Once upon a time, Marin County’s lifestyle of laidback luxury -- hot tubs, peacock feathers, Stinson Beach, Bolinas weed, mountain hikes and mountain bikes, wine-soaked sunsets, teenage BMW drivers -- was a popular target for Tonight Show monologists and Holy City Zoo comics. Its flagship movie shindig, the Mill Valley Film Festival, was dismissed by San Franciscans as a Hollywood star-speckled excuse for spoiled housefraus to model their designer dresses and gems. The perception lingered that provocative films were avoided lest they prick the audience’s balloon of complacency.
Nowadays, San Francisco is the Northern California capital of nouveau riche self-indulgence. Meanwhile, population growth in Marin County and the wine country has made commuting on 101 (especially around San Rafael) a daily headache. Most interestingly, the Mill Valley Film Festival (October 2-12, 2014) has evolved into a prime showcase for social-issue filmmaking, with a commitment to premiering new work by Bay Area directors. Here are five choice cuts from the dozen or so titles by locals.
A Bridge to a Border
by Rob Nilsson
The East Bay’s prolific poet laureate of grit-streaked, would-be American dreamers has been given a seemingly permanent home at MVFF to present his latest film every fall. As MVFF’s de facto artist in residence, Nilsson is a powerful corrective -- with his dramas of working-class men and women raging against the machine’s cogs -- to the archaic notion that the festival’s core crowd is one per-centers. A thriller about a radical group bent on galvanizing the world’s attention through a domestic action, A Bridge to a Border expresses Nilsson’s lifelong populist convictions with greater-than-usual urgency.
In Plain Sight
by Erica Jordan
Best known as a director of ephemeral, beautifully shot and deeply personal narrative features made on a shoestring (In the Wake, Walls of Sand), Jordan shadows kindred spirit and portrait photographer Lisa Kristine in this rewarding one-hour documentary. Kristine’s work marries fine art and social justice to redefine photojournalism. Kristine embarks on a quest, with Jordan by her side, to photograph the enslaved prostitutes of Kolkata, India, and we are privileged to be witnesses.
Racing to Zero: In Pursuit of Zero Waste
by Christopher Beaver
This kinetic documentary unfolds, literally, in our own extended backyard. Venerable San Francisco filmmaker Chris Beaver (Dark Circle; Tulare, The Phantom Lake) takes us on a colorful, fast-paced tour of the various processes, entities and protagonists catalyzed by S.F.’s Department of the Environment to recycle, reuse and compost our garbage. By making the invisible visible, and showing tangible results, Racing to Zero serves as a gratifying prod to continue our individual efforts to reduce waste and global warming. God knows I need reassurance whenever I consider all the carbons emitted to fly Dick Cheney to a Sunday talk show or to make ice cubes for John Boehner’s highballs.
Plastic Man: The Artful Life of Jerry Ross Barrish
by William Farley
I first heard of Jerry Barrish in the late ‘80s when the Roxie showed his wonderfully adult and insightful indie feature Shuttlecock, starring the terrific Ann Block opposite a relatively unknown comedian named Will Durst. Many other people knew Barrish from his bail bonds office across the street from the Hall of Justice on Bryant. Believe it or not, these may be the two least interesting aspects of the man’s life, which has been defined in recent years by the multitude of whimsical, poignant sculptures he crafts from surplus auto parts. Barrish is one of a kind, a San Francisco character and a Bay Area treasure, and Bill Farley’s wide-ranging film captures the man in all his gruff glory.
States of Grace
by Helen S. Cohen and Mark Lipman
The beloved Dr. Grace Damman was seriously injured in a head-on collision on the Golden Gate Bridge in 2008. Helen Cohen and Mark Lipman diligently documented Damman’s recovery and reinvented life at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, where the good doctor reluctantly accepted a change of roles from caregiver to care recipient. It’s a complicated, arduous journey, with partner Fu Schroeder and their adolescent daughter onboard for the sometimes painful, sometimes acerbic, sometimes enlightened ride. Damman’s philosophical-spiritual grounding gives States of Grace an unmistakable Marin vibe. Some will consider that an enticement while others, stuck in the ‘80s, will nod with knowing condescension. As one-time Marin County resident Van Morrison sang, it’s not easy bein’ green.
The Mill Valley Film Festival runs October 2-12, 2014 at various Marin County locations. For tickets and information, visit mvff.com.