Cars, Queens, and Eye Surgery: Saturday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

This event should really be called the Marin Film Festival. It uses theaters all over the county.

But I really did spend Saturday in Mill Valley, a town that I’ve never quite figured out geographically. I caught three films there.

B- Havana Motor Club

I’m not really a fan of car racing, which may affect my review. People who really love cars will probably enjoy it far more than I did.

Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt’s documentary looks at how this especially loud sport plays in Cuba–a country where racing cars has been outlawed for more than half a century. The film focuses on the struggle of a few enthusiasts–many of whom have been racing illegally in the streets for years–to bring it back. The film’s best scenes show how the racers and mechanics (often the same people) creatively customize American cars from the 1950s, not only to keep them running but to make them run faster than was ever intended. But when the government finally allows an open race, you can only root for its existence; you don’t really care who wins.

I was unable to stay for the Q&A with the director.

The film will screen again this coming Monday, the 12th, at 12:30 at the Sequoia.

B The Girl King
This Swedish (but English-language) historical epic focuses on Queen Kristina, a young yet intellectual monarch holding onto her power in a men’s world, while religious wars ravage Europe. She tries to bring peace, improve her subjects’ lot, and–for various reasons–avoid marriage. Malin Buska anchors the film in her sublime performance in the title role. Director Mika Kaurismäki marshals an all-around good cast and provides the appropriate atmosphere. But the film lacks a strong story arc, and the complex court politics often felt complex and confusing. I suspect that screenwriter Michel Marc Bouchard stuck too close to actual history.

After the film, we were treated to a Q&A with Kaurismäki and Buska. Some highlights:

  • How did Buska prepare for the role? “I tried to find as many books as I could. That was very difficult, but I got a bunch of them. I stayed in a cottage for half a year. I didn’t have any Internet. I was learning horseback riding and sword fighting.”
  • Was Descartes really poisoned? (The film suggests he was.) “He wasn’t used to the cold climate, and they said it was pneumonia. But when they moved his body back to Paris, they discovered poison in him.
  • Why was this Swedish film, set in Sweden, made in English? “English is now the world language. In those days, the court spoke French, not Swedish.”
  • The greatest challenge in making the film: “Shooting it in 37 days, which was not enough. I think in Hollywood it would have been 100. The costume and makeup changes took hours. I ended up shooting only three or four hours a day. Every day was a fight.

This screening was The Girl King’s the US premiere. It will play at the festival one more time: Thursday, October 15, 2:00, at the Sequoia. But don’t fret if you miss it. It will have an American release in December.

Open Your Eyes

This event was more than a movie. It had to be; the movie itself ran only 34 minutes. It was also a celebration for bettering the world, and for the Seva Foundation, which works to eradicate blindness in the developing world.

Full disclosure: I occasionally donate money to Seva.

After introductions by director Irene Taylor Brodsky and producer Larry Brilliant, we were treated to a concert by the film’s composer, Salman Ahmad. The music was meditative and haunting–I just closed my eyes and drifted with it. Very pleasant.

The documentary itself was moving and joyful. It follows an elderly couple in Nepal, both all-but-completely blind, as they travel to a clinic where Seva workers restore their eyesight. We see their travel, their very quick operations (only one eye each; they’ll get the other eyes fixed four months later), and the amazement when they can see again. Then they return home and see their grandchildren for the first time.

The film was followed by a panel discussion. In addition to Brodsky and Brilliant, Indiewood producer Michael Shamberg (Pulp Fiction, Erin Brockovich), and Sandy Herz, Director of Global Partnerships for the Skoll Foundation sat in.

(Wouldn’t you love to have the last name Brilliant? You could legitimately introduce yourself with “Hello, I’m Brilliant.”)

A few comments:

Brilliant: “Seva projects and services have given sight to millions of people. You just saw the story of two of them. The intraocular lens [IOL; the implant that makes these surgeries possible] used to cost $500 dollars each. Seva purchased a manufacturing plant. Now IOLs cost $1.67.”

Brilliant and Shamberg worked together on the thriller Contagion, which they feel helped convince congress to not gut medical research.

Of all of her films, Brodsky is “most proud of this one. I was closer to it that most of my other films. I did all the filming myself.

The short will screen again on Saturday, October 17, 8:15, at the Lark, with another film called A Children’s Song. HBO will broadcast it next year.