The 43rd iteration of the Mill Valley Film Festival may not look as it has in previous years due to COVID-19 with many of its sections navigating online, but that in no way detracts from what the fest, running Oct. 8-18, will and already has accomplished on the artistic front. One of Mill Valley’s most notable endeavors: 57% of films screening in the San Francisco Bay Area fest are directed by women, a number that goes above and beyond its intended goal of reaching the 50% mark by 2020.
“We are doing what we set out to do with the fest’s gender equity Mind the Gap initiative,” says Mark Fishkin, MVFF founder and executive director of the California Film Institute.
“When you look at the films screening this year, from ‘Herself,’ directed by Phyllida Lloyd, to ‘Nomadland,’ directed by Chloé Zhou, there is just some miraculous work being done by women. Look at ‘Spring Blossom,’ actor- writer-director Suzanne Lindon’s feature debut. What a remarkable film from such a young, first-time director. We got a terrific terrific lineup, it’s a really strong schedule of films and that’s what makes it so satisfying. It’s the most challenging fest we’ve ever done and yet it feels so good.”
Along with its roster of buzzy film screenings, MVFF will again showcase Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch, feting the selected scribes in an online panel discussion. The fest will also honor Charlie Kaufman, writer and director of Netflix’s enigmatic psychological drama “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” and this year’s recipient of Variety’s Creative Impact in Screenwriting Award.
“There’s lots of food there for thought,” says Kaufman of the film. “I’m always interested in defying expectations or pushing something. It’s new for me so consequently it will probably be new for people watching it.”
Mill Valley festival’s expansive slate, which includes its Doclands documentary section, also features a bevy of online (many of them pre-taped) spotlights and tributes to such high-profile actors, screenwriters and filmmakers as Judi Dench (“Blithe Spirit”), Delroy Lindo (“Da 5 Bloods”) and Aaron Sorkin (“The Trial of the Chicago 7”).
Other MVFF Award recipients include Kate Winslet (“Ammonite”); Viola Davis (Mind the Gap Tribute Award); Regina King (“One Night in Miami”); and Clare Dunn, who wrote and stars in “Herself,” Lloyd’s Dublin-set drama about an abused wife and mother who builds her own house.
“When I first saw Clare [Dunn] on screen in ‘Herself,’ I remember thinking, where did this woman come from? She is amazing,” says Fishkin. “An actress like that just doesn’t come around every day. I saw the film at Sundance and knew right then that we needed to honor this film and this performance.”
Fishkin is also committed to keeping the spirit of community involvement alive. While indoor theaters aren’t an option, MVFF is presenting a series of outdoor drive-in movie nights at Lagoon Park-Marin Center in San Rafael, starting with an opening-night screening of “Blithe Spirit” and culminating in an Oct. 17 closing-night showing of Frank Marshall’s new documentary “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.”
“I think of bringing together the community as almost like a cumulative process,” says Fishkin. “No, we can’t have wine and hors d’oeuvres and the parties, but it’s about implementing all of these incremental touches. Mostly, it’s about the community’s passion for film and the excitement and us fulfilling that need. The drive-in is our venue and it serves the festival, and it does so very well. Look, I’ve built theaters that are inordinately expensive and at Mill Valley we do that because we believe in the theatrical experience. Maybe we can’t have what we’ve had in the past, but we can have this and, for now, this is enough.”