Nestled next to majestic Mt. Tamalpais and filled with four-star restaurants, fine watering holes, and numerous natural wonders, the small city of Mill Valley nestled in Northern California’s Marin County provides a great backdrop for a relatively small but exceptional film festival. Without the frantic energy of Sundance, Cannes, and other higher profile film festivals, the Mill Valley Film Festival mainlines accessible panel discussions, informal social gatherings, and a down-to-earth environment designed to support artists. Rather than fostering money or publicity, this festival gives filmmakers the time and space to talk with each other, and also to interact with appreciative audiences and see some films.
The 26th annual Mill Valley Film Festival, which ran from October 2-12, 2003, had filmgoers shuttling between the Sequoia Theater in Mill Valley and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael among other venues, to catch eighty-seven features, twenty-four documentaries, and 135 shorts from forty-four countries, including France, China, Afghanistan, Nepal, Denmark, and Germany. Traditionally, the festival’s opening night features high profile films likely to soon be playing at a theater near you. To wit, this year audiences chose between John Sayle’s Casa de los Babys, Denzel Washington’s latest collaboration with director Carl Franklin Out of Time, and the 2003 Sundance favorite The Station Agent. Following the films, the requisite parties and schmoozing ensued.
Despite the subtle mix of mainstream films scattered throughout the fest, however, most Mill Valley audience members tend to be interested in the more offbeat showings, which makes the Valley of the Docs program a very popular scene. Featuring over two dozen documentaries from around the world, The Valley of the Docs includes a handful of fascinating stories that audiences aren’t likely to see elsewhere. Carmen Piccini’s The Magic of Fellini is a cinematic love letter to the iconic Italian director of 8 1/2. Combining fascinating snippets of behind-the-scenes production footage with cast and crew interviews that include comments from actors Anita Ekberg and Donald Sutherland, and admirers such as Woody Allen, this doc paints a fascinating portrait of a great artist at work. Although the film offers little insight into the man himself, Fellini-fanatics were salivating as they soaked in this thoughtful exploration of the filmmaker’s creative process.
This year doc audiences were also energized by a series of music-minded nonfiction narratives. Pascale Lamche’s inspirational Sophiatown uses the soulful music of South African singers Dolly Rathebe, Hugh Masekela, and Miriam Makeba to frame a compelling look at contemporary South African history. While the music of Trinidad and Tobago bounced from the screen in the world premiere of Calypso Dreams—in conjunction with the film, the festival presented two nights of live Calypso music at Mill Valley’s Sweetwater music club. In Tom Dowd: The Language of Music, filmmaker Mark Moorman explores the life of the late Atlantic Records recording engineer Tom Dowd. Moorman took his camera behind the soundboard to show how Dowd’s work with artists ranging from John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk to Ray Charles and Neil Young changed the landscape of modern sound and music recording.
Documentary filmmaker Will Parrinello watched the world premiere of his illuminating documentary Dreaming of Tibet with his friends and neighbors. A Mill Valley resident for over twenty years, Parrinello shot his second documentary over a five-year stretch. Narrated by Peter Coyote and constructed from the real-world stories of Tibetan exiles from around the globe, Dreaming of Tibet digs deep inside the struggle of a small group of passionate pacifists who cling to the ideals of a culture and homeland that is in the process of being destroyed. Parrinello does a masterful job of humanizing an international political situation through the personal stories of the eloquent Tibetan refugees who help narrate the film.
With Every Child is Born a Poet: The Life and Times of Piri Thomas, filmmaker Jonathan Robinson uses interviews and live performances to capture the colorful and dramatic life of Puerto Rican writer Piri Thomas. The film’s infectious vigor stems from Thomas himself, as we witness his valiant transformation from a life in the Barrio and later prison, to that of a revered author best known for the 1967 memoir Down These Mean Streets. More inspiration flowed from The Star Dreamer, an extraordinary documentary that uncovers the life and work of little known Russian science fiction director and special effects guru Pavel Klushantsev.
A true cinematic visionary, Klushantsev, whose films include 1957’s Road to the Stars, developed cutting edge effects and set designs that were years ahead of anything else seen in the genre. Through the filmmaker’s diary entries and interviews with colleagues and friends, directors Sonja Vesterhold and Mads Baastrup Tabout explore the highs and lows of this influential artist’s life as he worked with studios in his hometown of St. Petersburg to invent techniques for shooting space images that pre-dated Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey by over ten years. At the time, his work was so realistic that when NASA officials caught a glimpse of his images during the 1960s, they were convinced that the Russians had beaten them into space. Despite a career cut short by an oppressive Soviet government, Klushantsev’s influence was felt by many, including Oscar-winning visual effects wizard, Robert Skotak, (Aliens, Terminator, Batman Returns, Titanic) whose efforts to track Klushantsev down were instrumental in helping to shape ***The Star Dreamer.
The fest moved from pondering the wonders of outer space to considering the diversity of human nature—in Mill Valley’s popular shorts programs. Grouped into themes, over a dozen shorts programs offered a rare insight into filmmaking styles on an international level. One program entitled "Friends Who Have Quarreled" featured six short films about the passionate and often explosive elements of relationships. Among them were Scottish filmmaker Stuart Grieve’s funny and compelling Cowboys and Indians, which looks at the friction that arises when a club owner double books an Indian performance group and a country-western band; Apsara, a beautifully shot tale about an escaped convict searching for his daughter all over the countryside of Cambodia; and Susan Chiu’s Driving Lessons, which examines one complex relationship between a ten-year-old girl and her parents.
Film fans looking for longer fictional narratives had a number of intriguing choices this year as well. Bay Area film and video pioneer Rob Nillson unveiled his latest work, Attitude, a raw and intensely personal exploration of one man’s struggle to find inner peace. Michael Disend gives a gut-wrenching performance as Spoddy, a grizzled auto mechanic and hustler at odds with the world around him. As with all of his projects, Nilsson shot this extreme character study on video using his Direct Action Cinema process, an improvisational method of creating realistic and believable drama from characters and circumstances by encouraging the cast and crew to make up dialogue and actions on the spot that feel germane to the situation. The result is a sad and exhilarating roller coaster ride that presents some of the most exciting new work being created today.
More serene but equally thoughtful was Campbell Scott’s Off the Map. Set against the gorgeous orange skies of 1974 New Mexico, the story focuses on an unconventional family’s struggle to connect with one another as they live on the edge of society. The film’s moody photography and hypnotic power is anchored by moving performances from Joan Allen and Sam Elliot. A major standout at this year’s festival, in terms of American feature films, was first-time filmmaker Hurt McDermott’s paranoid thriller Nightingale in a Music Box, a low-budget gem that centers on an amnesiac suburban housewife kidnapped by creepy government operatives. With just a few actors and a couple of sets at his disposal, McDermott crafted an engaging contemporary noir that uses lighting, camera angles, tight dialogue, and colorful characters to lure the audience into this strange and unusual world.
International feature highlights included the Iranian film Paradise is Somewhere Else from director Abdolrassul Golbon Haghighi, offering a unique portrayal of contemporary Iranian life through the eyes of a restless seventeen-year-old. The South African film Beat the Drum was a popular choice with audiences as word got around of this beautifully photographed story, filmed on location in the KwaZulu Natal and Johannesburg that follows a young boy as he experiences the inherent conflict between rural and urban life in today’s South Africa. And Swedish filmmaker Colin Nutley’s stylish psychological thriller Paradise presented a powerhouse performance from Helena Bergstrom as an aspiring journalist drawn into a world of violence, deception, and intense personal exploration.
Festival attendees seeking to take a break from the darkness of theatres were drawn to a series of panel discussions and tributes. Actors Lili Taylor and Peter Coyote received tributes and discussed their work, and the often under-appreciated French-Canadian director Denys Arcand received a tribute and screened his latest film The Barbarian Invasions, a prequel to his 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire that also closed the festival.
In the end, this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival served up a satisfying blend of big and small films without the flashbulbs, bidding wars, or pushy crowds frequently seen and experienced at other fast-growing festivals. Audiences left smiling, relaxed, and ready for more.