“Becoming Santa”–Home for the Holidays

I saw this delectable morsel of an indie film at the Napa Valley Film Festival last month and had a chance to talk with Jeff Myers, the director, for a few moments afterwards.  The backstory is fascinating but the movie stands on its own. “Becoming Santa,” reveals a lot more about the human spirit and generosity towards the tiniest among us than any Christmas tale or Christmas carol out there.

‘Becoming Santa’ is the story of Jack Sanderson, whose father has just passed away, leaving him with no family members to celebrate Christmas.  He is a forty-four year old bachelor who wonders if he should bother trying to have holiday spirit in Los Angeles with no one to share the holidays with.  Instead of wallowing in self-pity, Jack decides to become a Santa and help children celebrate the season that, after all, is meant primarily for children. His parents liked to celebrate Christmas and Jack wants to honor their memory with a quest for a new home for the holidays.

This is when the documentary becomes fascinating.  Jack applies to Santa School in Colorado (there are others) and begins his journey as a Santa who works in a department store, rides the Polar Express train, waves at crowds on a float in a Christmas pageant, and even makes “home visits”.  In the process, we learn about the history of Santa Claus (St. Nicholas in southern Turkey), the Santa Claus look (red suit, black belt, and white beard) which Coca Cola promoted for their own commercial purposes, and listen to interviews with other Santas across the country.

Becoming Santa is one of the jolliest, most emotional, poignant depictions of Christmas spirit I have seen.  What does it mean to be a successful Santa to children?  What is the training like? What is the feeling one gets making history in a child’s life–for almost everyone who celebrates Christmas has at least one photo as a child sitting on Santa’s lap?

The camera lingers on  Susan Mesco, the owner of the Santa school Jack attends.  First lesson–to avoid the “k” word–“kids”–for the much more respectful word, “children”.  Those who lapse into saying “kids” have to pay a dime in the “transgression” jar. Jack is charismatic– delightfully and cheerfully interacting with children and putting them at ease with his comforting smile.

When I first heard about this movie at the Napa Valley Film Festival, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be one of those cheesy, saccharine Hollywood movies we have to bear with young children who want a movie during the winter break. I hope that “Becoming Santa” ends up being a holiday classic – whether or not you celebrate Christmas–because this movie is an essential narrative of the human spirit and reconnects us with the spirit of generosity and community we all need, starting with the tiniest among us.

Note:  This film does not have a major distributor at the time of this blog post.  You can go to the film’s website at www.becomingsantathemovie.com to see the trailer and read a summary of the story;  order it from Amazon.com; or, watch for repeat performances next year on OWN (The Oprah Winfrey channel).  You can also write the Napa Valley Film Festival and inquire about Jeff Myers’ plans for future distribution.




Napa Valley Film Festival–Is this the next Sundance?

Last week (November 9-13) I attended the inaugural Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF) with a friend who lives in Calistoga and has volunteered in the festival’s planning.  Over 100 films were presented, many for the first time at any film festival, in 12 screening locations from Napa to Calistoga.  Along with viewing films we had the  pleasure of tasting fine wines from local wineries and delicious food at the welcome party (for holders of Pass Plus and patrons).  In the next two or three posts, I will be reviewing several of my favorite movies from NVFF.

While this year marks the 30th anniversary of Sundance,  walking through the Napa Valley circuit of theaters I kept imagining that Sundance was probably a lot like this in 1981, except for subzero temperatures and a smaller geographical area to maneuver.  Since my friend Caroline and I had been to Sundance several times, we had the experience to compare both festivals.  First of all, for those who prefer the autumn splendor of colored leaves, hills, and vines, Napa Valley is incomparable.  The rugged beauty of Park City, Utah definitely has its merits–especially for skiers–but the subzero weather makes long outdoor lines a form of human torture.

Second, the novelty of the film festival in the Napa area resulted in great flexibility among the friendly volunteers in greeting attendees, guiding them to the complimentary wine tables, and allowing the two of us into the theater after the first minutes of the movie’s showing.  Sundance would never let us do that!  We were quiet and moved stealthily to seats in the back near an exit.  Never an option at Sundance.

The films were overall of high quality with some first runs–“J. Edgar”, “The Descendants”, “Butter”, and “Hideaway”–all produced by major production studios.  Several of the indies were charming and original–“Becoming Santa”, about the history of Santa Claus and the training of Santas at a special school, “Jiro Makes Sushi”, about an 85-year old master chef in Tokyo’s only 3-star Michelin restaurant, and “Mamitas”, a coming-of-age film about two Mexican-American teenagers in Los Angeles.  The editing, sometimes a lack of subtitles, and infrequently amateurish cinematography in a scene or two marred some of the indie films we saw. As word gets out, however, there should be a broader selection of fine films to choose from.

There were perhaps two major indicators that the NVFF is just beginning its journey to being a major player in the long list of film festivals across the country.  One is the lack of adequate signage for finding some venues (Elementary School and Gliderport in Calistoga, for example), where anyone but locals would not be able to find the location.  Even my friend hesitated in finding the driveway for the Gliderport venue.  The second indicator was the absence of a shuttle bus system to transport attendees from one theater to another, and some were at least 45-minutes apart from point-to-point (Calistoga to Napa).  While over half of the attendees were locals this year, that will definitely change as the word gets out that this film festival means business about being ranked in the top ten nationally.  With the food (Zuzu, Market, Azzurro, Oxbow Market, Jole) and the wine (unique in comparison with Sundance), the Napa Valley Film Festival is definitely a contender for being a knockout star among film festivals going forward!  Check out their excellent website at: www.napavalleyfilmfest.org. (Sundance could learn some lessons in this department from Napa!)