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Valley of the Docs: Mill Valley Film Festival Turns 35

By Frako Loden

The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), which runs every October at its Marin County home just north of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, boasts a full contingent of documentaries in its Valley of the Docs section. In its 35th year, MVFF represents the Bay Area as a bastion of documentary filmmaking, especially in the fields of environmentalism and social justice.

Another major theme is performing artists. Jeffrey Ruoff's Still Moving: Pilobolus at 40 is a short film that pays tribute to the idiosyncratic dance company that was founded in 1971 by a group of Dartmouth College students, who named their troupe after a phototropic fungus. Like the plants in nature that stubbornly grow toward the light, the dancers weather injuries and the death of one of their founders to continue teaching basic workshops on movement. They culminate in a playful collaboration with comic-book artist Art Spiegelman.

San Francisco-based Kelly Richardson's Without a Net follows the fortunes of quite a different kind of performing troupe: a circus staffed by young people from Praça Onze, one of Rio de Janeiro's poorest slums. Rehearsing illegally in a lot once teeming with crack dealers and prostitutes, the trapeze artists, tumblers and contortionists audition for slots and then struggle to balance their aspirations to Cirque du Soleil with their realities of dodging drug traffickers and the shooting deaths of their loved ones.


From Kelly Richardson's Without a Net


Two documentaries about the lives of individual performing artists couldn't be more different in attitude. Former Eurhythmic Dave Stewart co-directed In Your Dreams—Stevie Nicks with his subject as they collaborated on her new album. The film starts promisingly with a conversation about musical couples who have to separate but don't want to break up a band. Surely, both Stewart and Nicks would have plenty to say on that score, but that and many other potentially interesting topics, like Nicks' musical history, problems with her vocal cords and rehab, are completely ignored in favor of self-aggrandizing anecdotes and the milking of disasters to make herself look compassionate. We do learn of Nicks' breathtaking self-regard. Recalling a remark from former partner Lindsey Buckingham, she snaps, "Would you say that to Bob Dylan?"

James Cullingham has a more reserved subject for his In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey, a poignant account of the life and music of the self-destructive guitarist, record collector and musicologist who started a Berkeley record label and died in 2001. Pete Townsend and members of Calexico and The Decemberists are informative admirers of Fahey's music, which dug deep into American roots while refracting classical, liturgical and avant-garde influences.

Perhaps Fahey visited the ‘70s era Mill Valley venue lauded in Village Music: Last of the Great Record Stores, and even if he didn't, the shop probably carried his independent-label records. This affectionate film by Gillian Grisman celebrates local legend John Goddard, who is not simply a record store owner but a vinyl collector, impresario and rediscoverer of lost artists such as Jimmy Scott and Bettye LaVette. Sadly, the store closed in 2007, the victim of CDs and digital file sharing. Happily, performances in-store and at the nearby Sweetwater nightclub by such artists as Elvis Costello, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt and Jerry Garcia are preserved in the film.


John Goddard, subject of Gillian Grisman's Village Music: Last of the Great Record Stores, which wn the Audience Favorite Award for Documentary. Courtesy of Mill Valley Film Festival


Bay Area filmmakers paid tribute to the recently deceased documentarists who changed them forever. Emiko Omori's To Chris Marker, An Unsent Letter, which had its world premiere at MVFF, was helpfully preceded by a screening of Marker's most famous film, La Jetée. Omori interviews an array of prominent film people who were forever altered by seeing that film and Sans Soleil, and try to explain why. She doesn't go for the facts behind Marker's enigmatic presence as an artist—he was a notorious tale-teller—but she does explore his allusive pronouncements on memory, happiness and animals. Jane Weiner's Ricky on Leacock is the culmination of 40 years of filming the pioneer of Direct Cinema, made possible by Leacock's development of the lightweight portable camera with sync sound. His methods brought us in intimate touch with figures of the 20th century, and here we witness his considerable charisma and eloquence.

Joe Medeiros' Missing Piece: The Truth about the Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa is a humorous, often silly piece of detective work on the 1911 heist of Leonardo da Vinci's most famous painting from the Louvre and its two-year-long disappearance. Medeiros spent 30 years untangling the mystery, and this obsessive procedural is entertaining, although it spends too much time talking with droll witnesses on his European travels.

The Mill Valley Film Festival reliably presents a strong lineup of documentaries on environmental issues. Mike Freedman's Critical Mass is a frighteningly rigorous look at the pathologies and destruction caused by overpopulation, using rodent studies and real-life examples such as the Green Revolution and right-wing attempts to eliminate birth control. Beth and George Gage's Bidder 70 profiles Tim DeChristopher, an amiable student who sacrificed himself by committing the felony of filing false bids on parcels of public land being, in his view, illegally auctioned off for oil and gas drilling in the southern Utah wilderness. In so doing, and by participating in civil actions, he focused attention on the Bush Administration's disregard for climate change. Gayatri Roshan and Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee's world premiere, Elemental, follows the struggles of three peripatetic environmental activists fighting tar sands development in Alberta, Canada, and pollution of the Ganges River in India, and developing inventions to slow global warming and purify water. Vaughan-Lee's Marin County home of Point Reyes is the battleground in Nancy Kelly's world premiere, Rebels with a Cause, an inspiring history of the incremental activism that kept West Marin pristine despite proximity to urban San Francisco and vigorous attempts to develop the region into residential subdivisions. Heart of Sky, Heart of Earth, by Frauke Sandig and Eric Black, shifts to Central America's indigenous country, where ancestral corn and villages are threatened by Monsanto's genetic engineering and rapacious gold-mining interests. This beautifully shot film weaves the activism of humble people with the Popol Vuh's long view of human creation and destruction.


From Nancy Kelly's Rebels with a Cause, which won the Audience Favorite Award for Active Cinema Documen tary.


The history and exploration of women's gender identity get contrasting treatments at Mill Valley. Ann Fessler's A Girl Like Her is an unrelentingly sad, but still relevant, look at the experiences of women who became pregnant out of wedlock during the early 1960s. Cynthia Wade's frank, tender Mondays at Racine visits a salon/spa in Long Island, New York, where sisterhood goes to work, providing free beauty care and moral support to women undergoing cancer treatment. Meanwhile, Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines, directed by Bay Area-based Kristy Guevara-Flanagan, is a rousing, kid-friendly biography of Wonder Woman, a superheroine who possesses eccentric weapons to fight for world peace, and still inspires girls today.

Finally, Mill Valley presented two documentaries on racial injustice that should be required viewing long past President Obama's second inaugural. Stephen Vittoria's Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal is a powerful biography of the extraordinary journalist who began his investigative career at 14, worked for such disparate outlets as the Black Panther Party and NPR, but was convicted in 1982 for the fatal shooting of a Philadelphia police officer and was sentenced to death. Neither prison nor lack of research materials (like the Internet) could  silence this prolific verbal activist, whose sentence was recently converted to life. Rather than addressing the crime for which he is doing time, this film gives ample evidence of Mumia's value as a witness to America's appalling prison-industrial complex and history of racial injustice.


Mumia Abu-Jamal, subject of Stephen Vittoria's Long Distance Revolutionary: A Journey with Mumia Abu-Jamal. Photo: Lou Jones


My concluding words are about The Central Park Five, which Ken Burns made with his daughter Sarah and son-in-law David McMahon. In the documentaries I've seen about miscarriages of justice, I have rarely felt complicit—until this one. It's because I had little idea of the final outcome of the 1989 Central Park Jogger case before seeing the film, even though that outcome had been in the news. It was a crime that shocked the entire nation: a young white woman who had been jogging in Central Park was found near death, having been bludgeoned, raped and left in a ravine. Five black and Latino teenage boys who had been making mischief in the park that night but knew nothing about the jogger were arrested and interrogated for hours. They were assured that, if they confessed to the assault, they would be sent home and things would be all right. The boys, worn down by the questioning and ignorant of the consequences, "confessed." Of course they were convicted and served from six to 13 years in prison. They must have been guilty, I thought at the time. After all they had confessed, and we were told that a "wolf pack" went "wilding" in the park that night. As it happened, I myself felt guilty for not knowing the final outcome of the case, but that is part of the whole sorry story, which is told in a way that vividly brings back the New York City of 1989 with its crack epidemic, AIDS fears and racially polarizing killings.

Although the filmmakers don't dwell on it, the case recalls the Scottsboro Boys and Emmett Till—but doesn't let the 21st century off the hook either. Recently the film itself became part of the story when the City of New York subpoenaed outtakes and unused footage in search of evidence fighting a federal wrongful-conviction lawsuit filed on behalf of the five boys, now grown men. The filmmakers and their attorneys, citing reporters' privilege, have refused to turn over the footage.


Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film, women's studies and ethnic studies at CSU East Bay and Diablo Valley College.