The theater will feature 100 bleacher seats in addition to 50 slots for cars. St. Helena will have an added screening venue and pop-up theater in the Acacia Barn at the Las Alcobas hotel.
NVFF co-founder and producer Brenda Lhormer speaks about the appeal of the fest for local businesses and wineries. “The festival brings a different audience, not the typical type of person that comes to Napa. It also brings them at a time of year that people might not normally come. These relationships develop over the course of the fest and hopefully those attendees become repeat visitors. Vintners get to sit with people like Will Ferrell and talk about their wine in a very organic way.” Ferrell shared this about his experience at last year’s Celebrity Tribute, “I was just happy to be a part of the festival and do a little Q&A but to be honored as well. It’s great because in the comedy world, we don’t get a lot of awards. It’s nice to have your work recognized.”
Bay Area films continue to have a strong presence at the fest, perhaps one of the most appropriate, Uncrushable, tells the story of last fall’s wildfires through the eyes of some of those most affected, including victims who lost homes or businesses, first responders, chefs and winemakers. Celebrity chef Tyler Florence directed the film. Lhormer said this about the decision to move forward with the festival in 2017. “We produced a very needed public event that brought new business and people back to the valley to stay and spend money. Booking hotels, eating in our restaurants, and patronizing our local businesses. If the festival had not happened when it did, progress and recovery would have stalled.”
As for this year, Lhormer offers, “I can only think we will be bigger, brighter and stronger for the local business community when we do it all over again.” In 2011, its inaugural year, the NVFF drew 25,000 attendees, a number that has risen year by year and is expected to reach 50,000 this November and raise economic spending by $5 million, according to Lhormer’s business and life partner, Marc.
As one organization bolsters business, another, stifles it. When the City of Calistoga shut down long-standing Buster’s BBQ over minor zoning issues, I took issue. It’s especially disturbing when the move denies restaurant employees the ability to work and removes one of a very limited supply of affordable restaurants. Did owner Charles Davis make a violation by building a music arbor roof taller than his permit allowed? Yes. Is this a valid reason to close the restaurant (far removed from the construction site) for days and declare it a “public hazard?” I think not.] If we want to talk hazards, let’s look at the contaminated (and overpriced) city water situation, which has gone unresolved for months. Once Calistoga’s water is restored to levels where residents can actually drink it, we could get real, and move onto our subpar sidewalks and roadways and leave small businesses alone.
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