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How Green Was Mill Valley? A Liberal Helping of Docs at the 26th Annual Film Fest

By Tom Powers

From Elizabeth Westrate's 'A Family Undertaking.'

In Hart Perry's Valley of Tears, a Raymondville, Texas, school superintendent grabs the camera lens and wrenches it toward the ground. "Get that goddamn camera off me, Hart," he says, and really, could a documentary filmmaker ask for a better on-camera testimonial?

Of the 22 feature documentaries shown at the Mill Valley (California) Film Festival in October, Perry's film demonstrated the most persistent commitment, rivaled only by Carles Bosch and Josep Maria Domènech's  seven-year odyssey through the lives of Cuban refugees, Balseros. Perry, who was memorably menaced by a gun-wielding thug while shooting Barbara Kopple's Harlan County, USA, went into the Texas onion fields in 1979 to document a strike by Mexican-American pickers. Over the next two decades he returned to witness the economic devastation caused by the strike, as well as its impact on the workers' political awareness, which led, among other things, to a struggle with the town's all-Anglo school board. In the film, strike leader Juanita Valdez puts a positive spin on every failed step in the farm workers' struggle, and her optimism proves surprisingly prophetic. "This is where we all became Americans," she says.

Whether it's farmworkers' rights or a student-driven charter school, the practice of home burial or a feminist spin on a familiar product, Mill Valley is a festival where audiences embrace liberal ideas. It made sense that local filmmaker Will Parrinello chose the festival for the world premiere of Dreaming of Tibet, a look at that troubled country from the perspective of three Tibetan exiles. Mill Valley is the kind of town where the Dalai Lama would feel right at home. It's an inviting village of redwood trees and upscale boutiques, scruffy hacky sackers and well-heeled spiritual questers.

Despite Parrinello's obvious passion for his subject, however, Dreaming of Tibet, like several other films in the festival, adheres too closely to what has become the television documentary formula, with its emphasis on close-framed interviews plus stock footage plus voiceover narration. There are the requisite star turns (the Dalai Lama, of course, as well as brief appearances by Goldie Hawn and Richard Gere and a lengthy interview with author Jon Krakauer), the celebrity narrator (Peter Coyote), the celebrity composer (Philip Glass), the ominous music accompanying black-and-white footage (Chinese troops moving into Tibet), even the unfortunate, TV-friendly decision to provide simultaneous English translation rather than subtitles for the Tibetan speakers. For all its care and craft, the film lacks drama; the Tibetans tell powerful stories, but there's not much happening in front of the camera.

Are American documentaries relying too heavily on a TV-mandated formula? Maybe, but as with the classical Hollywood cinema, some filmmakers seem to thrive within the formula's strictures. Laurie Kahn-Leavitt's Tupperware! (destined for PBS' American Experience) is a conventional but consistently well-told story about the rise and fall of Brownie Wise, a rare woman executive in 1950s America. The look of Elizabeth Westrate's A Family Undertaking, with lots of conventionally photographed talking heads, immediately betrays its CPB roots, but its moving blend of home movies and practical advice (dry ice will keep your loved one's body fresh for about four days) left audience members in tears. Karina Epperlein and John Knoop's We Are Here Together strives for more of a fly-on-the-wall approach, and it provoked a lively post-screening discussion about alternative educational strategies, even though the film itself showed little teaching and lots of New Age hand-wringing at the Bay Area School of Enterprise in Alameda, California. Epperlein defended her film's non-pedagogical emphasis, telling the audience, "We wanted to focus on the emotional arc of the story, how the kids grew." Still, it's hard not to remember Frederick Wiseman's very different take on high school, in which he managed to find the power imbalances that create dramatic tension and open up new insights.  

Of course, some filmmakers manage to build conflict into the very premise of their documentaries. In Pullout, Jyllian Gunther seeks out five ex-lovers, hoping to discover why her relationships always fall apart. "I wanted (the film) to have a little bit of a cartoony kind of feel," Gunther said, which wasn't hard, considering that one of her exes has covered himself with tattoos and now calls himself Lord Relentless Ha. The film has slick dialogue—"I don't like walking on the beach and talking about relationships," Jyllian tells Lord. "It feels like we're in a commercial for antidepressants"—and it generally works as a melding of the two movies Gunther cites as influences: Sherman's March meets Annie Hall.

This year's musical highlights—a Mill Valley staple—included Geoffrey Dunn and Michael Horne's Calypso Dreams, an easygoing tribute to the infectious rhythms of Trinidad, where songs have "lyrics to make a politician cringe or turn a woman into jelly." After the screening, the audience moved down the street to the Sweetwater Saloon to hear one of the film's subjects, Calypso Rose, sharing harmonies with Bonnie Raitt. Sophiatown chronicles the rise and fall of a remarkable Johannesburg neighborhood, where the flowering of jazz music in the 1950s gave rise to racial intermingling, black gangsters and the genius of musicians like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Abdullah Ibrahim. Director Pascale Lamche said she wanted her BBC project "to be edited in a way that it would be like jazz," and with its swishing pans, blurry (and sometimes queasiness-inducing) images and mix of old and new concert footage, the film has a vibrancy worthy of its topic.

The opening shot of Tom Dowd & the Language of Music shows an aging sound engineer sitting at a mixing console, fiddling with the tracks of a pop-music classic. "My friends were all fighting to shoot the ‘Layla' sequence," said Florida filmmaker Mark Moormann. The humble, twinkling-eyed Dowd recorded everybody (at times it seems like everybody) from Aretha to Coltrane to Cream, and Moormann lets him tell his own story, interspersed with testimonials from such colleagues as Ray Charles and Eric Clapton. "I didn't try to put my fingerprint on the screen," Moormann said, echoing a remark Phil Ramone makes about Dowd, a producer-engineer who quietly brought out the best in his artists. Dowd died in the fall of 2002, a week after seeing a tape of the film.

Perhaps the most intriguing documentary at Mill Valley this year was Karen Littauer's delicately constructed I Remember...Tales from Greenland. The Danish filmmaker interviewed 32 people in three languages, unearthing stories about spirit guides and mountain wanderers, a baby girl who was given dog spittle as her first food so she would grow up "to be like a bitch in heat" and a one-year-old boy who was told to wake his dead grandfather with a drum song. "This is the last generation who has a grandfather or father who was a shaman," Littauer said. The film's elderly subjects have memory connections to a world that seems impossibly distant yet painfully immediate. That world, foreign and familiar, is the type of place to which the best documentaries take us.


Tom Powers is a writer and editor who lives in Pasadena, California.