Rewarding and off-the-radar Mill Valley Film Festival picks
Got no transition here, just another recommendation. Guru: Bhagwan, His Secretary and His Bodyguard, a Swiss documentary about the late Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh — and two of his most devoted followers, bodyguard Hugh Milne and secretary-spokesperson Sheela Birnstiel. "When did it begin to go wrong?" asks Milne early in the film, which utilizes a bounty of archival footage to chart a movement that started in the 1970s, when a charismatic guru first enthralled thousands of spiritual, sexually adventurous hippies. Milne (mournful) and Birnstiel (incredibly, still a believer) reconstruct the confusing, emotionally exhausting years that followed; the subsequent web of culty weirdness culminated with the hostile takeover of a rural Oregon community, and, most famously, an unholy collection of Rolls-Royces.
Mill Valley's shorts programs are always strong, from the "5@5" selections to the films paired with longer features throughout the fest. Of local interest, the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism presentation Pot Country (part of the "5@5: Circle of Life" program) travels 200 miles north of San Francisco to hang with marijuana farmers. The film interviews both the world's smarmiest pot lobbyist and a veteran grower prone to poetic, philosophical musings ("We didn't move here to grow marijuana. It came to us as a gift"). Directors Kate McLean and Mario Furloni are particularly interested in divisive Prop 19 (which would have legalized weed for personal use, but had the potential to squeeze out small farmers), and the fact that, like, everyone grows pot these days. "We came [to Northern California] to be away from the mainstream culture," remarks the grower. "Now, we're in it."
Screening alongside two other shorts in a program dubbed "The Barber, The Brush, and the Baton" is Paige Bierma's A Brush With the Tenderloin, which follows muralist Mona Caron as she creates her landmark piece at Jones and Golden Gate Streets in San Francisco. Despite the neighborhood's bad rep, its residents — no matter how intimidating they may look — rally around Caron's efforts with positivity and pride.
The art theme continues with Library of Dust, screening before William Kurelek's The Maze. Directed by Ondi Timoner and Robert James, Library draws inspiration from David Maisel's photography collection of the same name. His subject? Abandoned canisters of human ashes discovered at the Oregon State Hospital. Library recounts how the canisters were found and how Maisel's haunting artwork came about; it also delves into the troubled history of mental health care. Despite the tragedy of the forgotten ashes — very few have been claimed to date, though the "reunions" captured on camera are poignant — the resulting media storm was enough to convince voters that Oregon was long overdue for new mental health facility. Powerful stuff, all vividly explored in the span of 16 minutes.
MILL VALLEY FILM FESTIVAL
Oct. 6-16, most shows $13.50
Various North Bay venues