ART hound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

The 40th Mill Valley Film Festival opens Thursday—¡Viva El Cine! features prize-winning Latin American and Spanish language cinema

Janis Plotkin, MVFF senior programmer, curated the festival’s ¡Viva El Cine! series—eight prizewinning Latin American and Spanish language films with stories from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, and the US.  ¡Viva El Cine! is in its 4th season and MVFF40 marks Janis’ 14th season with MVFF. MVFF40 is Oct 5-15, 2017. Image: Geneva Anderson

The fortieth edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF 40) gears up this evening with three big opening night films–Joe Wright’s, Darkest Hour, intense Churchill drama; Jason Wise’s Wait for Your Laugh, a soulful profile of comedian Rose Marie; and Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent, an astounding animated portrait of Vincent van Gogh.  Starting Friday and running for the next 10 days, MVFF40 will offer an exciting and eclectic line up of the very best in America independent and world cinema, with more than 200 filmmakers in attendance.  There are several special seminars, panels and musical performances as well.  For me, the biggest draw is the world cinema and some 50 countries are represented this year.  Experiencing the world from someone else’s point of view can be life changing and the exceptional storytelling that characterizes MVFF’s foreign lineup always tends to be full of unexpected twists.

Recently, I spoke with senior programmer Janis Plotkin who curated the festival’s ¡Viva El Cine! programming—eight prizewinning Latin American and Spanish language films with stories from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, and the US.  At MVFF, I often find myself in a theater with Janis and her film introductions are always packed with insight and a pure passion for cinema.  I’ve come to consider her as my MVFF person–if she’s in the room, I’m probably going to love the film.  MVFF40 marks Janis’ 14th season with MVFF.  From 1982 through 2002, she was the executive artistic director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and was renowned for showing great films and building community.  When I learned that Janis programmed this influential Latin American film series, I couldn’t wait to discuss it with her.

¡Viva El Cine! launched in 2014 and has continued to grow in scope and attendees.  In 2016,  at MVFF39, more than 4,000 patrons attended screenings, which included a series of new works from Mexico as well as seminal films from Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Spain—and a very special musical performance by the Alejandro Escovedo Trio at the Sweetwater Music Hall as part of the MVFF Music program.

Chilean director Marcela Said’s Los Perros is set in post-Pinochet era Chile and is galvanized by Antonia Zegers’ (El Club, MVFF2015) performance as Marina, a wealthy forty-something equestrian whose riding instructor is charged with human rights abuses stemming from the Pinochet era. The film thrillingly tackles issues of class, power, and historical culpability.   Los Perros is also part of the festival’s Mind the Gap Initiative which promotes female filmmakers and the portrayal of strong leading female characters in film.. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  What is special about ¡Viva El Cine! and how did it get its start?

Janis Plotkin:  Four years ago, we received a grant from the Marin Community Fund to support programming efforts to reach out to Marin’s Spanish speaking community.  At that time, Spanish speaking people were one of the largest growing groups in the county and this was our response.  We also did some community organizing by bringing together a group of community advisors to see what type of films the community was interested in and to help get the word out.  Last year, we had Mexican actor, director and producer, Gael García Bernal visiting with two of his films and that was a kind of benchmark in terms of aspiration.  We sold out all those shows and it was very satisfying for us and for the audience.

This year’s films reflect the vitality and high quality of the Latin American film world which is producing really excellent work on both the artistic and technical sides.  We have new films from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, Spain and Cuba.

Tension and apprehension flow like a river in the drama El Amparo, based on a 1988 incident on the Venezuela/Colombia border, where two men were accused in the disappearance of 12 of their fellow fisherman. In this debut feature, Venezuelan director Rober Calzadilla focuses his lens on tenderness and vulnerability as a weapon. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  The storytelling is amazing too. You picked some fine examples.

Janis Plotkin:  I tend to enjoy most world cinema because I feel these films aren’t under the same pressures that US films are for commercial viability.  They are made for the art of film and yet the story telling is very good, with historical or present day issues impacting all social strata.  Rober Calzadilla’s El Amparo, from Venezuela, for example, is done with non professional actors and tells a true story of what happened when 12 fisherman disappeared in 1988 and it’s from the point of view of the victims.  This a film full of dignity, truth telling and fighting for justice.   I would rather see and hear it from their point of view, the point of view of the people, rather than a sensationalized version of the government actions.  We don’t often get to hear stories like this, so this was one of the first films I looked for the series.

ARThound:  When do you start preparing for MVFF and for this series?

Janis Plotkin:  Officially, I start on May 1, but I went to the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) with Zoe (Elton) in February and saw Vazante and A Fantastic Woman and that was how it began.  We also do a lot of research with interns who scour every country’s national cinema and we try to find the best films.  It’s a lot of watching and eliminating. We have weekly meetings where we present and discuss films and we’re looking to have a balance of themes as well as making sure that we have 50/50 by 2020.  In ¡Viva El Cine!,  you’ll see we have lots of talented women.

Esteban is Cuban director Jonal Cosculluela´s debut film. It is an intimate drama about a ten-year-old boy who discovers his musical talent and falls for the piano. This is a story about dreams, about not quitting, about doing something every day to achieve your goals. Much of the music in the film is by the legendary Chucho Valdés. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  Special guests really make a film come alive.  Who are you bringing in this year?

Janis Plotkin:  This year, we are expecting Jonal Cosculluela, from Havana, the director of Esteban, his first feature film.  All screenings of this film are at rush and we’ve got educational screenings planned too, so I am very excited about this. We just heard that the US embassy’s staff in Havana was being cut by 50 percent and we still don’t know how that will impact Jonal’s visa interview, which was delayed initially by hurricane Irma.  Barring these political and weather-related issues, we hope to see him here.   This is a very special story about a child who basically has no resources but he is passionate about playing the piano and he has real talent and his persistence wins over his teacher and his family.   We’ve also got Santiago Rizzo and the cast of Quest attending.

ARThound:  I saw Esteban last December in Havana at the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema and Reynaldo Guanchein, who is nine and plays the child prodigy, Esteban, gave an amazing performance.  He took on the entire project with just three month’s training in acting. There’s something so special about children who can play the part of a child in very precarious circumstances and yet what shines through is their beautiful spirit and innocence.

Janis Plotkin:  We also have some amazing child actors in Summer of 1993, Spanish director Carla Simón’s feature debut film set in Spain’s Catalan region.   This film is from the point of view of an orphaned little girl who has lost both of her parents.  We assume it’s from drug use and AID’s-related but it’s never made clear.  The story deals with how she comes to adjust to a new life while living with her aunt and uncle and her realization that her life has changed forever.  It’s also about her relationship with her three-year-old cousin.  Carla Simón is known for her ability to work with children and these three and six-year-olds are quite spontaneous and natural.  The film received the first best film award in Berlin and went on to win many awards.

ARThound:   I have discovered from Havana that there is an entire genre of Latin American films that reflect back on the atrocities of past regimes as a form of truth-telling, honoring victims and societal healing.

Janis Plotkin:  Los Perros reflects on the post-Pinochet era and how the next generation either is or is not dealing with it.  This 40ish woman (Antonia Zegers) who comes from privilege did not know that her father was involved in the anti-Pinochet actions and she has a fascination with her older riding teacher who turns out to be one of the generals who was in charge of disposing of pro-Pinochet leftists.   It’s really about her specific emptiness, a specific type of apathy and denial and what a privileged life in Chile looks like.  She’s so spoiled and without empathy for what happened.  Antonia Zegers is the actress who was in El Club who played the housekeeper and nun who stole babies and she is very icey here too.

ARThound:  The segment also introduces us to Latin stars who really aren’t on our radar like Chilean actress Paulina Garcia (Gloria, MVFF 2013) who stars in The Desert Bride.

Janis Plotkin:  The Desert Bride is Argentinean directors Cecilia Atan and Valeria Pivato’s first feature.  It was launched at Cannes to very favorable reviews and is anchored by Garcia’s performance.  She was the main character in Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria (2013), where she played a lonely and sympathetic divorcee, and she won the Berlinale’s best actress prize.  In The Desert Bride, her character— a housekeeper—is also at the center of everything and she pulls off a subtle performance.   After a rather closed and cloistered life as a housekeeper, she goes on a trip to another part of the country.  Through small moments and encounters that she has on her way, she starts to open up and her transition mirrors the dessert and mountainous landscape of rural Western Argentina that she is traveling across.

Daniela Vega plays Marina, the transgender heroine of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. Marina is young, beautiful, enigmatic, and plunged into a precarious situation after her middle-aged boyfriend dies unexpectedly in her company. As she struggles with her own grief, social prejudice and ostracism, she must summon her own inner strength to survive. Image: courtesy MVFF

This year, we have another incredible performance by Daniela Vega, a Chilean transgender actress in her breakthrough role in in A Fantastic Woman.  This is Sebastián Lelio’s latest film and it is getting lots of attention.  In comparison to The Danish Girl (MVFF38), where we had Eddie Redman— a man playing a male transgender who transitions to a woman—here we actually have a transgender actress playing herself.  Her performance actually walks through the kind of walls that she faces with the family of her beloved who dies suddenly and his family who won’t let her grieve.  It’s how she finds her dignity in fighting them all the way through .  Daniela Vega gives an outstanding performance and the script itself won a prize in Berlin.

Daniela Thomas’ period drama, Vazante, is set in 1821, when Brazil was on the verge of independence from Portugal. Brazil was one of the last countries to officially abolish slavery in 1888 and Vazante relives the tale of a wealthy slaveholder who marries his young niece.  Photographed in black and white, the film was shot on rugged locations in the craggy and wild Diamantina Mountains. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound: You have what sounds like an amazing Brazilian period drama in Vazante.

Janis Plotkin:  Vazante is a real work of art and tells a transitional story of Brazil in the death throes of colonialism and the desperate efforts of a wealthy plantation owner to sire a child after his wife and baby die in childbirth.  He marries his 12-year-old niece and the story is about what happens and it’s also a racial story of the plantation owner’s relationship to the slaves that work on his plantation.   It’s shot in black and white and very naturalistic.   Daniela Thomas, the director, was a protégée of the great Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (Central Station (1988), Motorcycle Diaries (2004)) and has been engaged in the best of Brazilian cinema and this is her first outing as a director.  This is the kind of film that needs to be seen on a big screen.

Filmmaker Santiago Rizzo and most of the cast of Quest will attend the film’s three screenings at MVFF40. Quest is set in 1995 Berkeley and tells Rizzo’s own heart-breaking and life-affirming story of his relationship with a teacher who took such an interest him that Rizzo’s life took an completely unexpected course.  Gregory Kasyan, above, plays Rizzo, his first lead role in a feature film.  Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  Quest, produced by Santiago Rizzo does not have Latin American theme; it is not in Spanish; and he is living in the US.  Why is it in this series?

Janis Plotkin:   We like to include films that are produced in the U.S. that are somehow relevant to Latinos’ experiences here.  Last year, we screened Rodrigo Reyes’ Lupe Under the Sun, which was set in Modesto and used migrant workers to tell a story about life in the fields of the Central Valley.   Quest is a new American indie film by Los Angeles-based Santiago Rizzo that is set in Berkeley in 1995.  Rizzo is Argentinean.  He was raised in Berkeley and went to Berkeley Middle School.  This film tells his own story and the story of a teacher who mentored him and basically saved his life, enabling him as a high school student who was fast on his way jail to instead becoming a such a good student that he got into Stanford.  When he graduated from Stanford, he went on to become a very successful hedge fund manager.  He made a commitment to himself and to his teacher to tell the story.  This Bay Area set film is the end result.  I was very moved by all aspects of it.   Rizzo and most of the cast will attend and that will make for a very exciting program.

ARThound:  Stepping outside of ¡Viva El Cine!, what are the highlights of MVFF40?

Janis Plotkin:  MVFF is operating on all cylinders: it has its upper crust strata of big films that are going to be presented in 2017-18 but it’s got this depth of inquiry that’s going on with its Mind the Gap program which looks at the intersection of women in film and women in tech and compares the experience of female directors to those of leaders in tech.  To me, that’s spectacular and very important.

In terms of films, Guillermo del Toro’s film, The Shape of Water, just won the Golden Lion at Venice and should be a huge winner at the Oscars.   On the big picture level, this is the one to see—the quality of his film-making and humor which is so satirical about the Cold War era, CIA operations and politics.  There’s also the whole magical aspect of a creature that a deaf woman falls in love with and their relationship, so it’s a love story.  It’s very special.

MVFF40 details:

MVFF 40 runs October 5-15, 2017.  Main venues this year include: CinéArts@Sequoia (Mill Valley), Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center (San Rafael), Lark Theatre (Larkspur), and Cinema Corte Madera.

¡Viva El Cine! programming

Full festival schedule

General Public tickets during the festival available online (with convenience fees of $3.75 per order) or in person (no fee) at Smith Rafael Film Center Box Office (1114 Fourth Street, San Rafael) or Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, 85 Throckmorton Ave.)  Tickets will be available 1 hour before the first screening of the day to 15 minutes after the last show starts.  Rush tickets:  rush line forms outside each venue roughly 1 hour before show time.  Rush tickets are sold on a first come, first sold basis roughly 15 minutes before show time.  Patrons have a 90% chance of getting into a show by using the rush line.

Lines during the festival:  CFI (California Film Institute) Passholders get first dibs in lines in order of their pass status. Premier Patron, Director’s Circle, Gold Star.  Non-pass holding CFI members and general public enter the theaters last.

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October 5, 2017 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment