New cinema is, as always, the centerpiece of the Mill Valley Film Festival, which celebrates its 41st iteration Oct. 4-14 in and around the Marin County city. This year’s lineup of narrative and documentary films includes awards-season hopefuls, select arthouse pics and classic titles from years past.
Opening the fest are two powerhouse dramas — Peter Farrelly’s “Green Book,” with Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, and Matthew Heineman’s “A Private War,” with Rosamund Pike — both screening Oct. 4, with Farrelly, Ali, Pike and Heineman in attendance. On Oct. 8, Alfonso Cuaron will appear at the fest to screen his latest work, “Roma,” fresh from its Golden Lion win at Venice.
But there’s another presence at MVFF that goes beyond fresh new features: political and social conscience. An awareness of past and present issues has always been in the fabric of filmmaking, but with change occurring almost daily in regard to gender, class, economics and equality in America and abroad, this year’s lineup may seem like a referendum on the state of the global union.
Race relations is the primary focus in Farrelly’s “Green Book,” George Tillman Jr.’s “The Hate U Give” and Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” while race and economic class are examined in a multimedia presentation directed by Finn Taylor called “Kannapolis: A Moving Portrait.”
“Kannapolis,” helmed by H. Lee Waters, is a famed 1941 documentary about the town of Kannapolis, N.C., during the Great Depression, featuring silent film clips. At its Mill Valley screening and presentation on Oct. 10, the film will be accompanied by music performed by violinist-vocalist Jenny Scheinman, guitarist Robbie Fulks and multi-instrumentalist Robbie Gjersoe.
The immigration debate is showcased in Richard Levien’s “Collisions,” Ioana Uricaru’s “Lemonade” and Christian Petzold’s “Transit.” A middle-class childhood in Mexico City is at the forefront of Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical “Roma,” while drug addiction and the unbreakable bonds of paternal love are front and center in Felix van Groeningen’s “Beautiful Boy,” starring Steve Carell. “Cold War,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s tortured romance set in Eastern Europe during the politically tumultuous 1950s will screen as part of a tribute to the Polish filmmaker.
“Art historians would say that these are recurring themes and artists and filmmakers have always dealt with them,” says festival executive director Mark Fishkin about the emphasis on hot-bed issues in this year’s lineup. “But it feels different to me. I think it’s more prevalent, and film in itself has become more prevalent, and filmmakers generally have this kind of empathy [toward social and political topics].”
That empathy has also been a component of MVFF’s identity since its inception in 1977, and why the festival is held in such high regard by filmmakers.
“Mill Valley is very important to independent filmmakers,” says Jennifer Hou Kwong, whose documentary “Art Paul of Playboy: The Man Behind the Bunny” looks at the radical mind behind the graphic designer who designed Playboy magazine for 30 years.
“[The fest] provides a great platform to showcase films like ours to a broader audience, and gives them credibility and recognition,” she says. “Many independent films wouldn’t have the opportunity to have their voices heard and creativity shown without such film festivals.”
The filmmakers whose works are featured in this year’s lineup are keenly aware that for some viewers and critics, political statement may feel out of place with a medium regarded largely as entertainment. For others, including Levien, conscience is “one of the main jobs” of the art form.
“Film in particular has the unique capability to put the audience inside the lives and experiences of others,” says Levien. “In ‘Collisions,’ I’m trying to present a realistic portrait for what it’s like for one family to go through separation because of immigration enforcement, so that the audience gets a chance to experience that for themselves, rather than just reading headlines or looking at statistics.”
“The current domestic and international climate not only warrants such focus, but also deems it crucial for film to explore the concerns of the day and its important function,” adds Kwong.
For Oakland native Taylor, the confluence of support for politically and socially conscious fare and film projects that step out of traditional formats such as “Kannapolis,” is what makes MVFF a crucial destination for directors, producers and talent.
“‘Kannapolis’ is so expensive to put on, because we’re flying out musicians and sound people, so it’s only been shown at larger venues. But Mill Valley, Fishkin and director of programming Zoe Elton worked hard and creatively to make it happen. Otherwise, I don’t think this film would have been seen in my hometown of the Bay Area.”
“Our subject matter is so deep,” says Fishkin. “Something like ‘Capernaum,’ which is being compared to ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ or films with non-professional actors like ‘Birds of Passage,’ will be something that you don’t experience daily. Immerse yourself and choose some diverse subject matter.”