ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

5 films from the 43rd Mill Valley Film Festival you can screen from home, starting Thursday evening

MVFF43 honors actor and producer Viola Davis with its Mind the Gap Award: Actor of the Year in an online conversation with MVFF Director of Programming Zoë Elton and special guest George C. Wolfe. The event can be streamed from October 10-18.   Davis is the first Black woman to attain acting’s great trifecta: two Tony Awards, for Fences and King Hedley II; an Oscar®, also for Fences; and an Emmy® for How to Get Away with Murder.  Her dedication to speaking out with eloquence and wisdom on issues of equality, especially for women and Black women, has established her as one of the great performers and spokespeople of our time. MVFF43 is October 8-18, 2020. 

Grab your popcorn and snuggle in. A pandemic version of the 43rd edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF43) kicks off Thursday evening with drive-in and online programming. In MVFF style, opening night offers a drive-in world premiere screening of “Blithe Spirit,” Edward Hall’s new adaptation of Noël Coward’s 1941 theatrical hit starring Dame Judi Dench as the inept spiritualist Madame Arcati. The locale is Lagoon Park in Marin Civic Center, freshly outfitted with a gigantic studio-grade screen. 

Much of this year’s festival is virtual, with five opening night choices to stream: the US premiere of Judith Ehrlich’s “The Boys Who Said No!;” the California premieres of Argentinian director Ariel Winograd’s “The Heist of the Century,” Mongolian Director Byambasuren Davaa’s “Veins of the World,” American director Alexandre Rockwell’s “Sweet Thing,” and American director David Garrett Byars “Public Trust”.  In all, MVFF43 offers 11 full days of online programming and 10 nights of drive-in screenings.  It presents 144 films, both shorts and features, from 38 countries. It runs through Sunday, October 18 with its final drive in screening, “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” on Saturday, October 17. 

The acclaimed festival runs in tandem with DocLands, the California Film Institute’s annual documentary film festival which was postponed from May due to Covid. Despite the Covid curveball, MVFF has held on to its identity— supporting innovative film, local filmmakers and showcasing likely Oscar contenders that have already premiered at the famed Venice and Toronto film festivals.  MVFF has also kept important promises: fifty-seven percent of the films screening this year are directed or co-directed by women which means the festival hit its 50/50 by 2020 pledge goal.  

This year, the MVFF, DocLands, and Mind the Gap Awards will all be presented virtually, so home viewers can catch wonderful conversations with Viola Davis, Kate Winslet, Sophia Loren, Dame Judi Dench, Claire Dunne, Regina King, Bay Area actor Delroy Lindo, documentary filmmaker Freida Lee Mock and writer/director Aaron Sorkin. As an added benefit, most of these programs which cost upwards of $60 at the festival, are priced at $10.

Here are five films you shouldn’t miss:

Bat-Ireedui Batmunkh as Amra in “Veins of the World.”  Image: Talal Khoury

Veins of the World (Opening Night choice for online viewers)

There are many exciting roads to Asia at MVFF43.  “Veins of the World” presents an exhilarating and poignant story from a child’s point of view and its strong environmental message makes it a wonderful family film. This fiction feature debut of Mongolian director screen writer Byambasuren Davaa’s (Oscar-nominated “The Story of the Weeping Camel”) tells the story of Amra, an 11 year-old boy who lives a nomadic life in the Mongolian steppe with his mother Zaya, father Erdene, and little sister Altaa.  Life as they know it is threatened by the encroachment of international mining companies digging for gold who are destroying the natural habitat. When Amra’s father is killed in an accident, his mother wants to upend their life and move the family to the city. Amra refuses and takes up his father’s fight against the miners. Amra’s musical talent lands him on Mongolia’s Got Talent where he performs a heartfelt song that spells everything out. A wonderful journey of self discovery that explores nomadic and rapdily urbanizing Mongolia. (Opening Night Film; online screening window 10/8 – 10/18, 2020)

Brothers Ilmar Gavilán (L) and Aldo López-Gavilán (R) in a scene from “Los Hermanos/The Brothers.”

Los Hermanos/The Brothers

Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider’s new documentary, Los Hermanos/The Brothers, is a genuine masterpiece, an exhilarating and perceptive dive into the magical and confounded lives of two Cuban-born brothers—violinist Ilmar Gavilán and pianist Aldo López-Gavilán—both virtuosos. They were separated as teens when Ilmar had the chance to study violin in Moscow and later went on to establish himself in New York as a soloist and member of the Harlem Quartet.  Aldo remained in Cuba and became a leading pianist, developing his own signature sound in both the worlds of classical music and Afro-Cuban jazz. They’ve spent their lives on opposite sides of the US-Cuba geopolitical chasm. Filmed in Havana and in the US and drawing on historical performance footage and family archives, the film begins in the Obama era as the brothers reunite, briefly in Havana and then again in New York to collaborate musically. They’ve dreamed of this all their lives. Their joyful and productive reunion is shadowed by future uncertainty about tightening travel restrictions.  The film, a kind of extended road trip in the two countries, takes a palpably intimate look at the frustrating, passionate, humorous and musically inspired lives these brothers lead. It serves up delight after delight—dazzling shots of Havana and a mesmerizing score composed by Aldo López-Gavilán, performed with Ilmar, with guest appearances by Joshua Bell and the Grammy-winning Harlem Quartet.  If their names sound familiar, Aldo performed twice locally at Festival Napa Valley Festival. (online screening window 10/9 –10/18)

Investigative journalist Matt Bloomberg in a scene from the documentary “Current Sea.”

Current Sea

This environmental documentary thriller from director Christopher Smith follows Australian investigative journalist Matt Blomberg and ocean activist and former British police officer Paul Ferber to Cambodia where illegal fishing in the Gulf of Thailand has depleted the sea of fish and threatened Cambodian fishermen. As the two men team up to create a marine conservation area and combat the relentless tide of illegal fishing, they face danger and unexpected obstacles. Along the way, a new generation of Cambodian environmentalists are inspired to create better lives. (online screening window 10/9 –10/18)

A scene from Michal Sulima’s, “Piano to Zanskar.”

Piano to Zanskar

Warsaw-born Michal Sulima’s indie debut, Piano to Zanskar, is the ultimate film for MVFF’s cause and adventure-oriented audience, proving you’re never too old to do something completely insane, incredibly generous, noble, and beautiful. It follows 65 year-old piano tuner Desmond “Gentle” O’Keefe and Anna and Harald, his two eccentric young assistants, as they embark on an arduous trip by foot and yaks across the Indian Himalayas. Their mission: to deliver a 100-year-old, 80-kilogram, upright piano, from bustling London to the remote village of Lingshed, in Khalsi tehsil, India. Why? Because Lingshed needs a piano. When Desmond reassembles the instrument, it becomes the highest piano in the world and everybody is united by the magic of music. You’ll find yourself laughing and crying in equal measures at the irresistible trio that pulled this off. I often wondered where was the camera to so expertly capture the grandeur of this mountainous area, a soaring maze of passes and gorges. And the marvel of Lingshed, an isolated community stuck in centuries past because there is no road linking them to civilization. They have no need for money, cell phone or televisions. This doc took grand prize at the Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival 2019.  (online screening window 10/9 –10/18)

Vintner, Hélène Thibon in her vineyard.

Weed & Wine

This timely and beautifully crafted doc from Emmy-winning Rebecca Richman Cohen focuses on two agricultural families on different continents who have been working their land for generations. The Thibon family are winemakers from France’s Southern Rhone region while the Jodrey family grow newly legalized state-certified organic cannabis in California’s Humboldt County. Worlds apart these families have shared concerns about sustainability, climate change, adapting their businesses to change and to succession to the next generation. (online screening window 10/9 –10/18)

Details:  MVFF43 runs October 8 -18, 2020.  All tickets are sold online. Virtual — $10 general, $8.50 California Film Institute members. Drive-in — $40 per vehicle, $35 members. To browse films and buy tickets, visit https://www.mvff.com/

October 7, 2020 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cast your vote in DocPitch, support a non-fiction filmmaker in finishing a film—voting closes Wed midnight

Filmmakers Kenji Yamamoto and Nancy Kelly hope to win $25,000 from DocPitch to help fund “Startup Embassy,” which follows three ambitious migrant high-tech entrepreneurs—two men from Spain and a woman from Turkey—who arrive in Silicon Valley with visions of success. They end up in a hacker house, a shared living space that welcomes fledgling entrepreneurs from all over the globe. There, hackers do constructive work, like coding, to make ends meet while working on pet projects. Putting everything on the line, they learn from one another and their struggles are laid bare, including near financial ruin and the stress of family separation.

Each spring, CFI (California Film Institute) brings awe-inspiring true-life stories to the Bay Area with its Doclands Documentary Film Festival.  Due to Covid-19, Doclands was postponed and will now take place before or in conjunction with the 43rd Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), scheduled for October 8-18, 2020.

DocLands is calling on anyone who loves film to vote in DocPitch, its annual fundraising forum.  DocPitch supports filmmakers in completing a documentary already in production with cash rewards that are based on votes cast by the public and industry professionals.  So, yes, your voice matters and translates into cash, which funds an elucidating film.  There is just one day left to cast your vote for one of eight eligible film projects that will win a $25,000 Audience Choice Award.  Voting closes on Wednesday, August 19, 2020 at midnight PDT.  Winners of the Audience Choice Award and eight additional film-making grants totaling $100,000 will be announced on Friday, August 21 via a virtual conversation with the filmmakers.

Click here to view projects and to vote and to learn about the Friday’s awards announcement.  The entire process takes but a few minutes and will wet your appetite for films to come.

August 17, 2020 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 23rd Sonoma International Film Festival kicks off virtually Thursday evening

Maria Peters’ bio-pic, “The Conductor,” (2018) is one of four opening night films offered at SIFF2020 which opens Thursday evening to a virtual audience.  The period drama explores the difficult life of Dutch immigrant, Antonia Brico, who in the late 1920’s battled incredible sexism to become the first woman to conduct a large symphony orchestra, The Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Other opening night offerings include the world premiere of “Elephant Refugees,” Louise Hogarth’s documentary about the first community-owned elephant sanctuary in eastern Botswana, where 60 percent of Africa’s elephants live; “I am Woman,” Unjoo Moon’s biopic of the iconic Australian singer, Helen Reddy and her breakout 70’s feminist anthem; and Rajita Shaw’s culinary tale, “Love Sarah.”

Originally scheduled in March but postponed due to Covid-19 outbreak; the 23rd Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF2020) is screening to a virtual audience this Thursday, July 30 through Sunday, August 2, 2020.  Theoretically, you can stream the full program of 110 features and shorts, from the comfort of your couch.  Figuring out access issues in advance is key to a pleasant experience, so plan ahead.  The festival has partnered with Eventive so that films can be viewed on home computers and devices as well as televisions.  You first purchase a pass or individual ticket at SIFF’s website which will “unlock” a film so that you can add it your Eventive festival account.

It is essential to test Eventive’s virtual cinema technology in advance.  Eventive has several test films prepared for this purpose.  I will be watching from from two homes and will have a laptop open to my Eventive festival account and will be playing the films on that laptop.  At the home where I have a smart TV, I will be mirroring the laptop over my wifi.  At the home with a regular TV, I will be connecting my laptop to my TV’s HDMI port.  The HDMI port will allow the TV to watch the laptop over the cable.

Passes and tickets:  A pass which allows access to 110 films is $75 and single films are $10.  Many films are available for viewing throughout the entire festival but several films have time-specific streaming windows.

Heads Up!  A few films have caps on tickets.  Tom Dolby’s feature drama, “The Artist’s Wife,” starring Lena Olin and Bruce Dern as a couple facing the onset of dementia as the painter/husband (Dern) is preparing for a huge retrospective, is nearing capacity.

For those who purchased tickets to special culinary and wine events, SIFF continues to ask for patience instead of refund requests while efforts are made to reschedule these after Covid concerns are at bay.

For film descriptions, trailers, screening time slots and to purchase passes or tickets, visit: http://www.sonomafilmfest.org

 

 

 

July 29, 2020 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SIFF2020 is postponed due to COVID-19 risk

“Born a King,” SIFF2020’s opening night feature, was slated to screen at Sonoma’s historic Sebastiani Theater on March 26.  Shot in the UK and Saudi Arabia, the Spanish co-production is the coming of age story of the future King Faisal (played by Abdullah Ali), who in 1919 was sent to on a high-stakes diplomatic mission to England by his warrior father, Prince Abdul Aziz.   His task was to resolve issues around the unification of Saudi Arabia.  At the time, England was fostering dissent by selling weapons to numerous Saudi tribes to encourage warring among themselves instead of collaboration.  The story follows the 14 year-old Arab prince from the Arabian desert to cosmopolitan England where he encounters Lord Curzon, Winston Churchill, and Princess Mary.  SIFF2020 will feature over 90 films, including indie features, docs, world cinema and shorts.

Originally scheduled for March 25-29, 2020, the 23rd Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF2020) has joined the ranks of North Bay cultural organizations that have postponed programming due to COVID-19 concerns.  The move makes sense for this beloved high-end festival which prides itself on film shown in intimate venues and partying in close quarters.  SIFF’s renowned Backlot tent features lavish self-serve buffet tables with local delicacies as well as wine from Sonoma vintners and trendy beverages.  Festival Director Kevin McNeely promises “We’ll be back.”  For those who have purchased passes or tickets to special culinary and wine events, the festival is asking for patience instead of requests for refunds. Check SIFF’s website for updates on the new date: http://www.sonomafilmfest.org

 

March 11, 2020 Posted by | Film, Food | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The SF Jewish Film Festival moves to the Smith Rafael Film Center on Friday—beautiful, small, dramatic stories

Internationally acclaimed writer-director, and two-time Israeli Ophir Award winner  Dani Menkin will be in attendance at SFJFF39 in San Rafael Sunday afternoon for an audience Q & A for his new documentary, Picture of His Life (2019), which he co-directed with Yonatan Nir.  The film follows Amos Nachoum, the world-renowned underwater still photographer as attempts to fulfill the most challenging shoot of his 35-year-long career—to photograph a polar bear underwater, while swimming alongside it.  Throughout his career, Nachoum has taken huge risks to get the images that no one else in the world has been able to capture.  The creation of this exciting and gorgeously shot documentary required a skill set that carries its own thrilling story.  Image: courtesy PRX, San Francisco

The 39th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF) comes to the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center Friday through Sunday (Aug 2-4) with 15 of its most popular films from its 10-day run at the Castro Theater in July.  With just four of the 15 films from the US, this mini-fest  features a wide slate of stories from Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Poland, Russia, and the UK.   What’s Jewish about the programming can be quite nuanced: the festival has been designed to appeal to a wide range of interests and diverse identities.

The mini-fest kicks off Friday afternoon with two films that have screened in the Bay Area before but are well worth seeing if you missed them: James Freedman’s documentary, Carl Laemmle (2018), which tells the extraordinary story of the German-Jewish immigrant who practically invented the movie business by starting Universal Pictures in 1912 and then went to rescue over 300 Jewish refugee families from the Holocaust and Alamork Davidian’s Fig Tree (2018), a sensitive first feature told through the eyes of a 16-year-old Ethiopian Jewish teenager in the throws of the Ethiopia’s 1989 Civil War who is offered safe immigration to Israel but becomes frantic with worry over those she will leave behind.

Below are my recommendations for films that have something special:

Dolce Fine Giornata (Friday, 6:20 pm)

Kasia Smutniak, Antonio Catania and Krystyna Janda in a still from Jacek Borcuch’s Dolce Fine Giornata (2019).  Image: courtesy SFJFF

This Polish film about expats living in Italy hits several of our hot-topic buttons—immigration, terrorism, nationalism—and it’s set in gorgeous Tuscany.  It offers a complex and very stimulating moral drama that features Polish film star Krystyna Janda in a role that earned her a Special Jury Award for Acting at Sundance.  She plays Maria Linda, a Polish Nobel Laureate poet who is living la dolce vita in Tuscany with her Italian husband, Antonio, and her single daughter and two grand-kids.  She is also involved with Nazeer, a young Egyptian émigré who runs a taverna in town.  Everything comes crashing down when Maria accepts an award and gives a speech with some ill-thought out inflammatory words that seem to suggest she’s endorsing a recent terrorist act as a form of artistic expression.  As her words go viral, Maria refuses to fully explain herself and the backlash escalates, implicating those she cares about most. (Poland, 2019, 96 min, in Italian w/ English subtitles) Screens: Friday, 6:20 pm

Standing Up, Falling Down (Saturday, 4:05 pm)

Ben Schwartz and Billy Crystal in a still from Matt Ratner’s feature debut Standing Up, Falling Down (2019), which has is West Coast debut at SFJFF 39. Image: courtesy SFJFF

When stand-up comedian Scott (Ben Schwartz) strikes out in the Los Angeles comedy scene, the affable millennial is forced to return with his tail between his legs to his parents’ home on Long Island.  Everyone in his circle has moved on to adult life and he keeps running into Becky, the girlfriend he ditched when he left for the West Coast who is now married.  Confronted with with the prospect of finding a real job, aimless Scott hits the local bars and makes a connection with Marty (Billy Crystal) a dermatologist and alcoholic who is in a rut of his own making.  The two manage to forge a supportive friendship that provides the platform for moments of brilliant interaction between the two and for Crystal’s magnetic genius to shine. (USA, 2019, 91minutes, English)

Picture of His Life (Sunday 4:15pm)

Underwater photographer Amos Nachoum in a still from Picture of His Life (2019). Image: courtesy SFJFF

Everyone processes their inner demons in different ways.  The world’s most renowned underwater photographer, Amos Nachoum, swims with crocodiles, leopard seals, killer whales, anacondas and great whites to snap some of the most breathtaking close-up photos of these creatures in existence.  With a thrilling documentary that was 10 years in the making,  Israeli documentarians Yonatan Nir and Dani Menkin, follow Nachoum, 65, on a treacherous expedition to Baker Lake in the Canadian Arctic where, working with local Inuits, he attempts to fulfill his final photographic dream—to photograph a polar bear underwater, while swimming alongside it.   As the journey unfolds, so does Nachoum’s intimate and painful story of dedication, sacrifice and personal redemption.  In addition to the breathtaking journey North, testimonies of famous scuba divers and wildlife experts are set against iconic images of sea creatures that Amos created throughout his career.  Director Dani Menkin in person for a Q&A. (Israel, 2019, 75 minutes, in Hebrew w/ English subtitles)

Leona (Sunday, 8:35 pm)

Naian González Norvind and Christian Vazquez in a scene from Isaac Cherem’s Leona (2018).  Photo: courtesy SFJFF

Spanish director Isaac Cherem’s debut feature Leona has its Northern CA premiere at SFJFF.  Naian González Norvind co-wrote the film and picked up the Best Actress award at the Morelia International Film festival for her performance as Ariela, a 25 year-old Syrian Jewish street artist from Mexico City who is striving to lead the expressive and free-spirited life of an artist in a conservative and somewhat closed community.  Facing pressure to find a suitable life partner, sparks fly when she meets Ivan, a non-Jewish writer.  The decision to follow her heart will come with a price and Ariela is confronted throughout with the demands of growing up and asserting her own identity.  Norvind delivers a triumphant performance that is in perfect sync with the film’s title “Leona,” the Spanish word for lioness.  (Mexico, 2018, 94 minutes, Spanish w/ English subtitles)

Details:  The 39th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s Marin segment is Friday, August 2- Sunday, August 4, 2019. 14 films, each screening once, with 4 to 5 screenings daily.  Tickets: $15 (General Admission), $14 (students and seniors with ID), $12 JFI (Jewish Film Institute) members (JFI membership info here.) Purchase tickets in advance at jfi.org/sfjff-2019 or day of the show at the Smith Rafael.

Marin Passes: Marin Passes ($100 JFI members / $125 general public) available online here.

July 30, 2019 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Adoptees piece together Korean identities that bind them to a homeland they never knew: Deann Borshay Liem’s “Geographies of Kinship” has its world premiere Sunday at CAAMFest 2019

Emmy-winning Bay Area filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem (L) and subject Estelle Cooke-Sampson (R), a retired general and state surgeon for the District of Columbia National Guard, at Cooke-Sampson’s home in the Woodley Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C..  Liem’s new documentary, “Geographies of Kinship,” (2019) has its world premiere at CAAMFest 2019 and is the festival’s closing night film.  Cooke-Sampson was adopted from a Korean orphanage at age 6 and raised in the U.S.  She is one of over 200,000 South Korean children adopted from Korea in the aftermath of the Korean War (1950-53) and part of a much smaller pool of mixed-race children whose parentage was a source of stigma in Korea.  After years of searching, Cooke-Sampson found a picture of herself as a child in a Korean orphanage, but she still knows little about her birth parents except that her birth father was most likely an African-American soldier.  Liem, Cooke-Sampson, and subject adoptee-activist Kim Stoker will be in attendance.  Image: Allison Shelley, courtesy of CAAMFest

Bay Area filmmaker Deann Borshay Liem’s new documentary Geographies of Kinship aptly has its world premiere this Sunday (May 19) at CAAMFest 2019, the annual festival that showcases Asian American filmmakers and artists and Asian stories from all over the globe.  Borshay Liem is an ARThound favorite.  I’ve written about her award-winning adoption documentaries “In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee” (2010) and First Person Plural (2000), both of which explored her own adoption story and the reconciling of her Korean and American identities.  She has a remarkable gift for weaving together personal stories to create a living tapestry of collective history and, through her films, she has brought crucial awareness of the tensions within many Korean adoptees over their experiences.

Geographies of Kinship explores yet another facet of Korean adoption.   Borshay Liem tracks four adult adoptees who were raised in foreign families as they return to South Korea to reclaim their personal histories and make sense of the complex trajectories of their lives.  The stories are all immensely captivating, revealing the lifelong emotional struggles that many adoptees (Korean or not) face around identity and the struggles that are unique to trans-racial adoptees.  She employs riveting images—black and white newsreel clips, U.S. military footage, archival photos, propaganda posters—to frame the complex political, social and historical forces that set the post-war Korean adoption machine in motion and its messy aftermath.  Stay tuned to ARThound: I interviewed Liem last week and will be posting the interview shortly.

Details:  Geographies of Kinship (80 min) screens twice at CAAMFest 2019— Sunday, May 19, 2019, 7:30 and 9:30 p.m., Roxie Theater,  3117 16th Street, San Francisco. Expected guests:  Deann Borshay Liem (Director), Estelle Cooke-Sampson (Subject) and Kim Stoker (Subject). Purchase $20 tickets direct from CAAMFest here.

 

May 17, 2019 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFFilm Festival 2019—here are the films to see this weekend

All the way from Kenya! Emmy and Peabody winning filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone will be at the San Francisco’s Castro Theater in conversation for Saturday’s screening of their stirring new documentary, The Elephant Queen. The film follows the impact of drought on Athena, a 50-year-old giant husker elephant matriarch and her youngsters who are forced to undertake a perilous migration across the savanna to ensure their survival. No ordinary nature film, this was four years in the making.  Deeble’s intimate cinematography shines a light on the refined intelligence and distinct personalities of these unforgettable animals as well as the interrelationships of various species they co-exist with.  Narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor with extraordinary shots of the elephants and their animal world, this film will resonate on the big screen with a huge audience and engaging conversation about the chain of survival. Photo: Deeble & Stone Productions

SFFilm Festival 2019 has been off and running since April 10.  This extraordinary showcase for cinema, now in its 62nd edition, just keeps getting better and better.  One has to wonder why it’s had such a difficult time with leadership—the latest debacle is the April 1 announcement of executive director Noah Cowan’s resignation after just five years at the helm.  Cowan rebranded the festival from the San Francisco International Film Festival to SFFilm Festival and, under his tenure, festival attendance has grown each year for the past three years according to festival sources.   This year’s festival seems to be running quite smoothly, presenting 163 films and live events from 52 countries in 36 languages with over 200 filmmakers in attendance.  As the festival enters its final weekend, there are plenty of great films to be seen.   Here are ARThound’s recommendations:

 

Friday/Berkeley: Walking on Water

A still from Andrey Panouov’s documentary, Walking on Water of famed installation artist, Christo, at the summer 2016 press opening of his and Jeanne-Claude’s “Floating Piers” project at Italy’s Lake Iseo.  Christo’s first large-scale project since “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park (2005).  Image: SFFilm

There’s something about Christo and his unflinching passion, brilliant wit and stubbornness that has enthralled the world for decades, making any film about this intriguing artist a must-see.   Bulgarian filmmaker Andrey Paounov’s The Floating Piers (2018) chronicles the evolution and realization of Christo and the late Jeanne Claude’s 2016 site-specific work, The Floating Piers, which created a golden path that stretched for two miles across northern Italy’s rustic Lake Iseo.  The idea: let people experience walking on water.  Designed as a gently undulating walkable surface, the artwork was an international sensation.  First conceived of in the 1970’s, the highly-engineered project ultimately consisted of 70,000 square meters of yellow fabric, supported by a modular floating dock system of 226,000 high-density polyethylene cubes.  Christo’s strong personality rises once again to do battle with bureaucracy, corruption, and nature.  Coming seven years after the death of his beloved co-creator and life partner, Jeanne-Claude, Christo, age 81 when the project was completed, has painstakingly regrouped and once again asserted his unique vision in a world of skeptics.  (Screens: 3 p.m., Friday, April 19, BAMPFA)

 

Friday/SF & Sunday/Oakland: Meeting Gorbachev

A still from Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’s documentary, Meeting Gorbachev (2018). Image: SFFilm.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the eight and final president of the Soviet Union, the architect of Perestroika and Glasnost, sits down with iconoclastic filmmaker Werner Herzog to discuss his life and achievements in the fascinating documentary Meeting Gorbachev, co-directed by Werner Herzog and Andre Singer.  As might be expected, it’s an engaging battle of wits as Herzog tries to pierce the Russian’s psyche and Gorbachev emerges resilient, preferring to curate his own story.  Broadening the perspective are interviews with former Polish president Lech Wałęsa, the Bay Area’s George Schultz, and Horst Teltschik, former national security adviser to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl during the reunification period.  Walesa’s shrewd assessment of Gorbachev’s critical errors seem to resonate even more when we hear then live but, most likely, you’ll come away with a sense of Gorbachev’s charisma and leadership skills.  (Screens: 9 p.m., Friday, April 19, Creativity, SF, and 5 p.m., Sunday, April 21, Grand Lake, Oakland)

 

Friday/SF & Saturday/Berkeley: Honeyland

A still from Macedonian co-directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary Honeyland, which won the grand jury award at Sundance. Photo: SFFIlm

Macedonian filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary, Honeyland focuses on Hatidze Muratova, the last of Macedonia’s nomadic beekeepers and shines a light on the fragile and deeply poetic relationship between her and her hives.  Hatidze’s harmonious way of life is interrupted when a Turkish family shows up in her remote mountainous stomping grounds and disrespects her sustainable beekeeping practices to turn a quick profit.  Shot by a six person crew who lived beside her for three years, this tender documentary delicately captures a life rarely depicted on screen and sheds light on threats to our environmental balance from an entirely different perspective.  It also features mesmerizing cinematography of rural Macedonia, a land so blessed by the gods that its name and status has been the subject of bitter dispute for centuries. (Screens: 6 p.m., Friday, April 19, Victoria, SF, and 1:30 p.m., Saturday, April 20, BAMPFA, Berkeley)

 

Saturday/ San Francisco: The Elephant Queen

A still from Ralph Deeble and Victoria Stone’s documentary, The Elephant Queen (2018). Image: SFFilm.

Vaguely, we know it happens—the annual migration of animals in Africa.  And we assume that as climate change continues to wreak havoc on weather patterns, the stakes are getting higher and higher for animals in the wild.  Kenya-based filmmakers’ Ralph Deeble and Victoria Stone’s documentary, The Elephant Queen is a miraculous testament to the ingenuity of animals in the face of unprecedented threats from nature and mankind.  It took four years of living alongside elephants in the African savanna to make their film, which tells the story of the life and death struggle of Athena, a 50 year-old giant tusker elephant as she makes critical decisions to help her family survive during a season drought in Kenya.  Filmmakers Ralph Deeble and Victoria Stone in attendance.  (Screens: noon, Saturday, April 20, Castro)

 

Sunday/Oakland:  world premiere, We Believe in Dinosaurs

A still from Clayton Brown and Monica Long’s documentary We Believe in Dinosaurs (2019), about creationism, assembling the contents of Noah’s Ark and America’s perplexing views of science.  Image: SFFilm

Shot over the course of three years, this exceptional doc recounts how the rural community of Williamston, Kentucky, planted firmly in the Bible Belt, supported the creation of a $100 million, 510 foot-long replica of Noah’s Ark, replete with the all the creatures they imagine would have been in the ark.  Their theme park venture, Ark Encounter, was meant to debunk evolution and increase tourism to their community.   Filmmakers Clayton Brown and Monica Long follow the designers and builders of the ark, from the blue prints phase to opening day and present an eye-opening glimpse into all the assumptions and decisions that are made along the way, talking with both proponents and protestors.  Inside the theme park are exhibits showing how the universe is roughly 6,000 years old and how dinosaurs walked with early man.  The assertion is made that dinosaurs were on board Noah’s Ark during the great flood.  Both state and local government got behind the project, questioning the separation of church and state.  Filmmakers Brown and Long will in attendance for what should be a riveting Q & A.  (Screens: 2 p.m., Sunday, April 21 at Grand Lake Theater, Oakland)

 

Sunday/Oakland: Meeting Gorbachev

A still from Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’s documentary, Meeting Gorbachev (2018). Image: SFFilm.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the eight and final president of the Soviet Union, the architect of Perestroika and Glasnost, sits down with iconoclastic filmmaker Werner Herzog to discuss his life and achievements in the fascinating documentary Meeting Gorbachev, co-directed by Werner Herzog and Andre Singer.  As might be expected, it’s an engaging battle of wits as Herzog tries to pierce the Russian’s psyche and Gorbachev emerges resilient, preferring to curate his own story.  Broadening the perspective are interviews with former Polish president Lech Wałęsa, the Bay Area’s George Schultz, and Horst Teltschik, former national security adviser to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl during the reunification period.  (Screens: 5 p.m., Sunday, April 21, Grand Lake, Oakland)

 

Sunday/San Francisco: Official Secrets, Closing Night Film

Keira Knightley in a still from Gavin Hood’s political thriller Official Secrets (2019), SFSFilm Festival’s 2019 Closing Night Film. Image: SFFilm

Keira Knightley stars in Gavin Hood’s exciting thriller Official Secrets (2019) as Katharine Gun, the real-life British intelligence translator-turned-whistleblower who leaked classified documents revealing how the U.S. intended to strong-arm the U.N. Security Council into backing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Outraged by a confidential staff email about coercing small countries to vote for a UN Iraq War resolution, she leaks the email to the British press and, after her identity is revealed, she is charged with treason.  The cast couldn’t be better—Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans.  This promises to be an enthralling real-life thriller that will surely hit Bay Area’s theaters but there’s something extra special about SFFilm’s big nights that makes the experience memorable.  (Screens: 8 p.m., Sunday, April 21, Castro)

Details: The 2019 SFFilm Festival is April 10-23, 2019.  Most films are $16 and big nights, awards, tributes, and special events are priced higher.   Advanced ticket purchase is essential as most of the screenings and events sell out.  For full program information and online ticket purchase, visit sffilm.org.  Plan on arriving 30 minutes before each screening to ensure that you are seated in the theater.

April 18, 2019 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 22nd Sonoma International Film Festival kicks off Wednesday—here are your must-see’s

Luminous, emotional, dazzling…if you see just one of SIFF’s 123 films, see Yuli!  Directed by Catalan filmmaker Icíar Bollaín (Take My Eyes) and written by Paul Laverty (I, Daniel Blake) with cinematography by Alex Catalán, this bio-pic follows Cuban dance super-star, Carlos Acosta, from his early life in an impoverished Havana neighborhood as he defies all odds and becomes the first black artist to perform as Romeo at the Royal Ballet in London. Acosta goes on to dance in the world’s leading companies and form his own dance company in Havana.  Bollaín masterfully conveys the pride, frustration and contradictions of living in Castro’s Cuba.  Wonderful performances by Carlos Acosta and the participation of the Acosta Danza Company will raise your heart beat.

Ask anyone who makes the film festival circuit and they’ll tell you that the Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF) tops their list for the “best time” fests–good film, incredible atmosphere, great parties and music, and the Backlot tent’s superb food and unending flow of wine and craft booze.  The 22nd edition of this gem kicks off Wednesday, March 27, with an opening-night reception at the Backlot Tent from 5 to 7 pm, followed by two screenings of Bruce Beresford’s new period drama, Ladies in Black. SIFF continues in full force Thursday through Sunday offering some 123 films from 31 countries with an anticipated 200 filmmakers in attendance who will participate in on stage interviews and audience Q&A’s.  All films are shown at seven intimate venues within walking distance of Sonoma’s historic plaza so there’s no driving, just meandering charming streets where all the plants are beginning their glorious spring bloom.

SIFF has lots to offer both locals and destination visitors.  Festival passes are the way to go if you’re interested in easy access to films, the marvelous parties, and the Backlot tent.  If you want to see a few films, single tickets are $15 when purchased in advance.  SIFF caters heavily to pass holders and offers just a limited number of individual tickets for many of its films.  Lock in those tickets right now before they are snapped up.  Click here to read about all the pass options and price points.

Here are ARThound’s festival recommendations:

OPENING NIGHT (WED):  Ladies in Black

Australian director Bruce Beresford’s drama Ladies in Black stars Julia Ormond and Angourie Rice and powerfully recreates the postwar culture of 1950’s Sydney.  It took Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Tender Mercies (1983)) 24 years to bring the story to the big screen but it has become Australia’s highest grossing film, ever.  Photo: Sony Pictures, Lisa Tomasetti

Based on Madeleine St. John’s 1993 debut novel The Women in Black, Ladies in Black is set in 1959 Sydney at a time when European migration and the women’s movement are starting to impact Australiaand offers an upbeat reflection on the impact of immigration and integration.  Julia Ormond (Mad Men) stars as Magda, a wise and sophisticated Slovenian emigre who heads the evening wear section of a large department store.  She, along with several other immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, are vital to the store’s success.  Angourie Rice plays the fresh faced and adorable student, Lisa, who lands a temporary job at the store and ends up working alongside these glamorous and self-assured women who encourage her to embrace fashion and to empower herself.  SIFF always pairs shorts with features.  Screening first is Domee Shi’s 8 minute animated film Bao about a dumpling that springs to life as a lively growing boy and gives a weary Chinese mom a life lesson.

Beauty and Ruin (THURS)

A still from Marc de Guerre’s feature documentary Beauty and Ruin of school children at the Detroit Institute of Art. Photo: courtesy Subject Chaser Films

How much does art matter to a city on the verge of distinction?  Canadian director Marc de Guerre’s latest feature documentary explores the fate of the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA), one of America’s great art museums, in the wake of the city’s 2013 bankruptcy.  With a debt approaching $18.5 billion in 2014, and the DIA the largest asset the city of Detroit owns outright, a bitter brawl emerges over whether the city-owned artworks should be sold to pay down the debt.  DIA housed 66,000 artworks, including an irreplaceable collection of European masterpieces from Titian, Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Bellini, Brueghel, Tintoretto, Fra Angelico and dozens of others. Most of these were bought during the 30-year period, a century ago, when Detroit was the center of American industry.  No other American museum the size of the institute has ever confronted such a threat to the integrity of its collection.  Emotions and racial tensions reach their zenith when it is revealed that the pending bankruptcy has put the pensions of retired city workers are at risk.  This thorough unpacking of the museum’s story includes interviews with all the key players—the DIA director, the Emergency Manager of Detroit, the retirees, an activist Baptist pastor and acclaimed artist Charles McGee.  Screens: Thursday March 28, 6:30 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art. Open to festival pass-holders only.

Botero: (THURS and FRI)

A still from Don Millar’s documentary, Botero, the definitive documentary profile of the life and work of Fernando Botero, one of the world’s most recognized living artists.   Image: Hogan Millar Media

Directed by Canadian film and television director, Don Millar (Oil Slick, Full Force, Off the Clock), Botero offers a poetic behind-the-scenes look at the life and art of the 86-year-old self-taught Colombian painter and sculptor whose unique style always evokes strong reactions.  Art critic Rosalind Krauss of Columbia University calls his work “terrible,” while others offer praise and penetrating insight into his oeuvre, calling Botero’s critics intellectual snobs.  Don Millar lets you decide.  Either way, Botero’s story is fascinating.  Born in provincial Medellin, Colombia, in 1932, he arrived in New York as a young artist with $200 in his pocket.  Through a stroke of luck, he meets a curator whose connections get him into MOMA and, all of a sudden, he is famous. “I like fullness, generosity, sensuality” says Botero.  “Reality is rather dry.”  The audience learns that, even today, Botero is happiest in his Monaco studio where he says he is still learning as he strives to be the best painter in the world, because “my life is to paint.”  The film weaves together original footage shot in 10 cities across China, Europe, New York and Colombia, with decades of family photos and archival footage alongside unprecedented access to the artist.  Screens:  Thursday, March 28, 4:14 p.m., Landmark Vineyards at Andrews Hall and Friday, March 29, 3:30 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art.

 

Yuli (THURS & SAT)

A still from Icíar Bollaín’s Yuli with Edilson Manuel Olbera as the young Carlos Acosta.  Yuli won the Best Screenplay Award at San Sebastian and has gone on to receive five nominations for the Spanish ‘Goya’ awards including Best New Actor for Carlos Acosta, Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Screenplay.

It’s very difficult to pull off a drama about dance where the acting is an engaging as the dance itself.  Icíar Bollaín has done it with a riveting drama set largely in Castro’s Cuba with astonishing dance scenes and bursts of family drama.  Sit back and soak in the artistry of the astounding Carlos Acosta.  (In Spanish with English subtitles) Screens: Thursday March 28, 1 p.m., Burlingame Hall and Saturday, March 30, 11:30 a.m., Meyer Sound & Dolby Hall at Vets I)

 

Yellow is Forbidden (FRI and SAT)

Chinese designer Guo Pei’s international breakthrough moment was designing Rihanna’s golden gown for the 2015 Met Gala. The 55 pound dress took 100 workers 50,000 hours to create and became one of the most talked about dresses in history. Pietra’s Brettkelly’s documentary explores Guo Pei’s rise to fame and her unique way of interpreting her aesthetic history.  Photo: Getty Images

New Zealand documentarian Pietra Brettkelly (A Flickering Truth, 2015) has created a fascinating and intimate portrait of fashion designer Guo Pei that also speaks to the energy and aesthetic of a rapidly evolving China.  She tracks Guo Pei just as she has burst onto the international scene—when Rihanna wore her hand-embroidered canary yellow gown to the Met Gala in 2015—through her remarkable 2017 show “Legend,” presented at La Conciergerie, in Paris, where Guo Pei proved to the world that she had penetrated haute couture’s most elite circle.  The film takes us into Pei’s life, connecting the dots between her life experiences and aesthetic expression—her upbringing in the Cultural Revolution; her relationship with Cao Bao Jie, her husband and partner; her elderly parents who don’t grasp the scope of her talent, her A-list clients, and her team of craftsmen and embroiderers.  Her world is one of struggle, passionate dreaming and a constant balancing of her artistic passions with the financial reality of running a business.  Ample attention is devoted to her atelier, where she obsesses over the handcrafting of garments that can take over two years to create.  Pei is a curious mix of old and new, a balancing of East and West with an absolutely unique way of interpreting her aesthetic history.  (97 min, in Chinese and French with English subtitles.) Screens:  Friday, March 29, 2019, noon, Andrews Hall, and Saturday, March 30, 2:15 p.m., Vintage House

 

Restaurant from the Sky: (FRI and SUN)

A sill from Yoshihiro’s food drama, Restaurant in the Sky (2019). Photo: SIFF

Yoshihiro Fukagawa has made a number of dramas that tenderly explore human emotions against the gourmet food backdrop.  Restaurant in the Sky unfolds on a bucolic cattle ranch in Setana, Hokkidao where Wataru (Yo Oizumi) lives with his wife Kotoe (Manami Honjou) and his daughter, Shiori.  He inherited the cattle ranch from his father and he also runs a cheese workshop but he lacks passion.  He enjoys hanging out with his sheep farmer friend Kanbe (Masaki Okada) who moved to the area from hectic Tokyo.  After a chef from a famous Sapporo restaurant visits and praises Waturu’s produce and creates a masterful farm-to-table meal with ingredients sourced the ranch, Wataru has his ahh-hah moment.  He will open a restaurant for only one day to let people know about Setana’s wonderful food.  This is a goal that unites the family and community but suddenly a tragedy occurs.  (126 min, in Japanese with English subtitles)  Screens: Friday, March 29, 9 a.m., Sebastiani and Sunday, March 31, 1:45 p.m., Sebastiani

Details: The 22nd Sonoma International Film Festival is Wednesday, March 22 through Sunday, March 31, 2019.  For information, tickets, festival passes, prices, and benefits visit www.sonomafilmfest.org.

March 22, 2019 Posted by | Art, Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Straight from Ai Weiwei’s Playlist—“Turn It On,” docs related to SFMOMA’s China exhibit you can stream at home for free or catch at SFMOMA

A still from Zhang Bingjian’s 2009 documentary, Readymade, screening January 24 at SFMOMA and free on Kanopy as part of SFMOMA’s Turn It On: China on Film, 2000-2017 series.  The film captures the lives of two middle-aged Mao Zedong impersonators in the PRC: Mr. Peng Tian, a 46-year-old farmer from Mao’s home town in Hunan Province who walks into the Beijing Film Academy one day in full Mao dress to study film acting; and Chen Yan, a 51-year-old housewife from Sichuan Province and the only female Mao impersonator in China.  Zhang’s coverage of her life, both onstage and off, reveals the struggle she has with her husband and daughter who disapprove of her impersonating Mao and refuse to support her.  The film tackles the continuing cult of personality of Mao Zedong as a cultural icon, and the mixed feelings stirred up in different generations when they are confronted with him “alive” again through his impersonators. Image: Zhang Bingjian

SFMOMA’s groundbreaking China exhibit, Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World has entered its final month; it closes Sunday, February 24, 2019.  Bracketed by the end of the Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989 and the Beijing Olympics of 2008, the exhibit showcases 100+ works by more than 60 artists and collectives that anticipated and reacted to China’s sweeping and turbulent transformation to a global superpower in the new millennium.   Through documented performances and socially engaged projects, paintings, photographs, installations, and videos, the exhibit explores how artists such as Cao Fei, Huang Yong Ping and Ai Weiwei acted as catalysts for change, critically questioning the massive changes all around them.  The exhibit, which caused such a stir at the Guggenheim due to three artworks which outraged animal rights activists, has been accompanied by a number of special programs at SFMOMA.

The film series, Turn It On: China on Film, 2000–2017, is exceptional.  Curated by Ai Weiwei and filmmaker Wang Fen, the series had its genesis at the Guggenheim, NY.  It was suggested by Ai Weiwei to the Guggenheim exhibition curator Alexandra Munroe as a means of helping people further understand China and the history and current state of its contemporary art.  Weiwei invited documentary filmmaker Wang Fen to collaborate.

A still from Wang Jiuliang’s 2016 doc, Plastic China, about China’s plastic waste industry through the eyes and hands of those who handle it.  After visiting a huge recycling plant in Oakland and learning that the US and many other developed countries, even in Asia, export their plastic waste to China, Jiuliang wanted to understand what happens to imported plastic waste once it arrives in China.  Six years in the making, his film documents the dirty downside of China’s capitalist surge as it explores a gnarly plastic recycling facility in a small town, dedicated to the business of processing plastic waste. The facility, one of 5,000 unregulated recycling plants operating in that town alone, is operated by two families in a tense relationship—the family of the owner and a family of employees.  Eleven-year-old Yi-Jie works in squalor alongside her parents while dreaming of attending school.  She pulls enticing ads, toys and everyday items from the trash to eek out a secondhand life. Kun, the facility’s ambitious foreman, hopes for a better life.  Screens: Saturday, January 26 at 3 p.m. at SFMOMA’s Phyllis Wattis Theater.

 

Turn it On Screenings remaining at SFMOMA:

Since January 10, SFMOMA has been screening selections from this film series at its plush Phyllis Wattis Theater for free (each film requires an RSVP).  There are five screenings remaining and all are in mandarin with English subtitles:

Readymade, Thursday, Jan 24, 6 p.m.  This 90 min film is part of SFMOMA 101, an going SFMOMA free program which invites local thinkers to the museum for a stimulating conversation about art with an introduction by a SFMOMA curator.  At 5 p.m., Abby Chen, curator and artistic director at the, Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, will speak.  She will be introduced by Eungie Joo, SFMOMA curator of contemporary art.

Falling from the Sky, Saturday, Jan 26, noon (film runs 145 min)

Plastic China, Sat, Jan 26, 3 p.m.  (film runs 82  min)

Prisoners in Freedom City, Sun, Jan 27, noon (film runs 36 min)

Garden in Heaven, Sun, Jan 27, 1 p.m. (film runs 200 min)

 

Free Streaming of the series via Kanopy:

How exciting that SFMOMA has partnered with Kanopy, the library streaming service to host 16 films in the series for free online viewing through February 24, when the exhibit closes.  Anyone who has library card from one of the thousands of public and university libraries Kanopy partners with can stream the films for free.  I used my Sonoma County Library account.   To sign up for a Kanopy account, and more information about Kanopy, click here.

Some films in the series are long, so we can be especially thankful for the chance to view them at home.  Ai Xiaoming’s engrossing Jiabiangou Elegy: Life and Death of the Rightists (2015) about the persecution of inmates at the Jiabiangou Labor Camp where 2,000 died, is split into six segments and runs 409 minutes.  Xu Xin’s Karamay: Memories of a Terrible Tragedy (2010) about the fire that claimed 323 lives at a theater performance in 1994, runs 356 min.

Ironically, no films in this series were made between 1989-2000, the critical years the exhibit covers.   All films are from 2000-2017.  In a 2017 interview for China Film Insider (click here), Wang Fen explained this is because “very few people had access to equipment back then. The rare few who had access were people who worked for state-owned film & TV studios. These people had very little interest in making the type of documentaries that couldn’t be distributed and wouldn’t be backed by their studios. Around 2000, home video cameras suddenly became available and affordable, which led many young filmmakers to start making films on the subjects they care about.”

Details:  Turn it On: China on film 2000-2017 runs through Sunday, January 27, 2019 at SFMOMA.  Screenings are free but require RSVP.   The series also can also be streamed free on Kanopy.

Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World runs through February 24, 2019 at SFMOMA.  Free entry with general admission. Tickets: free for SFMOMA members; $25 adults; $22 65 and older; $19 19-24 years; free 18 and under.  Save time and buy tickets online before coming to SFMOMA.

January 23, 2019 Posted by | Art, Film, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bernardo Ruiz’s “Harvest Season,” introduces the unsung Latino and Mexican-American heroes of Napa Valley’s wine industry—world premiere Saturday, MVFF41

VanessaRobledo

Vanessa Robledo, a Napa viticulturist, is profiled in Bernardo Ruiz’s documentary, Harvest Season, which was filmed in Napa and has its world premiere Saturday at MVFF41.  Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz, Producer Lauren Capps and subjects Vanessa Robledo, Maria Robledo, Angel Calderon, and Gustavo Brambila will be in attendance. Image: Roberto “Bear” Guerra

Two Latina viticulturists from Sonoma, Vanessa Robledo and her mother Maria Robledo; long-time activist for affordable farmworker housing, Angel Caldero; H-2A temporary worker from Michoacán, René Reyes Ornelas; and Napa winemaker Gustavo Brambila, all co-star in Bernardo Ruiz’s new documentary feature Harvest Season (2018), which has its world premiere at the 41st Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF41) on Saturday, October 13, 2018 and then will be shown again on Sunday, October 14, 2018.  The film is part of the festival’s ¡Viva el Cine! line-up which showcases 15 award-winning Latin American and Spanish language films during the course of the 10 day festival which kicks off Thursday evening.

“The big impulse for the film,” said Ruiz, speaking from his office in New York, “is that I love wine and I love Northern CA.  It took three years to make this and the film is really a love letter to immigrant Napa and the generations of people who have been working the field picking grapes and, through hard work, become entrepreneurs themselves.”

Bernardo Ruiz, director of Harvest Season. Photo courtesy: Bernardo Ruiz

This is Ruiz’s third feature documentary, following Reportero (2012), about violence against the press in Mexico for reporting on drug trafficking and government collusion and Kingdom of Shadows (2015), a front-line view into Mexico’s drug war from the perspective of three workers dealing with its fall-out.  The two-time Emmy® nominated filmmaker is also heavily involved in documentary television. When we spoke, he was hard at work on a series he was producing for documentarian Alex Gibney.

“There are so many films out there about rock-star vintners, high profile people in the industry,” said Ruiz.  “We’re trying to highlight and celebrate the behind-the-scenes players, often small producers whose roots are tied to working these fields or, in Angel’s case someone dedicated to improving the lives of workers.”

Ruiz cites two films as highly inspirational: Morgan Neville’s Oscar winning 20 feet from Stardom (2013), which focused a long-overdue spotlight on the contribution of back-up singers to musical hits, and John Else’s Sing Faster: The Stagehand’s Ring Cycle (1999) which presents Wagner’s Ring Cycle from the point of view of the stage hands at San Francisco Opera. Harvest Season tells four stories to shine a light on the hard-working individuals in Napa’s wine industry who have often propped up the rock stars and recently stepped out into their own ventures.

Ruiz was born in Guanajuato Mexico (central Mexico) to an American mother and Mexican father and moved New York when he was six and has lived there ever since. “I’m very interested in stories about immigration and the relationship between the US and Mexico.  A number of news outlets have done broad profiles of the Mexican-American and Latino vintners and, slowly, we’re starting to see more reporting about that.  Mexican-American vintners are the underdogs in the huge Napa constellation and I wanted to explore that further, bring their stories forward.

Ruiz began researching the film and doing a little shooting in Dec 2015 but the bulk of filming took place during the harvest in the summer and fall of 2017.   He filmed during the fires, which is a thread in the story but doesn’t overwhelm the film.

“I actually had an interview scheduled the 8th of October and went out to Napa and, just like everybody else, witnessed the devastation.  For the next two weeks, with various crew members, I filmed—destruction, shelters and did lots of interviews.  What impressed me was the way people mobilized so quickly, pulled together, and how particularly devastating this was to the community I was documenting.”

Vanessa Robledo, Maria Robledo

Vanessa Robledo (seated) and her mother Maria Robledo.  Image: Art & Clarity/Janna Waldinger

 

Ruiz interviewed Vanessa and Maria Robledo during an early scouting trip. “Here were these two women running a Napa vineyard. Vanessa is an accomplished entrepreneur, but she is genuine and passionate about the wine business and that passion gives her a quiet power.  They are a tiny but growing operation and tell the story of small women producers who are doing something very interesting.”

Vanessa Robledo, founder and CEO of VR Wine Business Consulting, was born in Sonoma and is a fourth generation grape grower.  As president of the Robledo Family Winery, started by her father Reynaldo Robledo, she took the winery from a 100 case producer in 1997 to a thriving 20,000 cases by 2007, over 80 percent of which was direct to consumer.  She then went on to become majority owner of the successful cult winery, Black Coyote Chateau, where she doubled the company’s production and sales.

Maria de la Luz Robledo, Vanessa’s mother, was born in Michoacán, Mexico and followed her husband, Reynaldo, to California in 1973.  She and Reynaldo worked in the fields, raised nine children, bought land, planted their own vineyards and started their own winery, opening the first tasting room in the US run by a former Mexican migrant vineyard worker.

The two women joined forces following a divorce that left Maria reeling and a desire on Vanessa’s part to get back to the land and grapes.  They began improving quality, replanting, and renegotiating contracts and are really enjoying collaorating.

Angel Calderon

Angel Calderon. Image: Roberto “Bear” Guerra

Harvest Season also explores the lifestyles and needs of vineyard workers through the stories of Angel Calderon, who has been active on the housing front for two decades and René Reyes Ornelas, an H-2A temporary worker from Michoacán, Mexico.

One of workers’ main concerns is affordable, safe, and convenient permanent housing.  Costs continue to rise in Napa County— the median rent is now $2,750 per month and the median home price is roughly $800,000, while many workers are paid $15-$25 an hour.  As the labor market shifts from a migrant to a year-round workforce, affordable housing is more critical than ever.  Angel Calderon immigrated to the US in 1980 and worked as a cook at Silverado Country Club and Meadowood and, even then, affordable housing was an issue.  Calderon manages River Ranch Farm Workers Housing (three housing centers) in St. Helena which provides no frills housing at roughly $14 day for farm workers and is vital in ensuring that workers needs are met.

René Reyes Ornelas

René Reyes Ornelas. Image: Roberto “Bear” Guerra

While documenting the Mahoney harvest in Napa, Ruiz met René Reyes Ornelas, a 41 year-old Mexican farmworker who became one of his central characters.  California employs about one third of the nation’s roughly 2.5 million farmworkers. With immigration raids occurring across the state, growers and labor contractors are increasingly relying on the H-2A, or guestworker program, which permits the importation of foreign nationals into the U.S. in order to fill temporary agricultural jobs.  This was René’s second harvest in Sonoma.  The nine months he spends away from his wife and two daughters is burdensome but, in the wine country, he earns in an hour what he earns in a day driving a truck back home in Michoacán.

Gustavo Brambila

Winemaker Gustavo Brambila. Image: Roberto “Bear” Guerra

Gustavo Brambila is a Napa Valley winemaker who was one of the first Mexican-Americans to earn a degree in fermentation science from UC Davis.  If the name Brambila is familiar, Freddy Rodriguez portrayed him in the famous film, Bottle-Shock (2008).  Brambila was at Chateau Montelena in 1976 when the famed “Judgment of Paris” blind tasting took place that pitted the some of the finest wines in France against unknown California wines.  It was a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay created by Mike Grgich, who was then the chief winemaker at Montelena, that beat out the French white burgundies.  After the big win, Grgich branched out on his own and Brambila followed to work as winemaker and general manager for Grgich Hills. After 23 years, in 1996, Brambila created his own label Gustavo Wine.  By 2002, he had started his own winery and vineyard management company.  He does things a little differently: officially, he is based in Napa’s Crusher District and leases vineyards to get the grapes and his son runs the vineyard management company that cares for them.  This allows Brambila to operate with more freedom, less regulation and at much less cost than actual land ownership.

Ruiz is excited about the world premiere at MVFF.   “This is an indie film and, like a boutique winery, we make limited editions of things, no mass production.  It means a lot to premiere at Mill Valley, where many in the audience will be personally connected to the people we’ve profiled.”  Ruiz, so far, has invitations to at least three other film festivals, (he’s embargoed on mentioning names until Oct 10); there will be select screenings in New York and California and then the film will be broadcast nationally on PBS in spring 2019.  “We’re very interested in showing the film all over Northern CA.”

To read ARThound’s article about MVFF’s wonderful  ¡Viva el Cine! programming, with film recommendations, click here.

DetailsHarvest Season has its world premiere and screens twice at MVFF41: Saturday, Oct 13, 2 pm at Sequoia Theater and Sunday, Oct 14, 2:45 pm at Larkspur Theater.  Purchase tickets here.

October 10, 2018 Posted by | Film, Wine | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment