Music Films and Senior Activism Among the Highlights of 2003 Mill Valley Film Festival
by Eugene Hernandez
The warm early autumn days of the San Francisco Bay Area are inviting as the fall festival season hits October. Equally inviting is the annual Mill Valley Film Festival in Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from The City. Now in its 26th year, with founder Mark Fishkin still at the helm, the event remains a solid autumnal regional film festival.
More than 200 films unspooled at this year's non-competitive event, which ran from October 2-12 at the Sequoia Theater in Mill Valley and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, among other local venues. This year's event opened with three premieres, Carl Franklin's "Out of Time," Tom McCarthy's "The Station Agent," and John Sayles' "Casa De Los Babys."
The Mill Valley festival was graced with sizable and appreciative audiences. It's a crowd accustomed to seeing specialty and independent filmgoers thanks to year-round programming at the Sequoia Theaters and the five-year old Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center in nearby San Rafael.
Music events were a highlight in quaint and rural Mill Valley, a town that prides itself on its local music roots. One big event at the festival included two nights of calypso music tied to the new documentary "Calypso Dreams." While Lorenzo de Stephano's "Los Zafiros -- Music from the Edge of Time" offered an entertaining look at the popular Cuban doo-wop group from the 1960s. Pascale Lamche's "Sofiatown" looks at the music scene from the 1940s and 50s in a South African township and other music themed films included Mark Moorman's "Tom Dowd & the Language of Music" and Neil Young's third film, "Greendale," which had its U.S. premiere.
The festival's centerpiece film was Campbell Scott's third directorial effort, "Off The Map," a Manhattan Pictures release that debuted this year at Sundance. Film star Sam Elliott was in town for the film's screening on the final weekend of the festival.
South African director David Hickson's "Beat the Drum" was a surprise at the festival. Set in Johannesburg and the nearby KwaZulu Natal village, Hickson's narrative film offers a tragic portrait of the AIDS crisis as seen through the eyes of a young boy who is coming-of-age as an orphan in the small village. Determined to raise money to help his aging grandmother buy a cow, the boy ventures into the big city for the first time. Against the odds he survives on the streets only to learn the truth about the mysterious illness that is plaguing his family and friends back home. Once he finds out more about AIDS he must return to convince village elders to share information with the locals before more people die.
First time actor Junior Singo is a true star in the role of the young boy in "Beat The Drum." Like the young girl in "Whale Rider," through his eyes and experiences we are transported to a new place to experience a culture that faces similar problems, yet one that in other ways couldn't be more different from our own. The coming-of-age tale will no doubt attract families and activists determined to hold government officials accountable for their commitment to funding to halt the spread of AIDS in Africa.
In the solid new doc "Sunset Story," filmmaker Laura Gabbert takes viewers inside Sunset Hall, a Los Angeles retirement community for socially and politically active seniors. After observing the home for some time, the filmmakers found their story in Lucille and Irja, two women who develop a friendship, making life at equally aging Sunset Hall a better experience. Increasingly dependent upon each other as the movie unfolds, the two bond, sharing sometimes-salty conversations until one is bed-ridden with illness. Sadness mixed with humor is the over-riding emotions felt while watching Lucille and Irja battle the pains of old age. Yet it is hard not to be inspired by their ability to remain aware activists even as their bodies give out. The film was paired with the perfectly partner film, "Seniors for Peace," an entertaining videologue of a local Marin County group of seniors who gather weekly to stand on the street corner to protest the war in Iraq.
Among the other new films, Lauri Kahn-Leavitt's "Tupperware" is a colorful and intriguing look at the history of those famous plastic storage containers from our youth. Kahn-Leavitt's doc traces the rise and fall of Tupperware marketer extraordinaire Brownie Wise.
Mill Valley honored actress Lily Taylor during its debut weekend. She played a woman waiting to adopt an infant in John Sayles' opening night movie, "Casa de los Babys," was interviewed on-stage following a screening of her 1999 film, "A Slipping Down Life." Guests gathered for dinner at acclaimed local Italian eatery Frantoio. Midway through the festival, organizers honored local actor Peter Coyote, while on the final weekend director Denys Arcand was on hand for a special tribute that included a screening of his 1986 film, "Le Déclin de l'Empire Américan" (The Decline of the American Empire). The film is the prequel to Arcand's acclaimed new movie "Les Invasions Barbares" (The Barbarian Invasions), which closed the 2003 Mill Valley Film Festival.
Kids were well served at the Mill Valley Film Festival. A group of school children gathered daily during the week to see movies at the Rafael, while on the weekends a number of activities were organized. On the first weekend of the fest, a small group of 8-13 year olds were taught the essentials of documentary filmmaking during an all day workshop. A group of kids also gathered on the final weekend of the fest for an outdoor ice cream social hosted by the popular Cold Stone Creamery.