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The dreamer behind the San Joaquin International Film Festival

Sophoan Sorn was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, taught himself filmmaking as a Lodi Academy student and then created the San Joaquin International Film Society. What has driven him to want to share cultural experiences and accomplish his dreams — all while in his 20s?

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Posted: Friday, April 20, 2012 7:45 am

It was in a chair in front of a movie screen that Sophoan Sorn began traveling the world. He was 5. And in that movie house in a refugee camp in Thailand, where he was born, a young Sorn fell in love with movies: The excitement, the emotions evoked, the places they revealed.

They offered promises of possibility.

As a young boy, he grabbed on to the notion that anything can happen.

More than 20 years later, he hasn’t forgotten that feeling. And that importance of cinema has been ingrained in him ever since.

Sorn’s passion has led him to create and direct the San Joaquin Film Society and present the San Joaquin International Film Festival, which has curated and presented more than 300 films from at least 40 countries in its five year history. The next SJIFF will be in January.

“I feel like I’m giving back,” said Sorn, who moved to Stockton with his family, Cambodian refugees, in 1991 and then attended Lodi Adventist schools. “This community raised me.”

This weekend, Sorn is also presenting the Second San Joaquin Children’s Film Festival at the Janet Leigh Theatre on the University of the Pacific campus. This event — featuring French animated films, including Oscar-nominated “A Cat in Paris” — was created as a way to offer film to a different kind of audience.

He wanted to bring an international film experience to children, because film represents so much of his own childhood.

“I was always a dreamer,” he said. “I want the child in me to always be there.”

His time at Lodi Academy

Sorn always excelled in school. Some might say he is blessed or lucky, but he has always made his own successes.

On a recent Friday, he spoke at Lodi Middle School to a class of students interested in making documentary films. The students watched and listened to the funny and joking Sorn, who spoke often with his hands and was honest about the challenges of growing up.

He described his success and ability to make his dreams come true. Even as a young child, he says he accomplished goals because he wasn’t afraid of talking to people.

In fifth grade, a woman offered to pay for monthly piano lessons, which he continued for seven years with her support.

Things like that just happened for him.

He says it’s support. But, no doubt, it has a lot to do with his drive.

Film Society charter member Arlene Galindo says Sorn’s focus and vision helps make the festival a success.

“He is very determined and very talented,” she said. “He doesn’t accept anything less than stellar.”

In high school, he was Lodi Academy’s videographer and was selected as historian for the Class of 2003. He documented his senior class activities, from the survival trip to Half Dome in Yosemite to the class trip to Hawaii.

He was newspaper editor his senior year. And in his free time, he was a pianist and tenor for the Lodian Singers and chair trumpeter for the band.

“It was the support from the faculty and students of Lodi Academy in my videography that fueled passion for filmmaking and photography,” he said.

Sorn has always had his parents’ support, too.

His father, Sophat Sorn — a Stockton pastor and techie — introduced Sorn to computers and electronics. In 1999, his father bought a camcorder with special effects, his tool for making music videos.

“I was all about making music videos,” said Sorn, who loved to style outfits and cast the videos, which mainly starred his sister singing whatever Britney Spears song was popular at the time.

As a sophomore in high school, he taught himself to make movies on his family’s Apple computer — one of the first, very slow, generations, he kids — using basic software like iMovie. By 18, he was in business with his own photography studio, photographing weddings and doing studio shoots.

When he showed an interest in film and photography, his father said that if he was going to go into this field, he needed to have the right equipment.

“My dad said, ‘You should have the best technology,’” Sorn said.

The family didn’t have the money for the best camera, but they saw it as an investment.

“We had to borrow to do it,” Sorn said, still slightly astonished that his parents had so much faith in him.

What they bought was the best camera at that time, a $20,000 Mamiya  645-AFD.

“I was 18 and they were putting this thing around my neck — it was like a diamond,” he said. “It was the best thing we’ve ever done.”

Dreams coming true

As a photographer and videographer, he made connections with the Stockton community. In 2003, he became the official photographer of the Stockton Speaks, a cross-cultural program of University of the Pacific.

Two years later, he was selected to film the Stockton Sister Cities citizen diplomacy trip to Cambodia and the Philippines. He directed the Stockton Sister Cities documentary film project “To Iloilo & Battambang.” This film, the first he directed, premiered in 2006 and about 400 people attended the showing.

“It all came true,” he says, of his dream to become a filmmaker.

Photography and videography was just an avenue of his interest. In 2006, he enrolled in Academy of Arts University in San Francisco to study his dream: filmmaking. He put in the time, commuting to the Bay every day from his home in Stockton.

That year, he experienced his first film festival held at the famous Castro Theater, a historic movie palace in San Francisco.

“I was sitting there and thought, ‘Why not do a film festival in my community — in Stockton?’”

It was yet another idea he had in his head. He wanted to see more movies, particularly the ones that would transport him to other places and introduce him to other worlds. He used all of his money to buy himself an Audi and enough tanks of gas to take him up and down the California coast to attend film festivals.

Sorn wanted to share the experience he’d found on the movie screens.

Film, he felt, allows cultures to collide.

“Film is the most powerful art,” he says. “It makes you feel, see — it’s all-encompassing.”

With a belief instilled in him that anything is possible and a heart that was in love with every element of cinema, a 20-something Sorn imagined his dream culture festival for his hometown. He wanted a festival at the Bob Hope Theatre. He wanted a party on top of the Hotel Stockton. He wanted people from his hometown and beyond to fill the theater seats at University of the Pacific and experience the movies that touched him.

Five years ago, it all happened just as he envisioned. The first year, the festival  had showings at Pacific’s Faye Spanos Hall, as well as the smaller theater. They showed 10 feature films and 40 short films, though there were more than 200 submissions. More than 1,500 people attended the first year.

Sorn, still a student, was making a name for himself — and for his community. One film writer, Sorn said, wrote that if you can’t make it to Cannes, Stockton is the place to go. The industry began to trust Sorn’s film sense.

An open heart and mind

Eventually, Sorn gained the attention of the creators of the largest German film festival in the United States. The San Francisco German Cultural Ambassador called and, after a few meetings, Sorn was hired as the director of the Berlin and Beyond Film Festival.

“It is held at the Castro, where I dreamt of directing a film festival,” Sorn said.

Sorn is now in his third year as full-time director of Berlin and Beyond.

Sorn may be all about work, but his work is what makes him thrive.

Though movies may transport him to cultures and places, the film festival does, as well — literally.

For four months, he lived in Germany , where he attended the Berlin International Film Festival.

He explored Paris, London, Versailles and more cities. He visited with friends. He watched more films. He took photos. And, he admits, he caught up on sleep.

Even for Sorn, his life is amazing. When good things happen, he knows he is on the right track.

“The opportunities are amazing if you open your heart and your mind,” he said.

Contact Lodi Living editor Lauren Nelson at

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