Shaleece Haas's 25-minute documentary, 'Old People Driving,' is receiving its world premiere on a program with two other student docs at Mill Valley.

Local Filmmakers Pour into Mill Valley

Michael Fox September 29, 2010

Four years ago, Dina Ciraulo met with a boy who would eventually play the central character’s younger brother in her debut feature, Opal. “The first thing his mother asked me was, ‘Do you think the film will ever play at the Mill Valley Film Festival?’” Ciraulo recalled. “I told her I would try, but there were no guarantees. I pushed to finish the film for the deadline, and even though Ben [Beecroft] is now a teen, I’m thrilled we will have a world premiere close to home, where the cast and crew can participate.  It’s wonderful closure to an incredibly tough process, and a classy start for the next phase.”

We can anticipate that Cynthia Pepper will likewise have her daughter, Rosie, in the house for The Silk Road, the fifth children’s short she’s screened at Mill Valley. “The film came to life when Rosie came home from school one day and told me her substitute teacher was so wonderful even though she couldn't tell if she was a man or a woman,” Pepper said. “The teacher taught them all about the Silk Road and got the class very excited about its intrigue and magic. This experience inspired me five years later to make a film about what that day must have been like from an elementary school child's point of view.”

Some 20 local filmmakers are screening new works at the Mill Valley Film Festival from October 7-17 and, from the enthusiastic comments of the dozen or so we connected with, the allure of hometown festivals cannot be overstated. There’s the sense of accomplishment at being recognized by knowledgeable programmers, the satisfaction of being presented in a well-respected, well-organized event and, not least, the pride of showing one’s work to friends and peers.

“Two years ago, MVFF selected a documentary made by Wendy Slick and I about a vibrating electrical device—the vibrator [Passion & Power: The Technology of Orgasm],” Emiko Omori noted. “This year we are honored to be selected for a documentary on another vibrating electrical device—the tattoo machine [Ed Hardy Tattoo the World].  We love MVFF!! It's classy and sassy and has really good taste.” Not that the filmmakers have anything against “bad taste;” the doc will be part of the NYMOMA series "All the Wrong Art: Juxtapoz Magazine on Film” in February.

Of course, when the subject of the film has a strong Bay Area connection, a festival invitation is even more special.

Child of Giants: My Journey with Maynard Dixon & Dorothea Lange is really a quintessentially Bay Area story,” Tom Ropelewski said. “Dixon was a central figure in San Francisco's bohemian art world at the beginning of the 20th century--he escaped the earthquake of 1906 with only a handful of [his] paintings under his arm. His wife transformed herself from a successful portrait photographer into perhaps America's greatest chronicler of the human face of the Depression by first taking pictures of vagrants outside her studio on Montgomery Street. My film is told from the point of view of their elder son, Daniel, who, along with his younger brother John, were ‘farmed out’ to foster homes for much of their youth while their parents pursued their artistic muses. As a teenager in the 1940s, Daniel even ran away and lived homeless on the streets of Oakland.”

The feature-length doc includes interviews with the famous duo’s grandchildren, including Ropelewski’s wife, screenwriter Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire). So the emotional stakes, along with all the other pressures of unveiling a film, will be pretty high when Mill Valley hosts the world premiere.

“This is my first documentary,” Ropelewski confided, “and much of its future will depend on the response we get at MVFF. Hopefully, this is where it all begins.”

Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto share some of that nervous anticipation, even though Trust: Second Acts in Young Lives is the third world premiere and fifth film overall that the duo has screened at the festival.

“Kenji and I got married in September 1985, and in October Cowgirls premiered at MVFF,” Kelly recalled. “We just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary and now we have another film premiering! Of course, with an independent film, the premiere is just the beginning.  At MVFF, Kenji and I will be learning about what Trust means to audiences and (we hope) gleaning more clues about the distribution and audience engagement we'll be doing over the next couple of years. MVFF is that kind of festival, the audiences are such that you can learn a lot from them about how future audiences will respond.”

Another world premiere, Laura Harrison and Elizabeth Federici’s Space, Land and Time: Underground Adventures with Ant Farm, revisits the legacy of the pioneering Bay Area media artists and fiercely funny rabble-rousers. “We are especially thrilled to be at the MVFF with this film because Ant Farm had an important cultural presence both in Sausalito and in San Francisco,” Harrison said. “Although Ant Farm is perhaps best known for the iconic land art piece Cadillac Ranch, Bay Area fans will perhaps more readily recall the 1975 performance Media Burn at the Cow Palace, in which the Ant Farmers drove a souped-up Cadillac through a wall of burning TV sets. Mill Valley is therefore the perfect place for our film to embark on what we hope will be a long and colorful journey on the film festival circuit.” (For those with bridge-phobia, Space, Land and Time follows its two dates in Mill Valley with an October 16 screening at the Other Cinema in San Francisco.)

Yoav Potash and Shira Potash likewise see MVFF as a potential launching pad for their one-hour doc, Food Stamped. “We're excited to premiere the film in the Bay Area at a festival that is as reputable and long-running as Mill Valley,” Yoav said. “Given that people seem a bit, well, hungry for ‘food films’ right now, we are hoping that premiering it here can open doors for TV broadcast, DVD distribution and more film festivals—all of which we are currently seeking.  We're also excited to partner with the Marin Food Bank to conduct a food drive at our screenings, to spark change around food policy and to simply enjoy sharing this homegrown film with local audiences.”

Philip Neel and David H. Jeffery’s Lesson Plan: The Story of the Third Wave revisits the infamous experiment in fascism that took place in Ron Jones’ history class at Cubberley High in Palo Alto in 1967. The local connection was a large part of the appeal of a Mill Valley world premiere, Neel said, but he also cited other benefits. “The festival offers great exposure of our film to the local media, as well as an association with some of the finest films and filmmakers we have today. We feel proud to be a part of this prestigious group.”

That emotion is seconded by animator Timothy Hittle, who’s premiering the final film in his Jay Clay trilogy of stop-motion shorts, The Quiet Life. “I am glad to be showing it first at Mill Valley,” he said. I showed the first film of the trilogy there in 1991 and I had a great time. I've seen many films there and I feel privileged to be able to show some of my own.”

UC Berkeley journalism student Shaleece Haas is jazzed that her 25-minute documentary, Old People Driving, is receiving its world premiere on a program with two other student docs. “I am a Bay Area filmmaker and both of the stars of my film—100-year-old Herbert Bauer and 97-year-old Milton Cavalli (my grandfather)—will be at the screening for a Q&A,” she said. “It means a great deal to me to premiere at a festival that values filmmakers and where the amazing men who made this film special will be able to participate.” After Mill Valley, Haas heads to the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas and a conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the National Transportation Safety Board, followed by screenings in Davis, Sacramento and Berkeley.

Veteran filmmaker Frederick Marx (Hoop Dreams), who will be at Mill Valley with his Tibetan portrait, Journey from Zanskar, takes a more measure view of the festival landscape. “It's often difficult to get local festivals to recognize local filmmakers—call it the hometown bias in reverse,” he said. “So it's noteworthy and commendable that MVFF is recognizing much of the rich filmmaking talent that abounds here.” Upcoming venues for Journey from Zanskar include Fromm Hall on the University of San Francisco campus (October 15), opening night of the Third I fest (November 3 at Brava Theater) and the Red Vic Moviehouse (November 7 and 8).

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