A festival built solely on documentary films has become a big success.
IT IS CLOSING night of the Doclands Documentary Film Festival, May 2018, and 16 Bars, a film about the United States incarceration system, has just had its world premiere in a packed Smith Rafael theater. The film, featuring Arrested Development singer-songwriter Speech Thomas and four inmates in a Richmond, Virginia, jail, weaves a big-picture story of the addiction, mental health, race and class issues that lead to imprisonment. Teddy Kane, a former inmate and central figure in the film who is living homeless on the streets of Miami, has been flown to San Rafael for the opening. After the film, Kane takes the stage to recite a poem he has written. When he finishes, the audience stands in ovation. Then it is time for questions, and the room is silent. All eyes turn toward a woman holding the microphone, preparing to ask a question. But no words come, only tears.
“She just stood there crying,” says 16 Bars director Sam Bathrick. “The Doclands screening opened our eyes to the power of this film, and the power of what can happen in a room with a live audience.” By the end of the night, a donor had stepped up to offer Teddy Kane funding to go into Serenity Knolls treatment and rehabilitation center in Forest Knolls. According to Bathrick, Kane is thriving in the treatment program and will have housing and job support when he graduates. “With this film we want to humanize folks behind bars. We want viewers to stop and say, ‘Wow, these are real people with real stories. They are trying and are imperfect and deserve a second chance,’ ” Bathrick says. Having witnessed the power of this film, he feels a greater responsibility to develop a distribution plan aimed at education — in high schools, jails, police departments — and at fundraising for prison-reform nonprofits.
Joni Cooper, Doclands director of programming, has been producing or programming documentary films for 20 years, but she still gets chills and shivers at screenings, as she did at this one. “This is the power of documentary,” she says. “Although I love narrative films, these are amazing real stories about real superheroes.” Cooper, who was executive director at Doxa Documentary Film Festival in Vancouver and director of the Banff Mountain Film Festival, had worked on and off with the Mill Valley Film Festival when, in 2015, MVFF founder/executive director Mark Fishkin approached her with an idea. “He said, ‘You know what I want to do, I want to start a documentary film festival,’ ” Cooper recalls. “And I immediately said, ‘OK, let’s do it!’ ” Although the MVFF has an excellent documentary program, Valley of the Docs, both felt certain there was room for an entire festival built on documentaries, especially in Marin county where, from Cooper’s perspective, a significant number of people do not have interest in blockbusters or even narrative films, but love documentaries. Already Cooper and Fishkin’s instincts have proven correct; in 2018, the festival’s second year, attendance increased by 50 percent.
Doclands features films in three categories: Art of Impact, The Great Outdoors, and Wonderland. Impact films, such as 16 Bars, are pointedly aimed at inspiring public engagement, but all three categories can move audiences toward change and action. “The Great Outdoors films offer inspiration, which compels us to help save our environment. And the Wonderland documentaries are so important because they lift our spirits and give us hope, which strengthens us and helps us to act,” Cooper points out.
Doclands has featured several films with unconventional distribution models meant to fuel activism and fundraising. Victoria Sloan Jordan and her partner, photographer Chris Jordan, spent eight years making Albatross, documenting the albatross population on Midway Atoll, a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific. An environmental tragedy unfolds as thousands of young birds lie dead, their stomachs opening in decay to reveal plastic items, the legacy of our single-use plastic lifestyle. “It is not a film that preaches, preaches. Instead it shows you the facts in beautiful cinematography and you cannot help but be affected,” Cooper says. “I personally will never use single-use plastics again. And now I speak up about it.”
The Albatross team eschewed traditional distribution channels and instead offered free streaming on June 8, 2018, World Oceans Day, and ongoing free access for education and fundraising purposes. They have partnered with ocean conservation and anti– plastic pollution organizations such as Audubon, Sea Shepherd and Friends of Midway Atoll, and they’ve received requests to screen Albatross from countries around the globe, including India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Chile and Australia. “People want to host screenings because there is value in watching the film as a community,” Victoria Jordan says. “They come together and understand that their grief about what we are losing is not a dark hole of despair. It is a process we need to go through to galvanize ourselves and take action.”
Soon after the Mill Valley Film Festival 2018 wraps, Cooper will begin receiving new submissions for Doclands 2019, and right now she has one concern: too many great films. “Each year more and more powerful documentaries are being made and are coming to us. Trying to pick and choose between these films, oh my God, it is a struggle.”