By Indiewire | Indiewire October 23, 2001 at 2:00AM
FESTIVALS: Mill Valley Moves Forward; Cultural Understanding Amidst the Elite
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/ 10.23.01) -- I've seen Mark Fishkin, the only executive director that the Mill Valley Film Festival has ever had in its 24 years, bopping around the Berlin International Film Festival like a kid in a candy store, and, of course, I've seen his unflappable spirit at past Mill Valleys. So it was surprising to hear that Fishkin was wondering about his place in the world.
Like many of us, Fishkin went through a bit of a self-evaluation in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. He wasn't necessarily wondering if the tragic incidents would hurt attendance at Mill Valley (would people still like to go to the movies?), but he was wondering if there should even BE a Mill Valley festival. Not only this year. But ever.
"I wondered if what I do is important," he told the audience at one of the three Opening Night screenings on Oct. 4. "I mean, are movies really that important? And I thought about it. And I decided, 'Yes, it is important.' Because movies are not only entertainment, they are a vital tool for cultural understanding."
If anyone questioned the worthiness of the Mill Valley fest, those concerns were shooed away by the infectious laughter of one of the festival's most hands-on guests of honor. Ismail Merchant, of Merchant-Ivory fame, has been a New York resident for the past 40 years, but even at the age of 64 -- with 45 years in the business -- he has never paused to question his place. And certainly not now.
"I think back to something E.M. Forster wrote: Only connect,'' said Merchant, who was a busy guy the first weekend. He also sat on the panels of two seminars -- including a good one on the actor/director relationship -- and was one of the four recipients of a tribute night. "In life, you make connections. Even when you meet a stranger, you make a connection. . . . I like fun. I like the amusing part of life. I see life differently," he said. "I always see the positive aspects."
Indeed, Merchant's sixth film as director, "The Mystic Masseur," is a light-hearted, richly colorful and ultimately moving film, based on the novel by V.S. Naipaul, that brings together the cultures of Trinidad, India and England. It stars a dynamic new find in Aasif Mandvi, and though set in the 1940s and 50s, it asks you to ponder two timeless questions: Should a person's reach exceed their grasp? And, at what point can you attain true happiness, and when do you know you've achieved it?
The other Opening Night films were "Italian for Beginners," the excellent second-place winner at Berlin, where Fishkin saw it and instantly offered the film's representative an opening slot; and "Amelie" by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The festival closed on Oct. 14 with two films, officially: the Coen Brothers' latest, "The Man Who Wasn't There," and Ray Lawrence's "Lantana" which featured Anthony LaPaglia, who kept busy taking Q&A's with that film and Robert Connolly's "The Bank," which played simultaneously.
Tucked away among the foothills of Marin County, the Mill Valley Film Festival always seems like an unreal place. Less than 20 miles north of San Francisco, Mill Valley is a sleepy, uppercrust, out-of-the-way small town that's like Aspen in the offseason. It never seems that crowded (you can always, for example, find parking), and the kick-back atmosphere of the Sequoia movie theaters and the nearby Outdoor Art Club -- where seminars and mixers take place -- as well as the newly restored San Rafael Film Center a few miles north, make for intimate settings.
Here are the facts about this year's festival: A record 43,000 tickets sold for 182 programs, 103 of which were sold out. Twenty films were either world or U.S. premieres. Successful tributes to Merchant, actors Malcolm McDowell, Sissy Spacek, William H. Macy and Jonathan Winters -- who was feted by, among others, gatecrasher Robin Williams -- as well as lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Appearances by Debra Winger, Peter Coyote, Sean Penn and Robin Wright, Huey Lewis, Sen. Barbara Boxer, Barbara Hershey, Matt LeBlanc, Delroy Lindo, Bonnie Raitt and, among the two dozen or so directors who accompanied their films in the fest, Todd Field ("In the Bedroom") and David Atkins ("Novocaine"). Most unusual festival sighting: spiritual guru Ram Dass, though hardly unexpected. He's the subject of the documentary "Ram Dass Fierce Grace."
Sen. Boxer presented the tribute to the Bergmans, her good friends. But it was an emotional evening, as it was the day the U.S. began its bombing raids on Afghanistan. She said the tribute would be the one memory she would treasure before heading back to Washington and a difficult session of work the next morning.
This was a good year to focus on Iranian cinema, a wealth of insight into Islamic and Muslim faiths, mindsets and practices (and, because it's Iran, some damn good cinema). "The Legend of Love" and "You Are Free" are highly recommended dramas that take a frank look at, respectively, women's rights and the plight of children, while the surreptitious documentary "My Name Is Rocky" also delves into human rights. Less inspiring is master director Abbas Kiarostami's return to the documentary form, "ABC Africa," which really tells us nothing new about Uganda. It's main value is to put a face to the work being done by the Uganda Women's Effort to Save Orphans.
Hard to believe that "Mystic Masseur" and "The Bank" have yet to gain major distribution deals ("Masseur" will likely go out through Merchant Ivory's distribution division), but they'll both be in theaters eventually. I'm more worried about a pair of UK gems that are still circulating among the fests: Saul Metzstein's "Late Night Shopping" ("Trainspotting" continues, and that's not a bad thing) and the coming-of-age tale "My Brother Tom" by Dom Rotheroe.
Mill Valley is partly known for, to put it harshly, erudite elitism, and sometimes safe choices -- certainly it can draw many celebrities from Hollywood and beyond. But one thing lost in the paperwork this year -- something that went uncovered by even most local media -- was the fact that seven Bay Area-produced programs were screened here.
"Scheme C6" continues filmmaker Rob Nilsson's digital experimentation with his Tenderloin Ygroup (sort of a filmmaking version of the Boys and Girls clubs), while the powerful doc "Everyday Heroes," by Rick Goldsmith and Abby Ginzberg, details AmeriCorps impact in San Francisco's most troubled neighborhoods. Nilsson also co-wrote "Bill's Gun Shop" by Dean Hyers, a coming-of-caliber drama. "Making Metamorphosis" is a producer's cut of director/writer/star Christopher E. Brown's latest Cassavetes wanna-be. Some people like it. Also screening here was Eric Jordan's "In the Wake," Marc Lafia's "Exploding Oedipus" and one program that was a pair of social docs about the downtrodden: Daniel Baer's "The Hotel Upstairs" and Sharon Farrell's "The Landfill."
If indeed films are a gateway to promoting cultural understanding, then those programs prove that understanding can start in one's own backyard.