Upcoming Film Fest Petaluma draws big names

“The specific vibe and character of Film Fest Petaluma has always been inextricably linked to the character of the downtown Petaluma area,” explained Michael Traina, Santa Rosa Junior College film and media instructor, and director of the annual short-film showcase Film Fest Petaluma.

“Spending a day in a place like this, that’s certainly one of the things that draws filmmakers from around the world,” he said. “And it’s one of the things that brings film fans down from Santa Rosa or up from Marin.”

Film Fest Petaluma, running May 7 at The Mystic Theatre is Traina’s baby through and through, and he’s clearly proud of it.

Along with teaching and running a weekly on-campus cinema series, the festival is one of the main reasons Traina relocated here from Los Angeles eight years ago. The long-time instructor and part-time filmmaker is fully aware that Petaluma’s small-town charm is one of the festival’s chief selling points, for audience and movie-makers alike.

Since the festival began in 2009, it has depended on the participation of artists from all over the globe. And there’s just something about a place like Petaluma, and a venue like The Mystic Theatre, that Traina says is irresistible to a certain breed of film fan.

“Being in a historic venue that’s over 100 years old, with a bar that’s open during the show, with cabaret seating and a balcony, it adds a lot of fun and mystique to the movie-watching experience,” Traina said2. “When directors come from out of the area and drive up The Mystic, they are usually kind of blown away, seeing this old-fashioned theater with that awesome marquee out front. It’s exciting, as a fan of film, to screen your movie in a place like that.”

Film Fest Petaluma - not to be confused with the Petaluma International Film Festival, which takes place in October - is a one-day event featuring short live-action and animated films from near and far, with panel discussions and conversations with the filmmakers. Traditionally taking place the first weekend in May, the event presents films in short 100-minute blocks at noon, 3 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.

This year’s line-up includes “Bear Story,” a gorgeous 11-minute Chilean fable that was the 2016 Oscar winner for Best Animated Short Film. Its creators, Gabriel Osorio and Antonia Herrera, will be present to answer questions about the film’s elaborate steam-punk imagery. From New Zealand, filmmaker Matthew J. Saville brings “Dive,” a 12-minute surrealist dark comedy in which a down-and-out man is abandoned by his own shadow. American filmmaker Cylan Shaffer brings the 9-minute “Pride,” her elegant ballet-themed meditation on one of the seven deadly sins, and Bay Area filmmaker Connor Bell accompanies his 11-minute thriller “Chop,” and Kiel Murray brings the 11-minute comedy “Green Thumb,” in which a busy modern couple get a lesson in parenthood when their horticulture-inclined son shows them his favorite new plant.

All together, there are 38 films, representing dozens of countries, incorporating a variety of animation and live-actions styles and techniques.

“We received over a thousand submissions,” Traina said. “Every year, we get more. The reputation of this festival is pretty obviously growing.”

In addition to organizing the festival and teaching an appreciation for film and media to students every year, Traina also oversees an on-campus student film festival, and puts together The Petaluma Cinema Series, a weekly screening of notable independent, foreign, and popular Hollywood films. The series is held on Wednesdays in the Ellis Auditorium on the Petaluma SRJC campus, with a 6 p.m. film talk followed by the 7 p.m. screening.

“It’s a good thing I love movies,” Traina said with a laugh, “because between one project and another, I’ve watched a lot of films over the last year.”

After studying communications at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Traina worked as a programmer for the American Film Institute Theater film in Washington D.C. He eventually found his way to Los Angeles, where he taught film at Antelope Valley College in Pasadena. On the side, he organized film festivals and developed off-campus film series, and wrote and directed a number of films, including the poetry-themed feature film “Verses.” Asked what inspired him to trade the film-lovers paradise that is L.A. and Hollywood for the relatively low-key Sonoma County, Traina says the move was an opportunity too attractive to pass up.

“I started my tenure track job in L.A. at the age of 24, which was pretty young, and even then I could never really imagine myself working my entire career in Los Angeles,” he said. “Teaching film in L.A. was great, in that there were a lot of cool teaching opportunities I had to give up to come here. I could take students on back lot tours at the film studios. I could take students to live tapings of television shows, and things like that. L.A is the heart of the filmmaking and mass communications industries, but for lifestyle reasons, Northern California was pretty hard to pass up. Of any place to live in the U.S., I think this is the best.”

Along with sharing his passion for film with students, he gets to take that enthusiasm to a global scale, as he interacts with filmmakers around the planet in preparing each year’s Film Fest Petaluma.

“The festival creates a valuable partnership between the college and the wider world, and between the college and local businesses,” Traina said. “All together, as film fans and business owners and educators, we’ve created a solid little community that is genuinely excited and engaged when the film festival rolls around each year.”

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