Nestled among the redwoods and just a half-hour from San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge, the Mill Valley Film Festival offers the best of two worlds — urban sophistication and small-town beauty, both of which contribute to an atmosphere that is at once film-savvy and yet relaxed.
Since its inception in 1978, the fest has fostered both of these attributes with a strong slate of international features that screen for hungry audiences. The event’s founding mandate was to bring films to Mill Valley that wouldn’t screen there otherwise, and the impact certainly has been felt.
As Zoe Elton, director of programming, explains, “That mandate has had very palpable results — we’ve seen that the films that play here first do very well when they are distributed here theatrically, and the market for international films in Marin County has blossomed.”
The festival also is known for its interest in video art and new media, as well as in digital technology — long before the digital hype started.
“In 1981, we did a program on digital cinema,” Elton says, “and I think Mill Valley has been unique in its interest in the relationship between innovative technologies and feature filmmaking. And this only makes sense — we’ve grown up with George Lucas, who is just down the street, and of course Francis Ford Coppola was one of the first people to work very visibly with video and film.”
The highlight of this year’s festival is its new venue, the San Rafael Film Center, which opened in April.
“The center is a renovated art deco theater,” Elton explains. “At a time when there is such a proliferation of festivals, we felt it was important to have a permanent venue that could screen films year round.”
Two theaters with state-of-the-art sound and seating were installed in the center, located on San Rafael’s main street. An ambitious program of specialty films, docus, retrospectives and foreign fare will play every night, and several other festivals will use the facility.
Highlights of the upcoming fest (Oct. 7-17) will include a tribute to Australian director Gillian Armstrong and, in a continuing commitment to African cinema, the screening of Mweze Ngangura’s “ID.”