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This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival marks the much-anticipated return of movies, and audiences, to theaters, but the Northern California event founded in 1977 retains some lingering influences of the pandemic, with both in-person and online viewing options. With the Delta variant raging, the festival’s founder and director Mark Fishkin notes that the logistics for the fest’s hybrid-style return are even more challenging than before.

“This year everything has been changing so rapidly it has caused a lot of sleepless nights,” he says.

But the fest, which runs Oct. 7-17, also features a bevy of screenings and events that stand to make the Bay Area gathering one of its most hotly anticipated. Joe Wright’s “Cyrano” will bow opening night, with Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” closing the fest. Mike Mill’s “C’mon C’mon” is the centerpiece feature film. The fest will also spotlight Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty,” “The Hand of God”), who will also receive Variety’s Creative Impact in Screenwriting award (see story, following page) at a brunch and discussion on Oct. 17. Variety’s Malina Saval will moderate the discussion, along with a panel discussion featuring Variety’s 10 Screenwriters to Watch, celebrating a select group of up-and-coming film scribes.

The fest will also present Spotlight Awards to San Francisco native Simon Rex, who stars in Sean Baker’s “Red Rocket”; Maggie Gyllenhaal, who wrote and directed “The Lost Daughter,” based on Elena Ferrante’s novel; and Denis Villeneuve, whose adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction novel “Dune” will screen at the fest.

“Seeing a movie with a group of people who are receiving the emotions and impact all together is deeply touching, and I missed it more than I realized,” Villeneuve says. “A film has to stand on its own but having the creative people here to discuss it makes for a fascinating experience,” Fishkin says. “And it puts the ‘festive’ back into festival.”

The fest will also honor Kenneth Branagh with the Mill Valley Film Festival Award for his 1960s coming-of-age drama “Belfast.” Jane Campion, whose 1920s Montana-set Western “Power of the Dog” screens at the fest, will receive the Mind the Gap Award-Innovative Artist.

Launched in 2015, the Mind the Gap gender equity initiative was created with the goal of reaching 50% of women directors at the festival by 2020. In 2016, 36% of the festival’s films were directed by women; last year the number had reached 57%.

“Tracking these numbers is a tangible way of showing what we as a festival do,” says Zoe Elton, MVFF director of programming. They are now tracking women producers, DPs, editors and screenwriters to ensure forward progress. “We can model this and show you can as curators get this done.”

This year, the program will honor Nana Mensah, director of “Queen of Glory,” with the inaugural $10,000 Mind the Gap Creation prize.

“We were looking at ways to support women filmmakers and money is just such a huge issue,” Elton says. “Getting plugged into the world of money is really difficult. These women need space and time to get their work made and the money will help.”

Other screenings include actor-turned-director Rebecca Hall’s “Passing” (producer Nina Yang Bongiovi will receive a Mind the Gap Award), Sylvie Ohayon’s “Haute Couture” and director Amitabh Reza Chowdhury’s drama “Rickshaw Girl,” the first Bangladesh-Germany-U.S. co-production to screen at the Mill Valley fest.

“‘Rickshaw Girl’ is a vibrant and lovely film,” Fishkin says of the adaptation from the YA novel penned by Bay Area resident Mitali Perkins. Producer Eric J. Adams is also a Northern California native.

Elton says it’s not where filmgoers are screening movies, but that they continue to have the opportunity to watch them regardless of where that might be. This is the core spirit of Mill Valley, being as inclusive as possible, Elton says, adding that the pandemic has changed the rules, and hybrid options remain an essential component of the festival circuit, which Elton says is “really exciting.”

It’s all about striking a balance, and Mill Valley is openly embracing the change.

“We are in a new trajectory for film as a whole and how we receive stories,” Elton says. “We are in the next phase of seeing what a festival is and can be.”