Film Festivals for All Tastes

by Sura Wood

A trio of long-running local festivals, with films that address subjects from human rights and the careers of master dance choreographers to heroic figures who cut against the grain, open this month around the Bay.

The 41st Mill Valley Film Festival launches with the powerful “A Private War,” a portrait of the fearless, crusading journalist Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) that reveals the psychic price
of bearing witness to war’s carnage. A driven war correspondent for the British paper The Sunday Times, Colvin gave up personal relationships, physical safety and ultimately sacrificed her life to be on the front lines of global conflict. (The trademark eye patch she wore concealed wounds inflicted by a grenade attack in Sri Lanka.) The film follows her and her trusted war photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) on a perilous and fateful mission to the city of Homs, Syria. Colvin’s family claims that the Syrian government killed Colvin to silence her reporting.

Berkeley filmmaker Connie Field’s probing documentary “The Whistleblower of My Lai” tells of a different kind of courage. Its subject is the late Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War who exposed the My Lai massacre. Flying over the Vietnamese countryside in 1968, Thompson and his crew observed American soldiers in the midst of killing over 500 Vietnamese villagers; he made a fateful decision to intervene. The film melds old news footage and photographs and a chamber opera composed by Jonathan Berger that builds on Thompson’s recollections of the tragedy—and the consequences he faced for reporting the atrocity to his superiors—shared as he was dying of cancer.

A pair of Oscar-winning directors, Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and Alfonso Cuaron (“Gravity,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien”), bring their latest projects to the festival. McQueen’s “Widows,” a heist movie he co-wrote with “Gone Girl” author Gillian Flynn, is an irreverent take on female agency. It features an ethnically diverse cast of strong, gun-toting female protagonists led by actress Viola Davis. Adapted from a 1980s British miniseries and transplanted to Chicago, it involves a team of bereaved, financially desperate widows who finish a robbery engineered by their late husbands. Cuaron’s “Roma” is a largely autobiographical drama that harkens back to his youth in Mexico City in the early 1970s. Evocatively shot in black and white, the movie returns to the middle-class neighborhood where Cuaron grew up and draws on memories of his boisterous family as well as the shadowy lives of the young, poorly educated maids who helped raise him and his siblings.

Oct. 4 → 14;

United Nations
Association Film Festival


UNAFF has assembled 60 documentaries on pressing human rights issues, from climate change and gender equality to hate crimes. The fest’s program also includes documentaries on irrepressible individuals. Barry Avrich’s “Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz” chronicles the life of the last surviving Nuremberg trials prosecutor, who went on to campaign for restitution to victims of the Holocaust as well as to lobby for the establishment of the International Court in The Hague. Tirelessly fighting crimes against humanity and advocating “law not war,” the 98-year-old Ferencz is a tough lawyer who asks hard questions. It’s the bravery and resilience of Iraqi refugee Ghazwan Alsharif that stand out in “From Baghdad to the Bay,” a film that traces a remarkable journey Alsharif was lucky to survive. While living in Iraq, he had been a translator for the U.S. military, which wrongfully accused him of being a double agent and subsequently tortured him. Shunned by his family and native country, he rebuilt his life in the Bay Area and came out as a gay man. “Lotte That Silhouette Girl” pays belated tribute to Lotte Reiniger, the little-known, German-born pioneer of silhouette animation. This ingenious effect, produced by the interplay of backlighting and cardboard cut-outs, makes characters appear as black silhouettes on screen. The film mingles Reiniger’s narration with a lush musical score, examples of her influential silhouette style, and puppets that give voice to her reminiscences. Reiniger is credited with making the oldest known animated feature, “The Adventures of Prince Achmed’ (1926), and inventing a precursor to the multi-plane camera, a revolutionary contribution to animation often attributed to Disney.

Oct. 12 → 28;

San Francisco
Dance Film Festival


SFDFF kicks off with “Play Serious,” a documentary by T.M. Rives who accompanied the notoriously unpredictable Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman during his making of “Play,” a new work commissioned by the Paris Opera Ballet. Ekman also helmed his own documentary, “Creative: Alexander Ekman’s Study in Creativity,” which is slated to be shown at the festival. In it he investigates the origins of the creative impulse through conversations with scientists, professors, artists and movie directors. Showcasing the inherent athleticism of dance, “BaseBallet: Into the Game” is an Emmy-award-winning documentary with an original score that demonstrates how six young dancers transformed AT&T Park into a massive ballet stage. The film is narrated, in part, by Giants announcer Mike Krukow, whose son, Weston Krukow, a former member of Smuin Ballet, performed with the group and acted as co-choreographer. In “Danseur,” director Scott Gormley sheds light on why so few boys pursue their interest in ballet; he attributes it to pervasive harassment, bullying and homophobia. According to the film, which incorporates stories from male dancers who have successful careers with major ballet companies, sexism is built into classical ballet, an art form that idealizes women and relegates men to the secondary role of partners.

Henri de Gerlache and Jean de Garrigues explore the ambition and creative process of the French dancer/choreographer in “Maurice Béjart: The Soul of Dance.” For their detailed profile, the filmmakers use two of Béjart’s signature ballets—“Symphony for a Man Alone” and “The Rite of Spring”—as a framework, complemented by archival materials and comments by Béjart’s colleagues, who reflect on a talented man who rose from the rough streets of Marseille to the world’s premier stages.

Oct. 4 → 14;