Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Inside Programming the Mill Valley Film Festival

I got to interview Zoe Elton, Director of Programming at The Mill Valley Film Festival, 3 days before the close of this year's fest. She's been with the Festival since it's inception 32 years ago, when she sort of fell into the position at random. Previously she worked in England as a theatre director and writer. Check out our conversation below to see what she has to say about the video art community in the 80s, how documentary has changed, it feeling like a "vintage year" for film, and on what programming for the Mill Valley Film Festival is all about. (The italicized parts are the things she said that I feel are especially awesome or interesting.) Thanks Zoe!

ZoeElton & director John Woo Oct17 2009 by Tommy Lau

What was the attendance last year?
Just shy of 40,000.

And about how many films are there this year?
Around 150 films this year.

What's the mission of the Mill Valley Film Festival?
To celebrate film as art and education.

Has that stayed the same for the 32 years?
That's always been the core thing... this festival has never been competitive. The role model for us back then was Telluride... Given the proliferation of festivals in the past ten years, it's been interesting to go down that path [of being non-competitive].
Structurally and ambiently it's very different than being a competitive festival. Look around, it's beautiful (Looks around at the park we're sitting in- people sit on benches in the shade of big green trees, sunshine, flowers, as were nestled between the hills in Mill Valley). We bring filmmakers here from all over the world, and there are great connections made in this environment.

What is the Festival budget?
I don't know the exact number, but the Festival is part of California Film Institute (It's a sort of umbrella non-profit for the Fest). The Festival is the major part of CFI. There's also the Smith Rafael Film Center and CFI Education. The Smith Rafael Center has esteemed guests all year round.

What came first, CFI, or the festival?
In 1978 the festival began. Then a few years later CFI started. 12-15 years later we were offered the chance to open the San Rafael Film Center...Last year the Sequoia Theatre went on the market. Mark [Fishkin, festival director] got a group of investors together to buy the theatre.

And in what capacity did you first get involved?
I was the first actual employee of the festival. I continued and developed the video festival.

What was the video festival?
Well there was a burgeoning video art community at that time... some people looked down on it. We asked one reviewer to come and he wasn't interested in reviewing the video portion- but a lot of people in this area were tracking what was ultimately going to be digital film. The video festival was a smaller, dedicated audience. There were a lot of really amazing innovators- Coppola was a really amazing innovator at the intersection of video and film...The videos we showed were a lot of short work, a lot of documentary stuff that had been made for TV and never made it on too, and documentary was a lot different then...

We would avoid using the word "documentary" for a while to describe a film because it would kill it at the box office. Then around the opening of the Smith Rafael Film Center, there was an upsurge in documentary.

What do you think are some of the reasons for the upsurge in documentary?
I think there are several reasons. In a parallel universe, there was an upsurge in books where people were telling their autobiographies in a compelling way...And politically, people were looking for documentaries that told the truth. I think ultimately documentary makers are engaging with their art in a way that speaks to a larger audience...films like Rivers and Tides, Errol Morris's films, even films like the Buena Vista Social Club. You know before that in the 80s and early 90s a lot of documentary workers worked for PBS, so documentaries had this PBS aesthetic.

How have things changed since you've been with the festival?
Well, it's much more sophisticated now. It started as a 3 day fest and now it has grown to 11 days, and our reputation has grown immensely. A lot of times with descriptions or reviews of films you will now see "Toronto, New York, Mill Valley"

Did you get the job in programming because you were viewed as having an overall objective perspective on good film?
Well I came into it with the sense as a writer/director - no films were teaching programming etc. at that point in time...My partner at that time was a cinematographer, and I noticed that although we came at film from different parts of the art form, we often ended up with the same conclusion... A lot of the people working at the fest in the beginning were working artists...that sensibility is really important [The sensibility of knowing what it's like to be on the ground].

It seems to me there's a general rule of nature that if you're looking at 10 of something, whether it be film or paintings or what have you, there's always 1 amazing one, a few really great ones, a bunch of good ones, and a few not so great ones.

Being on a programming team, does it mean that everyone has a general agreement on what's good or does it mean everyone has a unique perspective that adds to the team?
In our screening committees we try to get people coming from diverse grounds... It's always about discussion. A part of it is that we all kind of get each other and definitely we would, you know hold each other to our arguments and opinions. It's about discussion- and there are certain things that are always indisputable.

What are the parameters for deciding whether to include a film in the festival?
Well, sometimes people say, ‘That's a Mill Valley film.' And we wonder what that means. We are very international- we have films representing 40 or 50 countries, so it's wide reaching. There's something about films that are smart, well-crafted, with a compassionate sensibility... overall they are films made by artists who are passionate about what they do. We have a lot of audiences who really support artists in achieving a vision. And the fact that we're not competitive- it really gives filmmakers a chance to offer their work up to the public, and there's always a good discussion...

Have you ever considered turning the festival into a competition?
A board member came back from Sundance once and said, let's make it competitive. We didn't see the reason for it.

Did any sponsors decrease their support this year? If so what did you cut to balance the budget?
Yeah. We made cuts across the board. We were pretty "lean" beforehand anyway- there wasn't a lot of fat to cut. We tried to balance it in such a way that we maintained quality, so that substance was still pretty significant. There were some staff cuts...it offered me the opportunity to do some "housekeeping"- I tried to restructure the department, make things go more efficiently without losing vision, quality. And I think I succeeded at that.

It feels like such a "vintage year" - a lot of really, really good films out there. I don't know why. Maybe a few years down the road we will see the affect of the economic crisis.

What's a particular festival film success story that sticks out in your mind?
There's one that's kind of great. Caroline Link did a film "Beyond Silence" that coming out of the Festival got picked up by Miramax, she got an academy award nomination for it, and her next film won an award.

Anything notable about the pool of films submitted this year?
We don't try to impose a theme or focus, but we do try to pull the prevalent theme from the pool- this year there was really an "Architects of the Avant-Garde" theme that emerged.

What's the hardest thing about being a festival programmer?
Really, really long hours. Another thing that's hard is when there are films we really, really love that we just can't fit in- making tough decisions.

What's the secret to making a good idea into a good film?
Being clear on what your intention is, and having the courage of your vision, and the courage of your aesthetic.

What do you anticipate as the role of festivals in the future?
Well I think one thing that festivals do now that won't go away is they bring the community together. One of the great things festivals do is bring filmmakers together with their audiences. Festivals offer a chance to come together. Filmmakers get a glimpse of their film's affect on audiences.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Burning Man and the Future Memory

Burning Man is an easy place to have a special experience. As you are living in a man-made city in the middle of the desert, with an extreme climate to exist in, and the week open wide without obligation to anything at all, including workplace / real-life stresses left behind at the gate to this new dimension, you find yourself doing lots of personal exploration.
Who would I be if I could be whoever I wanted?
People seem to have this in mind as they mill around the desert in tutus, shiny spandex, sparkles, or whatever it is that makes them feel most like themselves as they explore.

And I, at a time in my life where I am eager to ponder the answers to these types of questions, went into Burning Man this year open- minded, ready to receive whatever came my way.

One morning friend and fellow burner Nicole and I rode our bikes out to outer playa, where lots of cool art installations live. We found ourselves riding towards a little hut surrounded by wire trees temporarily planted in the desert floor. We ducked inside the hut to find the walls plastered with what looked like lots of different family photos (We later found out these were photos of "happy memories" people had sent in to the artist as he requested). A few people sat around cross-legged chatting, quietly taking a break from the outside dust, or intently writing on plastic leaves. Someone passed a laminated instruction sheet our way. If we wanted to participate we could. We curiously read up. On these plastic leaves we were instructed to write "A memory from your future," supposedly a "powerful, powerful brain exercise." Hmmmmmm say what?

I struggled. I understood the instructions and why this would be a powerful brain exercise (that once you point out something in your future all you have to do is draw a line to get there), but I had such trouble coming up with what I wanted to be my memory from my future. How do I sum up everything that I will have learned at a certain point in my future and write an event that will happen? I couldn't imagine an event because I struggled to wrap my brain around what knowledge I would have at that certain point, what event would happen, and then be able to reflect on that.

Amidst my struggle, a tall, tanned dreadlocked man decorated with loose linen, sturdy leather boots, and beads ducked in, smiling peacefully and purposefully looking around. He and another man jollily greeted one another. We soon realized he was the artist of the installation. Knowing there must be a lot of ideas behind this project, and that like most at Burning Man he would be open for a deep conversation, I approached him with my struggle. He was eager to chat. "Maybe I'm taking this too seriously," I lamented.

I stood and let him preach to me for awhile, and soon some golden words came out of his articulation. "You're never going to get to a place of ultimate achievement and understanding," he said. "That place does not exist."
I squinted and furrowed my brow, nodding slowly, realizing.
"When you get to that place you're thinking of, you'll be standing on those shoulders looking out for what's next."

Yes! It's true. Far too often I think of life as being a path to this ultimate place of understanding, success, and knowledge. Unfortunately, this means that often instead of living in the moment and focusing on what I am doing at the time, I am thinking ahead, stressing about what I should do next in order to get me to that place I think of.
I think this is an easy pattern of thinking for people to fall into. (Not that it's a bad thing to think ahead, but it is bad when it's all you can focus on).

I was struggling so much with the future memory because I was trying to think of this very point in my future when I would 'have it all figured out.' I couldn't wrap my brain around the knowledge that I would have then, because how could I? That time does not exist.

"Start with this weekend," he said. "What is something you want to happen this weekend, somewhere you'd like to be?" I nodded. The artist and I hugged goodbye. He smiled and said, "Have a great life." I, feeling much more clear, ducked out the entrance to the hut, hopped on my bike and Nicole and I rode off into the desert.

Soon enough this sign came into view.

I got off my bike and appreciated it for a moment, and took this photo. YES! There was the message again! It's so true. Don't focus on the big place or thing you want to achieve down the road, do focus on what you're doing now and put all you've got into it, because those little things will add up.
We rode on.

That night, around three or four in the morning, (The nightlife at Burning Man is just as equally awesome as the daytime life, and so one should balance when out there and get in some of each) the message came again. I and a different fellow camper Smitty, not ready yet to sleep, decided to stroll over to Center Camp -the only place at Burning Man where things are for sale, only coffee and ice, and also the hub of all the action- a stage is occupied at all hours with various performers. To our delight, a jazz trio was onstage. What a treat! At night techno music takes over the Burning Man nightlife, and the desert turns into a booming sound swamp. It's awesome, but sometimes you need a break and a new genre of music just soooothes your senses. We searched and spotted an empty couch up front- and plopped down. The musicians played a few songs, we relaxed in pleasure, Smitty fell asleep, then the keyboardist spoke up: "I'm going to kick these guys off for one last song...It took me about a year and a half to write. The chorus just came to me last month."

He sang a delightful tune, the lyrics, about finding yourself and not stressing, spoke me to clearly. Then the chorus came in,

Take - it - slow.
Let - it - go.
And soon you'll know, who you really are.

Man, could the universe be speaking to me any more clearly? We strolled back to our camp slowly, by way of the outer empty streets, which since it was only Tuesday hadn't been filled with campers yet. An hour or two before sunrise, darkness surrounded us and the stars were glorious. The chorus still plays out in my mind.

Take - it - slow.
Let - it - go.
And soon you'll know, who you really are.

ahhhh, thanks, Tuesday at Burning Man, 2009. I needed that.

*here's some interviews with burners I did post Burning Man at the car wash.

Local Swimmer Achieves her Dream

You know how people give the advice, make a goal and you'll get there? About 40 years ago, Karen Rogers was seven years old when she looked out across Lake Tahoe and told her Dad that she was going to swim (21 miles!) across it one day. This August, she did it! She started at 3am, and it took her about ten hours. The only struggle she had during the swim was about three hours in when she cramped up. Her coach on a nearby kayak gave her a bottle of Cytomax, she pounded it, and continued on her way, feeling better. Besides that she said the swim was, "easy." WOW!

I interviewed Karen about her feat for ActiveReno last month. She was September's ActiveReno athlete of the month. The thing I found most interesting about what she said was how it is while she is swimming that she is truly at her happiest. A swimmer for 10 years, I have encountered more than a few people who are like this. Swimmers tend to be a quirky bunch! It's like they only feel complete when they have swimming in their lives. I have periods like this too, when the only thing that will make me feel OK is getting in a pool and swimming hard. Karen said about halfway through these long swims is when she feels "normal." She feels most like herself in the water. She says she considers this to mean she has not fully adapted into a human.

I relate. There's something magic about being in the water for long periods of time while getting exercize. Some people just need it! I do. Maybe it has to do with connection to the earth in an intense way, as you must adapt your breathing pattern to be able to stay in the water.
Check out this video portrait of Karen Rogers.