Local Talent Lies Behind Two Powerful New Documentaries
By Sura Wood
“26.2 to Life” and "The Art of Eating: The Life of M. F. K. Fisher" coming soon to a cinema near you!
From prison dramas like HBO’s “Oz” to “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Escape from Alcatraz,” Hollywood has been obsessed with life behind bars and the lurid backstories of the incarcerated. However, “26.2 to Life,” a polished, engrossing documentary set in San Quentin, a penal institution built on an incomparably beautiful site in Marin County, offers a nuanced, radically different perspective. Executive produced by San Francisco veteran filmmaker, Jennifer M. Kroot, and directed and co-produced by Christine Yoo, the film, which opens with the jolting clang of closing iron gates, takes us into the notorious maximum-security facility that houses lifers and death-row inmates. There we meet members and volunteer staffers of the 1000 Mile Club, a group of marathon runners, who train all year for an over-26 mile, 105-lap event that’s more of an endurance test than a race. Most won’t finish the course and, for that matter, some won't be released until they are well into their eighties, if ever; the latter another kind of long distance run altogether. Dressed in white t-shirts and khaki shorts, training gives the men a taste of elusive freedom and a fleeting sense of normalcy and purpose, though, as one soberly concedes, “This is still prison.” Modest 77-year-old coach Frank Ruona says he never asks the men about the heinous crimes they committed, and, when pressed to reflect on why he has stayed since 2005, demurs, describing himself as “my brother’s keeper.”
"26.2 to Life": LaCedrick Johnson and Markelle “the Gazelle” Taylor navigate the toughest corner on the San Quentin Prison Marathon “course.”
Yoo primarily focuses on three mature model prisoners, compelling, articulate interviewees who clearly felt safe sharing recollections of their abuse and violence-plagued lives and the criminally bad choices that got them locked up. “The credit for such incredible access really goes to Christine’s dedication and warmth,” says Kroot. “She went to San Quentin every chance she could get, even when we weren’t filming. The guys could see she didn’t have an agenda and was there to understand them as human beings. They trusted her and opened up.” Yoo also elicits touching responses from their relatives: baffled parents, wives and kids battling loneliness, and holding on to a sliver of hope for reunion and redemption.
The track record of the program, and the men in it, such as Rahsaan Thomas, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work on the prison podcast, “Ear Hustle,” whose sentence was commuted in February, make a case for successful rehabilitation. Of the 45 club members who’ve been released, we’re told, none has re-offended. We watch as the lanky Markelle Taylor, dubbed “the gazelle of San Quentin,” gets his walking papers after 18 years “inside” — he runs the Boston Marathon shortly thereafter — and savors his first hours as a free man with his coach, perusing the menu at a gourmet café, his face full of wonder.
→ “26.2 to Life,” opens September 22 at the Roxie Theater and Rafael Film Center
Roxie Theater: post-screening Q&A with director Christine Yoo, and special guests, on Friday, 9/22, after the 6:30 PM screening, Saturday, 9/23, after the 4:00 PM screening, and Sunday, 9/24, after the 12:30 PM screening.
MFK Fisher at Last House Sonoma, 1984
Food, glorious food and one of the most eloquent purveyors of its joys is the subject of “The Art of Eating: The Life of M. F. K. Fisher.” Fisher, a lyrical writer known for her philosophical, sensual, sometimes erotic ruminations on life, love and food and the inextricable link between them, authored of more than 30 books and numerous articles. “When I write of hunger,” she once opined. “I am really writing about love and the hunger for it."
This definitive documentary of her legacy is an all-San Francisco affair, from its director and voice actress to the post production team and composer. Producer Gary Meyer, co-founder of Landmark Theatres, former co-director of the Telluride Film Festival and driving force behind the venerable Balboa Theater for over a decade, is well known in Bay Area film circles.
The fearless, independent-minded daughter of a newspaper publisher father, Fisher grew up in Whittier, California, at the turn of the twentieth century, moved to Dijon, France, on the eve of WW2, and eventually settled in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, spending her final years in Glen Ellen. Like many before and since, it was in France, as a young newlywed, that she discovered “a frank, sensuous realization of food” and her true self.
”One of her greatest gifts to the world is the way she conveyed the importance of pleasure,” observes her friend, Marin writer Michele Anna Jordan, who is among the ranks of ardent admirers — Alice Waters, Anne Lamott and Ruth Reichl, to name a few — included in the film. But Fisher’s story — the lovers, failed marriages, tragedies and triumphs — is largely revealed through old footage and photographs and the remarkable candor of her evocative language, drawn from archival interviews and writings heard in voice-over.
Revered by the food community and feminists, Fisher, who died in 1992, was ahead of her time. She was a single mother and working woman, when both were rare; the “godmother” of the fresh-food movement; a master of food as metaphor, and a singularly bold, iconoclastic female presence when men dominated restaurant kitchens and the food writing arena. “I was immediately smitten by her,” recalls director/producer, Gregory Mark Bezat, who met Fisher in 1981. “She was erudite, flirtatious, daring, witty, and captivating, just like her prose,” he says, “But, her voice transcends food. It’s ultimately about companionship, friendship and curiosity. Our film is not only about her words and their beauty but the emotions they arouse.“
→ “The Art of Eating: The Life of M. F. K. Fisher,” opens Oct. 1 at the Vogue Theater