Geneva Anderson digs into art

33rd Mill Valley Film Festival, October 7-17, 2010–a stellar weekend of cinema ahead, virtually at our doorstep

In "The Debt" which closes the Mill Valley Film Festival on Sunday, Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Martin Csokas are Israeli Mossad agents searching for a Nazi war criminal they failed to capture 30 years earlier. Image courtesy Miramax.

There’s still time to catch the 33rd annual Mill Valley Film Festival  which runs through Sunday night with a flurry of screenings and closing events.  For those of us in Sonoma County, still reeling from the recent closure of our beloved Rialto Lakeside Cinemas, this is a fantastic opportunity to see the launch of new films that are bound to become significant and other quieter gems than will leave us basking in their glow.   Like Mill Valley itself, the 11-day festival has a laid-back vibe but is  ranked among the top 10 nationally–selling over 40,000 tickets and welcoming more than 200 top filmmakers from around the world.  This past week’s guests have included Alejandro Gonzalez Inartitu, Julian Schnabel, Edward Norton and Annette Benning.  The closing weekend promises a superb mix of dramas, comedies, compelling documentaries, programming for children, and on stage Spotlight interviews.

Last week, I spoke with co-founder Zoe Elton, who has been director of programming since the festival began 33 years ago.  Elton worked with a team who viewed film submissions from over 4o countries and whittled it down to the 143 films that are presented.   What does she look for?  “I call it ‘informed intuition,’ said Eltman.  “I have trained myself to really look at films, not in a film criticism kind of way, but I try more to see what the filmmaker’s intention is and how successful they are in fulfilling that, at getting to the core truth of what they are exploring.  When a film starts, you get an idea, a jolt, right out of the gate, whether it’s working on its own terms or not.  In terms of topics, we look at what the consensus is that is coming out of films themselves about what is important and we let that speak.  It’s fascinating how in looking at films from over 40 countries, you can actually see these connective threads of important issues.”  

Co-founder and Executive Director Mark Fishkin confirmed “We’ve been very lucky that we’ve shown really important films that date way back to (1987) “Walking on Water,”  the pre-release title for title for “Stand and Deliver,”  which went on to become the highest grossing independent film of its time and, more recently, “Precious ”—films that really established themselves in the genre.   Over the years, we have built real trust with our audience and with filmmakers.  And, in this box office return-oriented environment, the  festival becomes very significant because it allows you to see films that you might not see anywhere else.” 

Friday night kicks off of with Swedish filmmaker Stefan Jarl’s much-awaited documentary “Submission,” inspired by the results of a blood test that Jarl took that revealed an alarming number of industrial chemical toxins in his blood.   Years ago, Jarl began fascinated with shooting a documentary about how humans manipulated nature and how nature strikes back.  In “Submission,” Jarl interviews prominent scientists to find out just what problems this build-up of chemicals in the human body can cause.  He brings in his pregnant friend, the Swedish actress Eva Rose, who is also tested, to explore the lingering unknown impacts on unborn children.  American musician Adam Wiltzie from the band Stars of the Lid made the music and calls the film “a horror movie for the 21st century.”  (Friday, October 15, 6:30 PM and Saturday October 16, 4:45 PM Rafael Theatre, San Rafael)

Helen Mirren stars as the sorcerer "Prospera" in Julie Taymor's adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest." Image Melina Sue Gordon, 2010 Tempet Production LLC.

Are middle-aged women invisible?  A loaded question if ever there was one. With such a concentration of accomplished and vibrant older women in the Bay Area, we sometimes seem to forget—or do we?– that, for women, aging also means negotiating many transitions related to society’s norms  about sexuality, vitality and relevance.  

Julia’s Disappearance” (Giulias Verschwinden) is a German coming of age comedy starring actress German actress Corrina Harfouch. One the very day Julia turns 50, she suddenly realizes that things have shifted, not so much in her but in the way she is perceived and that in turn, impacts the way she acts (out).   The film has its North American premiere at Mill Valley. Subplots revolve around age– smitten teens and Julia’s rebellious 80 year old mother.  (Friday October 15, 9 PM, Rafael Theatre, San Rafael)

On Saturday’s must-see list is Director Julie Taymor’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s last play “The Tempest” starring Helen Mirren as a gender-switched sorcerer Prospera, the exiled ruler of Milan, who has been banished to an island with her daughter, Miranda.  Prospera schemes and plots revenge by conjuring up a storm that traps those who wronged her onto the island where she presides and hatches a scheme to steal back the throne for her daughter.  (Saturday, October 16, 8:45 PM, Sequoia Theatre, Mill Valley)

Ineke Houtman’s film “The Indian” (De Indiaan), has its North American premiere on Sunday and is part of the Children’s FilmFest.  It tells a (fictionalized) story close to hearts of many international adoptees and adoptive parents—how to handle the inevitable situation that emerges when your child understands that he is from another culture, is different from his adoptive parents and wants to know more about who he really is.  Eight year old Koos Steggerda desperately wants to look like his adoptive Dutch father but that’s going to be a tall order for the small dark-haired boy Peruvian boy who is Indigenous.  One day, by accident, Koos meets another Peruvian boy in the market and at that moment he meets and sees his own face, a life-changing moment for any adoptee. (Sunday 12:15 PM, Rafael Theatre, San Rafael)

Sunday also includes two important documentaries.

In Julia's Schulberg's restoration of her father Stuart Schulberg’s film "Nuremberg: Its Lessons for Today," courtroom cameras capture the very first trial of Nazis. Nuremberg introduced an explosive and controversial principle into international law: the idea that political, military and business leaders could be held personally liable for waging aggressive warfare, for murdering civilians or captured enemies, and for "crimes against humanity." Film still courtesy of Julia Schulberg.

One of the greatest real courtroom dramas in history “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today,” shows how the international prosecutors built their case in the early 1940’s against the top Nazi war criminals using the Nazis’ own films and records.  The trial established the “Nuremberg principles,” laying the foundation for all subsequent trials for crimes against the peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The back story behind this film’s 2009 restoration is fascinating. In 2006, producer Sandra Schulberg, granddaughter of former Paramount studio chief B.P. Schulberg, got a grant to write The Celluloid Noose, a forthcoming book about her father Stuart Schulberg and uncle Budd Schulberg’s hunt for Nazi film and photo evidence that was integral to the Nuremberg trial (which convened in 1945). In 2009, she completed (with Josh Waletzky) the restoration of her father’s filmthe restoration of her father’s film and why it never released in the U.S. remains a mystery.  The Mill Valley screening will be the West Coast premiere of this critically important documentary.  (Sunday, October 17, 2 PM, Sequoia Theatre, Mill Valley)

Ever wonder how effective Peace Corps missions are over the long run?  Niger 66, A Peace Corps Diary by award-winning filmmaker Judy Irola has its world premiere at Mill Valley and looks back on a critical Peace Corps mission in Niger that Irola participated in.  In the summer of 1966, a group of 65 idealistic Peace Corps volunteers headed for Africa and landed in the dusty, heat-scorched desert of Niger.  They stayed for two years working in agriculture, digging wells and starting health clinics for women and their babies.  In 2008, five of them returned to Niger for three weeks to revisit the country and witness how their work had improved the lives of the people there.  Irola captured the poignant experience from village to village. (Sunday, October 16, 2:30 PM, Sequoia Theatre, Mill Valley)

The festival concludes on Sunday night with two screenings that will be hard to choose between.

 In “The Debt,” a group of Israeli Mossad agents– Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson and Helen Mirren–search for a Nazi war criminal

In "127 Hours," Bay Area actor James Franco plays hiker Aron Ralston who becomes pinned under a bolder while hiking solo in Southern Utah and is forced to cut off his arm. Franco, who has also been in Pineapple Express, Milk and Spider Man , will be honored in a "Spotlight presentation at the Rafael Film Center on Sunday, October 17.

they failed to capture 30 years earlier.  Mirren’s character lied about killing him so when he surfaces, she has to cover her tracks.  The unbearable weight of this secret she has carried has unforeseen consequences. The film is directed by John Madden, who achieved great success with “Shakespeare in Love.” (Sunday, October 17, 5 PM and 5:15 PM, Sequoia Theatre, Mill Valley)

In “127 Hours,” Bay Area native James Franco, plays Aron Ralston, a hiker whose solo trip in remote Southern Utah goes tragic when he is pinned under a bolder that falls on him and he decides to cut off his arm.  The film was directed by Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and based on Ralston’s harrowing story Between a Rock and a Hard Place.  After the screening, Franco will take the stage for an onstage Spotlight interview with Danny Boyle.   

(“127 Hours” screens Sunday, October 16, 5 PM, Rafael Theatre, San Rafael)  Franco will be at a reception at Frantoio Restaurant & Olive Oil Company at 1:30 PM. (152 Shoreline Highway, Mill Valley)  ($85 for the reception and Spotlight interview following “127 Hours”; $30 screening and Spotlight interview)  Franco also stars in “William Vincent” about a Manhattan-dwelling outsider who slips into the shady New York crime world. (“William Vincent” screens Saturday, October 16, 9:30 PM, Sequoia Theatre, Mill Valley and Sunday, October 1617, 4:30 PM, Rafael Theatre, San Rafael)

Tickets: Prices vary for screenings and closing events.  Check for availability and additional screenings at

October 14, 2010 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFIFF Review: “The Reckoning” Pamela Yates’ extraordinary documentary on the ICC and war crimes prosecution…prepare to be stirred, shaken

The Reckoning, Bogoro, Susan Meiselas, Magnum.

The Reckoning, Bogoro, Susan Meiselas, Magnum.

Emotions ran high at Monday’s West Coast premiere of  Pamela Yates’ new film “The Reckoning, ” a compelling overview of the first six years of the ICC, International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent international court for prosecuting crimes against humanity, war crime and genocide.  The documentary film, a contender for the coveted $15,000 Golden Gate Gate award announced this Wednesday, is one of two important films at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, April 23- May 7,  that explore genocide and efforts to restore justice.  Through accounts offered by victims, ICC lawyers, advocates and an active opponent of the ICC, director Pamela Yates has created a compelling and often heartening account of the pursuit of justice and its effects, both direct and indirect, on murderers (frequently in positions of leadership) who formerly believed they could act with impunity.

The ICC came into being on July 1, 2002 — the date its founding treaty, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, came into force and it can only prosecute crimes committed on or after that date. The court’s official seat is in The Hague, The Netherlands, but its proceedings may take place anywhere.  “The Reckoning” explores the history of the court’s establishment and follows ICC Argentinean prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo and his team of prosecutors, for three years across four continents as investigate and pursue Lord’s Resistance Army leaders in Uganda, track down Congolese warlords, pressure the U.N Security Council to help indict Sudan’s president, Omar Al-Bashir, for the Darfur massacres and pressure the Columbian government to prosecute those at the highest ranks responsible for brutal systematic killings that occurred in Columbia.  Ocampo rose to public attention in 1985, as Assistant Prosecutor in the Argentina’s “Trial of the Juntas“—the first time since the Nuremberg Trials that senior military commanders were prosecuted for mass killings.

Watching the film is both an education and an emotional catharsis: we are sickened by the graphic footage of atrocities we have read about.  Senior Trial Attorney Christine Chung and Deputy Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda are particularly persuasive as they explain their backgrounds and commitment to prosecuting the top criminals who have so far gotten away with horrific crimes against humanity.  As we follow Ocampo’s team along narrow paths to killing fields in four continents, we are taken aback by the contrast–lush fertile landscapes that upon closer inspection are laden with skulls, human bones, and teeth.  The survivors, often women, who were left for dead, and who have agreed to testify, talk about surviving brutal beatings, rape and the systematic murder of their families and neighbors, often by conscripted child soldiers.  We are sickened further by the frank descriptions of massacre given by former conscripted killers, abducted as young children and trained to kill.  The common thread in all these killings—to obliterate by the swiftest means possible.   We are also sickened that the U.S., which was instrumental in setting up the fundamental building blocks of the court, pulled back under the Bush Administration and refused to become a signatory.  We listen as renowned American lawyer and diplomat David Scheffer who served as the first United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues, during President Bill Clinton’s second term lays out the arguments in favor of U.S. participation and multilaterism in this important endeavor.   His explanation resonates at a very deep level with the principles of justice, leadership through example and intolerance for impunity honored by most Americans.  Scheffer led the U.S. negotiating team in the United Nations talks on the ICC and while he signed the Rome Statute hat established the ICC on behalf of the U.S. in 2000, he was critical of many aspects of the court and the negotiation process itself.  He particularly opposed the prohibition on any party making reservations to the Rome Statute and the manner in which the Statute structured the court’s jurisdiction.

If Yates’ film can be faulted, it is in this important segment which is not thorough enough in laying out the multilateral approach endorsed by Scheffer versus the unilateral course of the Bush Administration.  John Bolton,  Bush’s Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, is captured reading from his famous 2003 memo rejecting US participation and later in inflammatory bluster and the meat of the argument against U.S. membership takes a backseat to our immediate distaste for Bolton’s combative style.   The main argument that the U.S. has made against joining the ICC is that as the world’s superpower, it is frequently called upon and expected to take on a dominant policing role which puts it in a high liability situation.  The ICC would put the tiniest players on the world stage–Benin or Trinidad and Tobago– on an equal footing with the United States and the U.S. has feared that could lead to unfounded accusations against U.S. soldiers assigned as peacekeepers in difficult situations.  What global leader would agree to take on such high policing responsibility if the liability isn’t commensurate with the addition responsibility?  China, Russia, India have also refused to sign.  But Washington has not only refused to ratify the Rome Statute, it has also used its political and economic leverage to undermine the ICC by demanding that states sign bilateral agreements pledging not to subject American citizens to the court.  Those who refuse could be denied U.S. military or other aid.  Scheffer argues persuasively that the court is structured adequately to prohibit such occurrances and if the U.S. were to engage in illegal activities, it should be taken to task.  Moreover,  America needs to align itself again with international law to restore our credibility as a global power.  

IF the ultimate point of this excellent film is to convince us that the US needs to join, Yates has done her job; but if Yates is striving to change the mind of those in power, she has a ways to go.  Fortunately the film is an entre to a 3 year International Justice program IJcentral by Yates to involve citizens in safeguarding international justice.  Framing a story as complex as this is daunting. Yates’ ultimate message seems to be that despite US objections, the ICC has done and will continue to do important work.   A truly international court though needs the approval and backing of the world’s most powerful states.  What are the circumstances that might bring the U.S. and other powers  into the fold?

As of March 2009, 108 states are members of the ICC.  A further 40 countries have signed but not retified the Rome Statute.  The ICC can generally exercise jurisdiction only in cases where the accused is a national of a state party, the alleged crime took place on the territory of a state party, or a situation is referred to the court by the United nations security Council.  The ICC is designed to complement existing national judicial systems: it can exercise its jurisdiction only when national courts are unwilling or unable to investigate or prosecute such crimes.  The main responsibility to investigate and punish crimes is left to the individual states.

“The Reckoning” screens: Sun May 3, 5:30 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Tues May 5, 6:00 pm at PFA, Wed May 6, 6:15 pm at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.

May 5, 2009 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment