In a festival that eschews a true set of awards, the curation of the tributes and spotlight events it holds is probably the best lens by which to understand just where its heart lies. When it comes to the Mill Valley Film Festival, which is holding its 40th gathering this year just north of San Francisco, the careful curation of its lineup of honorees and spotlight names is exactly that: a focus on unique aspects of American life, culture and society — with a particular diverse angle.
“We really try to gauge what’s happening in any given year, and hand out tributes as lifetime honors and spotlights that focus on a particular point in a person’s career,” says MVFF director of programming Zoë Elton.
“It’s obviously important for any festival to present their audience with the most interesting voices out there [and] present a range of different points of view,” says Dee Rees, director of “Mudbound,” who will be one of the filmmakers receiving a spotlight honor this year.
She’s in good company: along with Rees, Spotlight honors, which consist of screenings and in-person conversations along with the award presentation, this year are going to Greta Gerwig, director-writer of “Lady Bird” and “Breathe” star Andrew Garfield. Tributes, meanwhile, are being handed out to “The Big Sick’s” Holly Hunter; Kristin Scott Thomas, star of opening-night film “Darkest Hour”; longtime festival attendee and supporter Sean Penn; and director Todd Haynes, whose “Wonderstruck” will make its California premiere at the festival.
“I’ve only ever been to the Mill Valley Film Festival once before, but it was an event I will never forget,” Haynes says.
It was in 2007, the year the festival presented Haynes’ Bob Dylan film “I’m Not There,” which was followed by a Dylan-tribute concert with a number of musicians, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Bob Weir and Chris Isaak.
“It was such a trip for me to meet Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and to share the film with this super-engaged, but down-to-earth audience at Mill Valley,” Haynes says.
There is a certain unity that threads through the honorees and their films this year; at least, in a way they all strike different chords in terms of storytelling and approach. Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” jumps between time periods to focus on two young people seeking long-lost family members and idols. “The Big Sick” examines cultural differences and the way they can cause problems in romantic relationships, while Gerwig’s autobiographical “Lady Bird” is about young womanhood in turn-of-the-century Sacramento.
Scott Thomas and Garfield are outliers of a sort in that their films are focused on British history and history-makers. But both subjects of their films – Winston Churchill and a man paralyzed by polio — emphasize a blend of stiff-upper-lip-ness with true Yankee adaptability, and that also makes it feel like a natural fit.
Meanwhile, Rees’ “Mudbound” is a historical look at Jim Crow laws in Mississippi, and, as she notes, it’s also about much more than that: “’Mudbound’ is about not being able to come home,” she says. “About how family can drown you; about how we are all mired together in the muck of our own dysfunctional system.”
Having diversity that covers not just budget, but subject matter and the demographics of the filmmaker is what makes MVFF so appealing to those in the business as well as audiences.
“We felt we had to come out and say, ‘This is what we do,’” says Elton. “We felt the more public we became with the issues we were addressing, the more we could provoke conversations.”