2007 Mendocino Film Festival

Robert Avila May 24, 2007

As the story goes, William Kasten, finding himself the lone survivor
of a shipwreck one day in 1850, scrambled ashore and built himself a log cabin on a stretch of Northern California coastline heretofore inhabited exclusively by Pomo Indians. The next year, Mendocino’s first white settler filed papers claiming said coastland for his own, naming it “Port of Good Hope.”

Kasten the castaway is a rather cinematic character to found a town that has long since had a thing for the movies, and vice versa, in addition to having an aloof allure as an artist enclave and well-preserved pioneer settlement a winding three hours north of San Francisco. Local historian Bruce Levene’s Mendocino and the Movies lists 17 silent films alone between 1916 and 1925, which followed the very first in 1904, a documentary on the then plentiful redwoods called “The Sequoia Sempervirens.” Later came the likes of East of Eden and “Murder She Wrote” among a host of features, TV shows, and commercials, but also a fair share of homegrown filmmakers, among them Monsoon’s Shanti Balsé. The latest phase in the area’s engagement with the cinematic imagination, and no doubt its logical extension, is the Mendocino Film Festival, which successfully concluded its second annual outing on Sunday.

The four-day festival (running May 17-20) offered more than 100 films in all, expanding nearly two-fold over its inaugural year, with an impressive emphasis on documentaries of mid and feature length, in addition to a selection of dramatic features, shorts, works by young filmmakers, and children’s animation (though with precious few foreign titles in any category). The festival also attracted around 60 filmmakers, including Guest of Honor Albert Maysles, dubbed “the dean of documentary filmmakers” by the New York Times, and with his brother David (who died in 1987) a foundational figure in the direct cinema movement. The filmmakers joined a general and what seemed a largely local throng of film enthusiasts descending on the quiet, picturesque little town, itself reminiscent of a film set sitting astride Mendocino Bay, offering streets with wooden sidewalks and posh tourist shops sporting Western-style 19th-century facades, as well as rustic residential lanes irregularly taken up with wooden water towers, steepled churches and quaintly individualistic homes.

Mendocino Film Festival placed due emphasis on local filmmakers with a special program called Reel Mendo, highlighting seven short and mid-length films, including a short documentary by Shanti Balsé on “The Making of Monsoon.” Ever conscious of building on a local legacy of film production, MFF even offered a special screening of Summer of ’42, the 1971 coming-of-ager famously set in Mendocino, and followed it with a bout of reminiscing among locals who recalled the shoot’s pleasant disruption of routine.

Another film in the Reel Mendo program, K Rudin’s “Viva Judi Bari,” underscored a simultaneous emphasis throughout the festival on social-issue docs linking local and global themes. In fact, “Viva Judi Bari” turned out to be one of two films this year dealing with the late Earth First! organizer, notoriously accused by the authorities of responsibility in the near-fatal bombing of her car in 1990. The other, Bernadine Mellis’s debut feature-length documentary “The Forest for the Trees: Judi Bari vs. the FBI” (2006), gave audiences a fascinating insider’s perspective on the 12-year-long suit that, among others, Bari and civil rights lawyer Dennis Cunningham (the filmmaker’s father) successfully brought against the FBI and Oakland Police. Mellis, who was on hand at the packed screening, confessed to being a little nervous presenting the film in an area that knew Bari and the times firsthand (as Rudin stood nearby, merrily taping her colleague’s remarks with a small digital camera). Judging by the enthusiastic response to the film, she needn’t have worried.

Rudin’s short and Mellis’s feature-length work together highlighted the crucial environmental and political history of the intervening century since 1904’s “The Sequoia Sempervirens” was made on land owned by a lumber company. But with Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold’s humorous yet hard-hitting “Everything’s Cool” (2006), MFF also brought such politically and environmentally focused narratives up to date and into wider focus, spotlighting the current nationwide struggle against oil-industry-financed obfuscations of the scientific record on global warming.

Esteemed actor, producer, and activist Danny Glover was recipient of the festival’s 2007 Rogue Wave Award, dedicated to industry professionals who channel their talents and resources to socially conscientious ends. Although forced to cancel his appearance last-minute owing to a film shoot abroad, there was still plenty of opportunity for discussion of the intersections of film and politics over the course of the long weekend. Indeed, to the extent that festivals continue to be venues for political as well as cultural and artistic dialogue, MFF did not disappoint.

The panel, “Filmmaking, Activism, and Distribution,” for instance, drew a modest-sized but enthusiastic crowd to hear the thoughts and experiences of Mellis, Chris Pilaro (co-producer, “Everything’s Cool”) and veteran dramatic and documentary director-producer Chuck Braverman (whose social-issue mid-length docs “A Revolving Door” (2006) and “Homeless in Paradise” (2004), both made with wife Marilyn Braverman, screened at the festival). Moderated by Festival Director Pat Ferrero, the wide-ranging discussion gave the audience, comprised in good part of practicing filmmakers and activists, the benefit of the panel’s varied experience in joining cinema to social issues and movements. Pilaro spoke eloquently at one point on utilizing film fests as a platform for activism, while Braverman spoke for an old-school model of persuasion through narrative, and Mellis explained the progressive networks she used as a first-time filmmaker with minimal resources. “The name of the game is reinvention,” noted Ferrero (herself a documentary filmmaker, teacher, and active member of the independent distribution cooperative New Day Films), adding, “these people are on the cutting edge of what to do next.”

While less overtly topical, two highly personal and idiosyncratic mid-length docs proved easily as powerful in their own terms as anything in the festival. Mark Lipman’s “Father’s Day” (2003) investigates with a tentative obsession and a graceful, meditative eye the troubled life of the filmmaker’s father, who died when Lipman was 17. “Downpour Resurfacing,” which screened in the same program with “Father’s Day,” is Frances Nkara’s profile of Buddhist teacher and psychiatrist Robert Hall, who recounts his lifelong recovery of and from a scarring childhood trauma. As different as they are from one another, both films brilliantly blend the most personal of narratives with breathtaking montage and image-making to memorably and movingly convey underlying, universal truths.

Meanwhile, festival honoree Albert Maysles presided at screenings of “The Beales of Grey Gardens” (the 2006 release comprised of additional footage shot by Albert and his late brother David for their classic 1975 portrait of Little Edie and her mother Edith, the eccentric relations of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who have seen inspired a Broadway musical and an upcoming feature film with Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore) and “The Beatles: The First US Visit” (Apple’s 1991 re-working of the Maysles’ 1964 documentary “What’s Happening: The Beatles in the USA,” which inserts the Ed Sullivan Show performances into the extraordinarily candid document that clearly fed the imagination of “Hard Day’s Night” director Richard Lester). Between Beales and Beatles, Mayslemania was in the air, and the gregarious elderly but ever-active filmmaker drank it in, sitting in conversation with SF Film Commissioner and friend Jim McCullough, and eagerly fielding questions from the adoring audience here and at each of the two screenings.

The love fest even drew a teasing suggestion from the filmmaker that he return next year with some rare and unreleased gems from his personal collection. The response was predictably giddy. It was clear enough by then that, if everyone had their way, neither Maysles, the audience, or the festival was likely to disappear anytime soon.