Films for Good: The Power of Advocacy Documentaries at the Mill Valley Film Festival’s Active Cinema Program

Too often, issues regarding healthcare, the environment, politics and racism go unaddressed, drowned out in the deluge of news and information pouring out of our TVs and smart devices every day.

The power of call-to-action documentaries is that they offer shelter from the flood, giving us an opportunity to focus, turn off our phones and learn about issues that affect us all in ways we might not even know. Cinema has the power to make real change, and the Mill Valley Film Festival’s (MVFF) Active Cinema program aims to harness that power and shed light on pressing issues in a way that’s both educational and entertaining.

MVFF Active Cinema Manager Maribel Guevara helps guide us through the five Active Cinema films poised to make the world a better place.

Path of the Panther

Path of Panther
Photo courtesy of Carlton Ward

A stunningly beautiful nature advocacy documentary, Path of the Panther tells the tale of the endangered Florida panther and the guardians fighting to save them. The panthers are photographed and recorded in their natural habitat of the Florida Everglades by National Geographic photographer Carlton Ward, Jr., who seeks to raise awareness about the harsh reality that they face extinction if we do not intervene. Far from melancholic, the film ends on a hopeful note that, with a concerted effort on behalf of wildlife organizations and generous folks all around the globe, we can protect the Florida panther for generations to come. 

“The quality of the imagery in this film is just so beautiful,” Guevara gushes. “The people in the film work so hard to save the panthers from extinction, and we’re going to find ways for people in Marin County to help save the panthers as well.”

Deconstructing Karen

Deconstructing Karen

In Deconstructing Karen, two women of color host private events across the country called “Race to Dinner,” inviting white women to sit down for dinner, drinks and an unflinchingly honest discourse about white supremacy. The film isn’t for the weak of heart — the titular “Karens” are forced to reckon with the delusions and points of ignorance that both benefit and cripple them in their day-to-day lives. The dinner is a difficult, intense and at times painful process for all involved. But the conversation is nonetheless essential to the progress and evolution of our society as a whole. 

“I’m a brown woman, but I felt how racist I’ve been watching the movie,” Guevara explains. “We’re trained to be racist in this country, and the subjects of the film don’t hold anything back. White women being asked why they are or aren’t racist reveals a big disconnect, particularly from the perspective of a woman of color.”

The Young Vote

The Young Vote

During the 2020 presidential election, a group of student activists from across the country show the power of civic engagement to a new generation of young voters in The Young Vote. Whether it’s a 24-year-old political organizer and scholar in Georgia, or two high school juniors fighting for Independent and Non Party Affiliated votes despite the fact that they aren’t old enough to vote themselves, the remarkable subjects of the film fight to increase young voter turnout. Only 39% of registered young people voted in the 2016 presidential election, and filmmaker Diane Robinson hopes to change that with this incisive, jubilant documentary.

“It’s such an inspiring and uplifting film,” Guevara says. “Most of our audience probably won’t need to go register to vote, but it’s still uplifting to see what younger generations are bringing to our politics in this country.”

The Quiet Epidemic

The Quiet Epidemic

Largely ignored and terrifyingly widespread, Lyme disease is one of the most misunderstood diseases in the medical field. The Quiet Epidemic follows patients as they cope with the effects of Lyme disease and delve into its history to understand why it’s been allowed to spread since its discovery in 1975. The film reveals that much of the research done on Lyme has been buried for years, even as the disease continues to spread across the Northeast United States via ticks many people can find in their own backyards.

“For me, it was a huge eye-opener,” Guevara says. “It’s scary, too. This film shows how this country has gotten Lyme disease wrong on the medical side, the political side, and the scientific side for many years. Unfortunately, there are many stories of people with Lyme disease who were never diagnosed, or were mistreated, or believe they didn’t get the assistance they needed from insurance companies that abandoned these patients for lack of evidence/diagnosis.”


Photo courtesy of Trip Jennings

As wildfires continue to ravage communities in California and Oregon, revelatory documentary Elemental refocuses the conversation around wildfires to encompass not just the forested areas of our communities, but the residential areas where citizens’ homes remain largely unprotected against the growing threat of wildfires. Climate experts, fire survivors and native peoples are interviewed, providing insight into how we can better protect our homes against wildfires and prevent more of our neighborhoods from getting burned to the ground.

“The festival gets a lot of fire films submitted, but this is one of the best executed,” Guevara explains. You typically hear about winds, PG&E, weather and climate change when wildfires are discussed. But homes are lost, and according to the film, a lot of that could be avoided if they were designed in a fire-proof way. Marin is on a fire-front area, and I hope that when people see this film and think about their own homes, or they hear about other folks’ homes, they’ll join the conversation. The beautiful thing about these kinds of films is that they start these conversations.”

Bernard Boo

Bernard Boo is an AAPI arts and entertainment critic, Bay Area native and proud member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. Find more of his work at PopMatters, Den of Geek and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to him on the Your Asian Best Friends podcast.