FORT BRAGG, 6/15/23 — The Mendocino Film Festival, one of the town of Mendocino’s two big cultural parties of the year, just ended, with the other, the Mendocino Music Festival, soon to follow.
In Fort Bragg the World’s Largest Salmon Barbecue will be on July 1, while Fort Bragg’s biggest festive event of the year, Paul Bunyan Days, kicks off Labor Day weekend.
The Mendocino Coast, like every other tourist haven, suffered the loss of its annual events during the pandemic. Some had feared those festivals might never return. If the Film Festival, which sold 5,000 tickets for four days worth of films, is any indication, the Coast’s festival industry looks promising for the future.
“Everything went incredibly well,” said Angela Matano, executive director of the festival. “After two years of COVID and then coming back last year with COVID still a concern, this year was a return to form for MFF, with people coming out in droves.”
Film scout and curator Ann Walker, the longest-acting figure at the festival, says the film festival both brings Mendocino to the world and the world to Mendocino. Kara de Vries, festival development director, said when she walks through town it is hard to find a business that is not involved. “The community support is incredible,” said Matano.
Native cinema packed the big tent at the Hill House with attendees learning the meaning of different native dances and terms, then joining in with music and chants. The Noyo Center for Marine Science provided a panel discussion after a film about whales. Local schools had screenings of Town Destroyer, a film about a controversial art mural at a San Francisco high school that probes current debates over whether historical images should be removed or remembered in context, a debate still raging in Fort Bragg over the town’s namesake, General Braxton Bragg, who became a Confederate general after the town was named. Native cinema and a new children’s film event featuring Charlie Brown will be back next year. The local film night concluded the festival. It was sold out for weeks before the festival began.
“Many people have reached out and told me that this festival is their favorite weekend of the year. Teresa Raffo of Mendo Grove said the film festival is the reason she moved to Mendocino,” Matano said.
Past informs the present
The stark difference between the top festivals in each town exemplifies the cultural underpinnings of the two sleepy coastal burgs, separated by only 10 miles. Blue collar Fort Bragg celebrates its two great traditional industries, the Salmon Barbecue, started in the 1970s by commercial fishermen who wanted to save their beloved pink fish, and Paul Bunyan Days, once a timber industry-sponsored party when workers received time off to dress up and participate, dating from the 1930s (and perhaps even before). The logging industry managed to kill itself by clear-cutting and ill advised replanting schemes, while crippling the salmon industry by muddying and plugging rivers where salmon had spawned for millennia. But the present celebrations address the mistakes of the past. The Salmon Barbecue’s purpose is to save salmon while Paul Bunyan Days includes an educational emphasis on modern restorative practices.
Mendocino was an artist colony even in the days when loggers ruled all. The village was intentionally built to look like a New England town from an earlier era. Mendocino always wanted to appeal to the tourists and intelligentsia of San Francisco, with a quaint village made from grand redwood, then in abundance. Early women of Mendocino such as Daisy MacCallum were key to making the village a cultural oasis away from the hurly-burly of the timber industry that seemed to encompass all else. Some have always called Mendocino a bit snooty and Fort Bragg a touch hillbilly.
July is the highlight of festival season for Mendocino. Many small towns have canceled their 4th of July parades in recent decades, but the over-century-old affair in Mendocino is as vigorous as ever, with flag-waving and blaring fire trucks leading eclectic political, performance and civic floats. And then comes the Mendocino Music Festival, the biggest cultural event of the year by virtue of its length alone, lasting two full weeks.
The 16,000 square feet of white tents will once again fill the headlands in front of the downtown strip of the village from July 15-27. The event is more like an immersion in music appreciation than a weekend at Reggae on the River. A festival orchestra composed of professional musicians from top Bay Area orchestras assembles annually for the event. Orchestra members are hosted by local residents, with many dinners and celebrations happening all over town.
The music festival describes itself as “An eclectic lineup of more than thirty amazing concerts, from orchestral to bluegrass, chamber music to jazz, Big Band to Zydeco, in one of the most beautiful places on earth.”
There are nights for popular performances, such as this year’s Blind Boys of Alabama, and shows that fulfill the dreams of devotees. This year the festival is focused on secretive French composer Maurice Ravel, with numerous performances and explanations of his work by musicians. Ravel is sometimes called the musician of the Impressionist movement.
The Mendocino Coast’s favorite crops and foods (except for marijuana) are celebrated with other big festivals. The wild mushroom industry, which has long rivaled cannabis as the area’s favorite underground crop, is celebrated in November with the Mendocino Harvest Festival, formerly the Mendocino Beer, Wine and Mushroom Festival. By whatever name, it is celebrated for 10 days in November all around the county. January brings another delicious pairing at the Mendocino Crab and Wine festival. The Mendocino Whale Festival is held in March, rolling from Mendocino to Fort Bragg over the course of several weeks. The whale festival has dramatic roots in the Mendocino Whale Wars when it was started as a protest that played a key role in the Save the Whales movement and the banning of whale hunting by most nations.
Fort Bragg has another event that had grown beyond its beginnings prior to the pandemic, the Nor Coast Rodders Car Club show, which roars up this Saturday. The show outgrew many others because it features both restored classics and street rods ranging from cars made from old rocket ships to an old tank to classics from the 1930s through the ‘70s. There is also the Flynn Creek Circus and two other circuses that perform at least once a year in Fort Bragg and Mendocino. The Flynn Creek Circus’s performance in Mendocino this summer will run July 1-9 and coincide with both the Salmon Barbecue, which is followed by a fireworks show and the 4th of July Mendocino parade.
Not all the events fit the stereotypes. An important event in the arts, the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference, will be back in Fort Bragg this year, from August 3-5.
No event is more important for the fundraising it does than Winesong, the key fundraiser for the Mendocino Coast Healthcare Foundation, held at the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens in Fort Bragg on Sept 9. Chefs, restaurants, wineries, artists and musicians gather to donate their work in support of the Mendocino Coast Healthcare Foundation (MCHFoundation). New this year will be Winesong After Dark. After the Big Tent Live Auction, there will be a ride through the redwoods on the Skunk Train and an after party and outdoor concert at the Glen Blair Bar Pavilion featuring The Side Deal.
America has loved parades, festivals and community-powered events since its beginning. In his book, Democracy in America, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville was amazed and appalled at Americans’ ability to assemble for anything and everything, including endless fairs and events and then fight over whatever they had made. The aristocratic de Tocqueville made fun of the crudity of the American society he observed in 1831 and 1832 but believed the can-do individual spirit and small town communal power would enable the U.S.A to pass all of Europe in the next century.
Community organizers agree that the community is made stronger and better when busy people take time to create events to benefit others. They say the events are truly a win-win for those who come and enjoy the Coast as well as full-time residents.
“One of the most gratifying parts of our festival is to bring artists and filmmakers and musicians to the area and watch their eyes light up at the incredible natural beauty and astonishing charm of our hamlet,” said the film festival’s Matano. “We are a regional festival with world-class hospitality and an audience full of passion and respect for culture.”