By Mal Karman
It’s not as though Marin County needed another film festival the way it needed rain before this winter, but when Mark Fishkin decided to turn the hose on documentaries, the inaugural DocLands came out like a gusher in less than eight months. The idea for a new five-day (May 10-14) documentary film festival—featuring three sections that include The Art of Impact, The Great Outdoors and WonderLands—had been brewing in Fishkin’s brain “for a long, long time—more than 10 years,” says the founder and executive director of the Mill Valley Film Festival and the California Film Institute. “We do so much else. I’m involved in art house convergence, in getting films to the big screen, in distribution, in outreach … but eventually, with an idea, either you do it or you stop thinking about it. We finally decided to do it.”
“There are so many incredible feature docs getting out in the world lately,” says DocLands Director of Programming Joni Cooper. “An unprecedented number. We know we have a load of film lovers here in Marin, and one of our goals is to build a community around documentaries all year with special events. I think we’re spurred on by what’s going on politically.”
In that fiery category, the California premiere of Stranger In Paradise turns documentary filmmaking on its head by throwing in a thread of fiction in which Belgian actor Valentijn Dhaenens works as an immigration official interviewing real-life asylum seekers.
Remember the subprime mortgage scandal in which big banks burned homeowners like marshmallows? None of those big banks paid for their mistakes, but one, a tiny Chinatown mom-and-pop institution was targeted by New York’s district attorney and was the sole bank indicted during the scandal. Director Steve James, famous for Hoop Dreams, captures the ferocity with which the owners fought back in Abacus: Small Enough to Jail.
Dorothea Lange’s emotionally gripping photographs of Japanese-Americans forcibly interned during WWII were previously buried in the National Archives, but resurrected here in the world premiere of And Then They Came For Us. Actor George Takei, best known for his role in Star Trek and who was interned in the detention camps with his family as a small boy, is featured by local directors Abby Ginzberg and Ken Schneider.
If the political stuff gets your blood boiling, DocLands also has ways to get it feverishly pumping with films like North of Known, Mira and Freedom Under Load. In the suspenseful adventure film North of Known, two paragliders are the first to attempt crossing the 500-mile Alaskan Ridge, quickly falling behind schedule and running out of food.
Mira, part of a program called Big Waves, Big Mountains, Big Winds, follows a young woman from an impoverished childhood in Nepal to her rise as a long-distance mountain-running phenom in training for the 2016 Skyrunning World Championships, one of the world’s most physically and mentally demanding sports.
Aging sherpas, who would be considered senior citizens here, trek up and down the High Tatras mountains carrying 250 pounds on their backs through blinding snow, fierce winds and precarious footing in Freedom Under Load to deliver goods to mountain huts. Why, when a helicopter could just do a dump? Because, they say, it keeps them healthy, self-reliant, in touch with nature and, if you can believe it, grounded.
A couple of the most unique features of the new festival are its intimate DocPitch and DocTalk programs. At DocPitch, five film projects that are currently in development will be pitched at this industry forum. The audience will vote for their favorite, and that project will receive a cash award from the Filmmaker Fund.
At DocTalk, an informal discussion with filmmakers focuses on how to sustain a career in nonfiction film. Both programs are free, but tickets are required.
DocLands also offers an opening night treat on Wednesday, May 10: Nari, featuring Ravi Shankar’s daughter Gingger, blends film, archival footage and animation into a short documentary, accompanied by a live, original musical score with vocals, Indian percussion and Shankar’s unique double violin, Carlo Ribaux’s drums and Vivek Maddala’s guitar and keyboards. The 7pm film and performance will be followed by a Q&A with the musicians and the DocLands opening night party at the Elks Lodge in San Rafael.
With director Amir Bar-Lev’s Long Strange Trip, Deadheads can follow the Grateful Dead’s multi-decade rise from ragtag hippies to megastars over four hours of never-before-seen concert footage and interviews with band members.
“Even though we have so many more opportunities for content, streaming for example, we’re repeatedly subjected to sound bites and most everything seems to be on the surface,” Fishkin says of the importance of documentary filmmaking today. “At the same time we don’t really know what’s going on, whether it be Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Iran.”
The hope is that documentarians and DocLands will fill that gap.
“Starting anything from scratch is always big,” Fishkin says, “but we had the advantage of having done it before. We think it’ll be a good launch.”
DocLands Documentary Film Festival, May 10-14; doclands.com.