Most years, filmmakers, actors and producers from around the world fly out to Marin from across the globe to attend the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF). This year, due to travel restrictions as a response to Covid-19, there will be a stronger emphasis on local films and filmmakers. Here are nine MVFF films with Bay Area ties — from movies featuring local directors or actors to films shot right here.
Influential Bay Area comic artist Spain Rodriguez was a one-of-a-kind provocateur. Boundary-pushing comics like Trashman earned him a cult following and a reputation as something of a transgressive, left-wing madman. Rodriguez’s widow, Susan Stern, paints a loving, brutally honest portrait of the late artist in this documentary.
“I’m so happy that Bad Attitude is going to be at the Mill Valley Film Festival,” Stern says. “It’s a homecoming. This is our hood. The Mission and the Haight-Ashbury is where Spain’s comics blossomed.”
Born in Chicago
The origin story of Chicago Blues is one of cross-cultural enlightenment. In the early 1960s, a group of young, white musicians were invited to sit in on jam sessions with Black pioneers like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy, who taught the teenage prodigies the ins and outs of the craft in Westside and Southside Chicago music clubs. Featuring rare archival footage, this rousing music doc celebrates the roots of musicians like Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield and Barry Goldberg, and how they learned from the legends of the art form. “It’s an important story to tell,” says Bay Area-based director Bob Sarles. “The blues migrated from the South and became electrified in Chicago. We needed to tell this story because it would be lost otherwise.”
Short film Boys & Girls, by filmmaker and Marin resident Caroline Liviakis, is a sensual story of a boy and girl embroiled in a fiery power struggle. As their game of egos and posturing comes to a head, an epiphany changes the way they see one another completely. Told entirely through dance (choreographed by Liviakis), the film will be making its U.S. premiere at MVFF.
With marijuana legalized in California, this powerful true story focuses on the women and marginalized people from Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties who laid the foundation for cannabis culture in the state and now struggle to find their footing in the rapidly expanding cannabis market. Facing stringent government regulations and massive corporations looking to push them out of the market, six women fight to make a living in the industry they helped create. The film is making its Bay Area premiere at MVFF, which means a lot to filmmaker Chris J. Russo. “It’s perfect,” she beams. “This is the region where all of this rich history occurred, and I know that there will be a lot of cannabis farmers coming down to watch.”
When Bay Area native Ben Fong Torres was interviewing music legends like Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye and Tina Turner in the 1970s for Rolling Stone, he was the coolest journalist in the industry, bar none. In her expansive, deeply personal documentary, filmmaker Suzanne Kai chronicles Fong Torres’s extraordinary career, including his work at San Francisco Chinatown newspaper East-West.
The documentary shows a vulnerable side of Fong-Torres that his readership rarely got to see. “He was such a broadcast personality,” Kai explains. “For him to allow himself to get really personal… that was precious for us. He really shows his sense of humanity.” My Dead Dad When his estranged father passes away, listless skateboarder Lucas (Pedro Correa) is left to run his old man’s apartment complex. Through the stories of the complex’s eccentric tenants, Lucas is able to connect with his father on a level he never thought possible. Bay Area skate culture folk hero Andy Roy plays himself in the film, and director Fabio Frey says that the living legend was an invaluable addition to the cast. “We shot with Andy in North Hollywood at 10 p.m. with no permits, lighting a skateboard on fire,” Frey recalls. “A more traditional actor wouldn’t have done it, but Andy was super down.”
The screening of this film is being sponsored by Make It Better Media Group.
Based on the novel by Bay Area author Mitali Perkins, Rickshaw Girl tells the story of Naims (Novera Rahman), a young Bangladeshi painter who works to save her sick father by posing as a boy to drive a rickshaw. The wondrously colorful film, which is about self discovery and empowerment, highlights the beauty of Bangladesh, whose rich culture is seldom represented on the big screen. “It’s a dream come true,” says Perkins about the movie, which was filmed in her home country of Bangladesh. “To have it be made so lovingly, by Muslim hands… it’s a beautiful thing.”
Over 15 years in the making, Song for Cesar, co-directed by Bay Area filmmakers Abel Sanchez and Andres Alegria, pays homage to the Chicano movement of the 1960s and the struggles of late civil rights and farm-worker activist Cesar Chavez through the power of music. Interviews with iconic artists including Joan Baez, Carlos Santana and Cheech Marin help paint a lush portrait of the time, with the songs of the era highlighted as one of the driving forces behind the revolution. The film’s world premiere at MVFF will be accompanied by a live concert at the Sweetwater Music Hall featuring all-star guests, entitled “Bringing Forth Song and Celebration of Life.” Led by Sanchez, a storied musician in his own right, the concert will pay homage to the music that defined Chavez’s legacy. “We’re going to tie the set into the film, and we’re inviting people who were a part of the movement,” Sanchez says.
A fourth-wall breaking powerhouse of a film, Women Is Losers is a feminist tale set in 1960s and ’70s San Francisco, following Catholic high-school rebel Celina (Lorenza Izzo), who meets adversity at every turn in her search for independence in a male-dominated world. Shot in the San Francisco Mission District and Chinatown with a 97-percent inclusive crew, the film was a labor of love for writer-director Lissette Feliciano, who was heartened by the support shown by the local community. “From the bodega owners, to the coffee shop owners, to the schools, everybody found a way to accommodate us,” Feliciano recalls. Women Is Losers will be playing for a live audience in the Bay Area for the first time at MVFF, and Feliciano urges festival-goers to watch the film with family. “It’s a transformative experience when you watch it with family,” Feliciano says. “You’re going to find things out about each other that you never knew before.”
For more on Marin:
- A Sanctuary for Thought-Provoking, Society-Changing Writing: Mesa Refuge in Tomales Bay
- A Novel About the Turbulent 1960s and ’70s, From Professor, Social Justice Advocate and Writing Coach Cathy Rath
- The Best Things to Do This September in the Bay Area and Marin
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.