May signals the arrival of the summer blockbuster movie season, and if you listen closely you’ll make out the faint echo of brain cells dying in multiplexes across the land. Several antidotes come to mind, including the DocLands Documentary Film Festival, running May 3-6 at venues in San Rafael (at the Smith Rafael Film Center) and Mill Valley (CineArts Sequoia). Programmed and presented by the California Film Institute, the parent organization of the Mill Valley Film Festival, DocLands encompasses a broad swath of social-issues films, environmental expeditions and quirky portraits of extraordinarily unique individuals.
Connie Field, the East Bay force of nature who nearly a decade ago produced and directed a seven-part history of the international crusade to end apartheid in South Africa, premieres Have You Heard from Johannesburg: Oliver Tambo (May 6) to commemorate the past year’s centennial of the ANC leader’s birth. Inspiring, infuriating and revelatory, Field’s film is the epitome of essential viewing.
The chunk of history that Gregg Gibbs unearths in Olompali: A Hippie Odyssey (May 6) begins with the magnetic force of the Summer of Love, which attracted young people from around the country to San Francisco. The doc focuses on a particularly idealistic group who turned on, dropped out, and established a commune 30 miles north of the city. Olompali is narrated by Peter Coyote (who else?), who lived in a North Bay commune himself for a pivotal part of the '60s and has an appreciation for the euphoria and frustrations of group living.
A touching entry in the subgenre of lost-movie documentaries, Saving Brinton (May 6) spotlights a rural Iowa collector who found a long-untouched bin of reels and memorabilia in a farmhouse. This fellow, Michael Zahs, recognized the historical and artistic value of the films, but he became obsessed instead with the legacy of the itinerant 19th century businessman who introduced these movies to Midwestern farmers and townies. William Brinton was that man, and he has a movie named for him now.