A space-age orphanage, cinematic sound, & trying to get pregnant: Saturday at the Mill Valley Film Festival

Here’s what I saw on my first day at this year’s Mill Valley Film Festival. Filmmaker Q&As followed all three films.

Journeys Beyond the Cosmodrome

The festival is presenting this program as a feature preceded by a short. But these are really two very short documentary features. So, I’ll give each one a quick review.

Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Afghanistan isn’t a good place to be born female. This strangely sad yet upbeat documentary looks at a school for girls in a country filled with terrorists opposed to women’s education. Along with teaching reading, writing, and math, the courageous teachers train the girls to use skateboards – on the assumption that will help their courage. The students, of course, are adorable.

I give this 40-minute documentary a B.

Journeys Beyond the Cosmodrome

Here we meet nine teenagers who have grown up in an orphanage in Kazakhstan, very close to the Baikonur Cosmodrome, where all the world’s manned spaceflights now start. We meet these kids soon before they leave the orphanage, and we hear about their pasts and hopes through their words translated into English. Director Jeanne C. Finley’s dreamy cinematography and Kri Schlafler’s Celtic-like music add to the enjoyment. But the kids never say a single bad thing about the orphanage, which makes me a bit suspicious.

I give it a B-.

Co-director Jeanne C. Finley provided the Q&A, with a few comments from a sound man whose name I didn’t get. The other director, Lyazzat Khanim, was not allowed into the country. Here are some highlights, edited for brevity and clarity:

  • We asked the kids serious questions, and they wrote answers. Then I reworked them together. Then they read them out loud. Then we had them translated into English. I didn’t want subtitles.
  • My son did the voiceover for all the boys.
  • It was never our intentions to focus on the kid’s tragedies. It’s just too hard. But this is one of the better orphanages.

You have another chance to see these films, at the BAMPFA Wednesday, October 9, at 7:00.

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound

My second program of the day was also a documentary, but this one was meant truely for movie lovers.

George Lucas once said that sound is half of the movie. Midge Costin’s entertaining documentary argues that proposition well. Audio geniuses such as Walter Murch, Ben Burtt, and Gary Rydstrom show us what they can do. Directors like Steven Spielberg and David Lynch praise them. Told chronologically for the most part, from the Vitaphone to digital sound, this film covers much of the technical advancements of the last 50 years and the artistic changes that came from them. But it ignores all of the important changes of the 1950s.

I give Making Waves a B+.

After the screening, a lot of filmmakers came on stage for the Q&A. Along with the people who made the movie, Ben Burtt and Dolby’s Ioan Allen were on hand. In fact, they did most of the talking.

The Q&A was unusually short. As usual, I edited these highlights for brevity and clarity:

  • On why Costin picked this subject: Sound always seemed too technical to me. It was “I’ll cut the movie and you’ll cut the effects.” Then I realized that the sound set the mood and tone.
  • Burtt: There’s this one scream that’s in a lot of movies. I put it in my student film. We put it in a lot of movies. It became an in-joke.
  • I don’t know if the technology changes the movies or if the movies change the technology.
  • Why did filmmakers stop using directional dialog?: It died out because it caused nausea in the audience. When you cut, the voice is suddenly coming from another direction.

You have one more chance to see Making Waves at the festival: Monday, October 7, 11:15am, at the Sequoia. The film will have a theatrical release, although as far as I can tell, it’s only Bay Area release will be in San Jose.

39½

Here’s something you rarely find in a film festival: a comedy. Of course, it’s a semi-serious, realistic comedy, but it’s a comedy.

Using live action and animation, Kara Herold’s first narrative feature follows a nearly-40 San Francisco filmmaker worried about her biological clock. She wants to have a baby (or does she?), but she has work to do, and she doesn’t even have a boyfriend. Meanwhile, she’s trying to make a movie good enough to get her into the festivals, while she wards off her mother’s bad advice (“Just have a lot of sex”).

I give 39½ a B+.

Herold and three of her co-workers came onstage to answer questions. And yes, I’ve edited these highlights for brevity and clarity:

  • Yes, the story is based on Herold’s own life. “There will be a documentary version.”
  • On casting Beth Lisick in the lead: I auditioned myself for the part. I’m not a horrible actress, but she’s better.
  • It ended up being an off-and-on five-year shoot. Did you notice that Beth’s hair changed color?
  • On combining live action and animation: I had sections I wanted to be animated. I made basic animation myself and turned it over to [animator] Sylvia Roberts.
  • I was just trying to share my experience.

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