OctoberFests: Mill Valley and UNAFF
By Frako Loden
The Mill Valley Film Festival, which screens every October in affluent Marin County, north of San Francisco, is known for its music, film and environmental documentaries, many of them produced in the Bay Area. A moderate few in each category stood out this year. Things went smoothly despite the widespread PG&E pre-emptive fire-prevention power shutoffs, causing no cancellations and only a handful of films to change venues.
The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash, directed by Thom Zimny, is a lyrical, almost dreamy account of the Arkansas country boy's life and career, undistracted by the sight of talking heads. Instead we hear the voices of Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, Rick Rubin, Sam Phillips, Rodney Crowell, and offspring Rosanne Cash and John Carter Cash—people who actually knew Cash and not modern artists merely wowed by him—as they try to explain in words the mysterious force of Cash's voice and songwriting. The artist's own voice recordings from the 1990s evoke bus and train journeys through the backroads of America. We hear the usual themes of childhood trauma—Cash's father inexplicably blamed him for the table-saw death of Cash's older brother Jack at 14—and redemption for the sin of neglecting his first wife and four daughters in favor of touring, political causes and amphetamine addiction. The film brightens when Cash performs with, then marries, his soulmate June Carter, and Cash's 1968 Folsom Prison appearance is featured repeatedly as the pivotal performance of his life and career. This film unfairly suffers in comparison with the longer, more detailed treatment of Cash in the Ken Burns Country Music series, which aired on PBS the month before.
Brett Harvey's wildly entertaining Inmate #1: The Rise of Danny Trejo traces a template similar to the Johnny Cash doc: an emotionally remote father and childhood tragedy lead to misdeeds and drug addiction—the gangster uncle he idolized gave him his first taste of heroin at 12—followed by a lifetime of fame, redemption and giving back to his community. In Mexican-American character actor Trejo's case, the Pacoima native spent a decade in San Quentin and several other penal institutions up and down California until 1969, when he joined Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous. Years later he launched his film career with the 1985 Runaway Train. On the set of the 2010 Machete, his first starring role, he discovered that director Robert Rodriguez was his second cousin. Reminiscences by Trejo's two sons and daughter (curiously, no wife), neighborhood homies and actor friends like Cheech Marin and Michelle Rodriguez, as well as Trejo's own monologues, reveal a warm, generous individual who gets pleasure from helping others. His prolific filmography gives up a hilarious montage of clips that may even send you to see Death Wish 4: The Crackdown.
Gilles Penso and Alexandre Poncet's Phil Tippett: Mad Dreams and Monsters is a gem, a portrait of the longtime partnership between a brilliant, taciturn artist and his more gregarious, business-minded wife, producer and studio head Jules Roman. If it weren't for Roman, Phil Tippett (and Berkeley-based Tippett Studios) would probably not be the legendary creator of the stop-motion creature effects in Star Wars, RoboCop, Starship Troopers, the Twilight saga and many other films. She is what kept his career going, since he would be otherwise content to shut himself away from people, sitting in a room developing his miniatures. This doc details the history of Tippett's evolution in his own (and his colleagues') words, starting with his childhood astonishment on seeing the stop-motion animation in the original King Kong and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad—"I was never the same afterwards," he says. It's a treat to see his earliest experiments in creature movement, his influences and mentors, his innovations within stop-motion, his fierce independent spirit and his complete indifference to fame.
Varda by Agnès, the late French filmmaker's final work, is a personal summation of her career more suited to newcomers than to hardcore fans or scholars. Joel Zito Araújo's My Friend Fela takes a contextualizing approach to the life and times of Nigerian musician-political activist Fela Kuti, framing the legendary man's life by means of his friendship with Cuban biographer Carlos Moore, who wrote This Bitch of a Life about Fela. The film describes Fela's radicalization when his mother was killed by the military, but sadly it has little to say about the topic most on non-Nigerians' minds: the sexual politics of Fela's 27 wives.
Lauren Greenfield's specialty in portraits of tasteless extravagance and endless striving for wealth (The Queen of Versailles, Generation Wealth) seems suited to The Kingmaker, her profile of Imelda Marcos, former first lady and widow of longtime dictator Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. For Americans who know Imelda only as a punchline to a shoe joke, this is an epic of her prominent role in Filipinx and global politics. Taking advantage of her beauty and charisma, Ferdinand frequently sent her on diplomatic missions that had her meeting with Mao, Castro, Khadafy and Nixon. Now in her 90s and granting Greenfield an astonishing and revealing level of access (as, the director says, only a narcissist can), Imelda shows little sign of slowing down in her relentless pursuit of power and wealth despite holding the Guinness World Record for "Greatest Robbery of Government" (estimated in the tens of billions, still unrecovered). During a screening Q&A, Greenfield namechecked Ramona S. Diaz's 2003 documentary Imelda, which Greenfield updates by cross-cutting the saga of Imelda with the 2016 campaign of her son Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. for vice president, a separately elected office in the Philippines. Despite her unsteadiness and protestations of only giving to the poor Filipino people, Imelda herself succeeds Bongbong as house representative of her district of Ilocos Norte and forges an alliance with the notorious president/dictator Rodrigo Duterte, who has praised the Marcos dictatorship and helped fund recent Marcos campaigns. By the looks of this film, Imelda and her progeny are well on their way to regaining the influence they lost in the 1980s. Her life and career are a manual for the acquisition of power through the Big Lie (for her, greed equals "giving," persecution equals "mothering"), violence and fake news.
Mill Valley is a hub for environmental documentaries, so Matt Wechsler and Annie Speicher's Right to Harm is right at home here. Unlike some, this one is not interested in taking names or demonizing the perpetrators of factory farming, or CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). You won't see egg-laying chickens or hogs being slaughtered or smothered in their own filth. Instead you will see local activists in Arizona, Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Iowa who have been personally affected by the stench, sometimes even the spraying, of liquid manure produced by these animals too close to their own homes and farms. Public health scientists confirm that livestock litter can irritate eyes, noses and throats and aggravate asthma, heart disease, bronchitis and even lung cancer. Yet CAFOs are not covered by the Clean Air Act and can easily avoid regulation. The activists' dogged determination and formation of over 200 community groups fighting CAFOs embody the highest ideals of democracy, as citizen politics battle corporate farming in the heartland.
Deia Schlosberg's The Story of Plastic is the textbook environmental documentary: It shows us a dire environmental threat, explains its origins in clear words and imagery, traces the history of its proliferation and those responsible for it, and introduces us to the people we should follow in reducing that threat. The story of plastics is the tragedy of ordinary Americans' capacity for believing the propaganda of heedless profit. Before seeing this, I didn't know how phenomena such as the Keep America Beautiful campaign of my childhood, the Tupperware that filled my mother's kitchen cupboards, and my high school-era eagerness to stomp on aluminum cans would somehow be all connected. Then in my middle age, there was Berkeley's sudden willingness to accept plastics for recycling; innovation in fracking and the shale gas boom; and municipal and global Zero Waste policies. This film connects all these seemingly disparate things and points the way to correcting the overflow of plastics and the toxicity of every phase of their production. The Story of Plastic won the Audience Favorite in Mill Valley's Active Cinema category.
From Wounded Knee to Standing Rock: A Reporter's Journey, directed by Kevin McKiernan (the reporter of the title), was the biggest unanticipated pleasure for me at Mill Valley. McKiernan was a rookie NPR reporter, a Caucasian, whose first assignment was the 1973 armed occupation of the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. With the help of Willard Carlson, a Native Yurok fisherman who was there at the occupation and then returned to his tribe in northern California to fight for salmon fishing rights, McKiernan puts a human and heroic face on the activists in some extraordinary contemporary footage.
The biggest local documentary story at Mill Valley this year was one very close to my own heart: Rosemary Rawcliffe's The Great 14th: Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama in His Own Words, which won Audience Favorite in the Valley of the Docs category. The subject is enough of a favorite in the Bay Area, home to a substantial Tibetan American community and non-Tibetan followers of His Holiness. But a recent incident intensified feelings around this production. In July of this year, Rawcliffe's Frame of Mind production office in Berkeley was robbed clean of all computers, hard drives and other equipment. Miraculously, the burglars left behind a drive containing the nearly-finished film. (One of the thieves has since been arrested.) A great story emerged from this terrible crime, in which the spirit of the exiled Dalai Lama preserved this film from oblivion. In it, it's the man, not so much the spiritual leader, who comes alive in his own words, spoken in an English only occasionally aided by an unseen interpreter (his brother Tenzin Choegyal, who was also at the screening). In these rough times it's comforting to hear his deep voice punctuated by hearty laughter and that playful protruding tongue. I transcribed these interviews over the years and was lifted by those words, his casual asides, his cheerful grumbling and guffaws. I'm glad the rest of the world gets to hear him too.
Later that month, I had the pleasure of attending three sessions of the 22nd annual United Nations Association Film Festival (UNAFF), centered in Palo Alto venues but also offering screenings in East Palo Alto and San Francisco. This long-running documentary film festival celebrates the tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and this year held 26 focused sessions under the umbrella theme of "Scales of Justice." As with every previous year, founder/executive director and Stanford University professor of documentary film studies Jasmina Bojic introduced each film and led dozens of Q&As and panel discussions. I frankly don't know how she manages to do this for 11 days, not to mention the year-round process of vetting hundreds of films for inclusion. The smooth, good-humored running of events proves that she has a capable staff and good volunteers.
I went to a Palo Alto community center to see Session 2, about war. French documentarist Anne Poiret's Mosul After the War is a devastating portrait of the ancient northern Iraqi city over the year after it was freed from its three-year captivity by the Islamic State in the 2017 Battle of Mosul. In that final battle, the historic Assyrian quarter of the city was razed to rubble that held chambers unexplored, bombs unexploded, and cadavers rotting still to this day. A man grieves over the family members he still can't bury; a rebuilding committee head laments the corruption of a governor who siphons off reconstruction funds; a shopkeeper wants his granddaughter to see the rebuilding of his market in the souk. Perhaps most ironically heartbreaking is the tears of the mother of an ISIS martyr, longing for the return of the Islamic State that apparently treated her family so well. The United Nations and UNESCO come off looking hapless in trying to deal with the religious and political factions of the city, while demoralization sets in among the residents, who live with the constant fear of the resurgence of ISIS militias.
The accompanying short, Joosung Kwon's Project Mosul, recounts the notorious 2015 video of ISIS taking power drills and sledgehammers to ancient Assyrian statues, some dating back to 700 BC, in the Mosul Museum. In response, a pair of programmers have developed an initiative at Rekrei.org to create 3-D models of the destroyed artifacts by crowdsourcing and stitching together tourist photos, leading to a virtual-reality museum.
The war-themed session concluded with Who Killed Lt. Van Dorn?, Berkeley-based Zachary Stauffer's saga of the MH53E Sea Dragon, the Cold War-vintage heavy helicopter that has never been shot down but is the deadliest military aircraft still in operation. Why? A total of 132 soldiers have died operating this "piece of crap," as it was described by Lieutenant Wes Van Dorn to his mother Susan when he swore he would never take her up in it. In 2014, Van Dorn and two crew members died when their 53E crashed into the waters off Virginia. Van Dorn's widow Nicole and a local journalist of the military, as well as Stauffer's associates, uncovered a history of failed leadership, budget shortcomings and toxic culture around the aircraft. The film's thesis is that all these problems originate in what outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower called the "military-industrial complex," an Iron Triangle of the military, Congress and defense contractors that enriches a few while impoverishing other missions and putting ordinary troops' lives at risk.
A predominantly high school student audience gathered at East Palo Alto's Eastside College Preparatory School to view a session of "UNAFF in Schools" on the theme of immigration. Caron Creighton and Walker Dawson's short film Credible Fear is a harrowing journey accompanying Sam Kwesi, a family man who fled his native Ghana after his father was killed in a religious conflict and Sam was warned that he could be next. This is the "credible fear" basis for his asylum claim and appeal for permanent residency in the United States. Leaving behind his wife and children, Sam embarks on an epic trek to South America, turning north to Mexico, hoping to gain asylum once he reaches the US to protect himself and his family. But he must move up a huge waitlist of other asylum seekers just to get into the States, and then he is detained—and shuffled around four different detention centers—until he can be interviewed to qualify. This is a short but powerful account of a single man's predicament—he remains imprisoned indefinitely in Louisiana while his uncle back in Ghana is killed and his family ask why he hasn't called—that must be multiplied thousandsfold to be fully fathomed.
I eavesdropped on students planning to leave before the second film, but those who stayed showed their enthusiasm for the excellent documentary that followed. Stanford alumnus Theo Rigby's Waking Dream is a profile of DACA recipients that is easy to understand and emotionally compelling. Six appealing young people, three Latinx and three Asian, qualified for the 2012 law, which gave certain undocumented individuals (who have lived in the US most of their lives) a two-year extension from deportation and eligibility for a work permit. When DACA was rescinded in 2017 under Trump, they scrambled to maintain their treasured status and continue striving for their dreams of a higher degree, a better-paying job, a chance to serve in the military. The students in the audience related to those on the screen and were audibly moved by the end.
The final session I attended, in a classroom at Stanford Medical School, presented films on a theme that has wreaked the most destruction on Californians up and down the coast in the past several years: wildfires. This terrible phenomenon has birthed numerous documentaries on all aspects of the subject, such as its origins in climate crisis, the toll on property, businesses and human lives as well as human resilience, compassion and heroism. One aspect: How do we mourn such losses? Australian Ashleigh McArthur's very short film Ignis documents a project by ceramicist Gregory Roberts, who offered to collect ashes from over 150 homes burned in the 2017 Tubbs fire and mix them into bowls that serve as both funerary tribute and artistic consolation. Each bowl possesses a glaze specific to the home that was lost.
For the Sonoma fire victims in Derek Knowles and Spencer Seibert's short After the Fire, the burned items are not just losses of today but vivid reminders of past losses: of mothers, of legal status, of a more stable life. A father asks if his son will be able to reinvent himself to stay in the area of his birth. A jobless mother bursts into tears in thanks for an aid society that will help pay her rent. This intimate film probes through the ashes for a glimmer of hope in our epoch of increasingly destructive conflagrations.
Gretchen Hildebran and Vivian Vásquez Irizarry's devastating feature Decade of Fire was the highlight of this year's UNAFF for me. At once a loving chronicle of the South Bronx section of New York from the 1970s and a tragic history of racism and neglect, this film follows educator Vásquez Irizarry as she shows how her Puerto Rican-American family and community were affected by 1930s-era redlining—the denial of loans and fire insurance to properties within areas populated by a certain percentage of people of color. Subsequent white flight, urban renewal, landlord neglect and highways cutting through vital neighborhoods further degraded the South Bronx, emptying buildings and using criminal elements to burn them down for insurance purposes. Critical firefighting services were even reduced or curtailed, leading to (or causing) the perception that citizens were constantly setting fire to their own buildings. A shocking 80 percent of South Bronx housing stock was destroyed in these fires. Vásquez Irizarry shows how this narrative of the citizenry's willful self-destruction was false and chronicles the activities of gangs, who formed softball leagues and led building cleanups in addition to committing crimes; and organizations such as the People's Development Corporation and Banana Kelly Community Improvement Association, which rehabilitated abandoned buildings and trained youth in construction skills. In 2019 systemic issues still plague the Bronx, such as gentrification in the form of the first luxury apartment towers. But Vásquez Irizarry continues to put out fires and fight for her neighborhood.
All three of these fire-themed films were made by graduates of Stanford University's Master of Fine Arts documentary film program, a splendid incubator for some of the finest documentaries on the many facets of universal human rights.
Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.