Dynamic Docs and Scintillating Shorts: Mammoth Lakes Film Festival

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The second full day of programming at the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival brought two dynamic documentaries and a great group of shorts. The docs program is incredibly strong at MLFF this year, and both “What Lies Upstream,” an indictment of government handling of a massive chemical spill, and “Forever B,” a fascinating and appalling look at the fallout from a child molester are compelling projects.

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Shorts Block 2 brought a wide range of films including “Sadhu in Bombay,” an intimate rough and tumble portrait of a bitter Mumbai chauffeur, the pencil-drawing animated “Insect Bite,”  and “Oui Mais Non (Yes but No Thanks),” a French Canadian film about the relationship between a zany/crazy neighbor girl and a young wife which was strange, funny, and exhilarating. “Cold Shivers” gave the audience just that, as director Marius Myrmel deals with the fall out from an incestuous mother/son relationship. Abstract animation came to the fore with the projected animation visuals of “Chella Drive,” a reflection on a Southern California suburb; “The Sacred Mushroom Edition” amusingly details a conversation between two fallen angels about rock and roll. “Lucas Camry Alex” is a wild slice of life set in New Orleans that focuses on relationship problems and ends with an indelible image of a burning car in the Gulf of Mexico.  Michael Arcos, one of three directors on the sultry,  fascinating film says “Lucas was the actual guy who owned a car he wanted to destroy for insurance reasons…the project cost us $400 and a car. We shot with four different cameras. We made it for ourselves,” he says. New Orleans, which itself is a character in the film is “Like a junk Disneyworld, it has a pretty harsh underbelly. ” Arcos says he’s drawn to that slightly seamy side of life, and is now focusing on another short called “The Booth” which depicts private viewing booths in adult stores. “4:15 PM The End of the World” rounded out the shorts program in which a cynical deliveryman meets a hitchhiker who claims to be Jesus but may in fact be a murderer. Eerie and darkly comic, this is an assured and memorable work.

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Now to those docs: “What Lies Upstream”  is every inch the passion project of investigative filmmaker Cullen Hoback, who traveled to West Virginia to uncover the truth behind a massive chemical spill that left no doubt about the power of lobbyists and bureaucratic cover-ups all the way to the top levels of government. As much a suspense thriller as a documentary, Hoback’s exacting eye became tuned to two vast problems involving pollution today: “There is so much money influence, and then bureaucracy and careerism. The mentality in agencies like the EPA and the CDC is that in order to look like they’re doing their jobs, they don’t do their jobs at all. That’s the crux of it.” The West Virginia spill left 300,000 people without drinking water for months, and leads to a trail of corruption. “Every documentary filmmaker will say the same thing,” Hoback reports. “If you haven’t figured out the real meaning to your story, you just need to wait. What I found was that if you wait long enough, the money will find a way.  Without campaign reform, you can’t address lobbyist dollars and political appointments. There’s a lack of a firewall between politicians and science. It’s like a corrupt police department, and we need independent research and an auditing system.” Beautifully shot and masterfully told, this is a must-see film about the environmental perils – and the governmental ones – around us.

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“Forever ‘B'” presents the fascinating and deeply strange story of the Broberg family circa the 1970s. Mother, father and 12 year old daughter Jan fell under the sway of a charismatic pedophile – who had affairs with both parents and kidnapped Jan twice.  The film had its world premiere at MLFF. Director Skye Borgman notes “It’s a very messy story, and it was hard to get that sympathy in there for the parents, but we always came back to the truth and how it would guide us. The book that Jan and her mother eventually published had more crazy twists and turns in it than I presented in the film, but didn’t reveal all that we did. I’m not sure how we gained their trust – we sat and listened for eight hours. It took them forty years to get to the point where they were able to reveal what they did.” Borgman says the editing process was extremely difficult,  inter-cutting the horrifying and intense interviews with Jan, her sisters, and her parents with reenactments of events, audio tapes provided by the FBI, and family photographs. A jaw-dropping story, the film serves as a cautionary tale in the extreme.

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Another day of provocative, exciting programming at MLFF – and another reason to make the drive “into the woods” for films you won’t want to miss.

  • Genie Davis; Photos: Jack Burke

Mountains of Movies: The Mammoth Lakes Film Festival Returns

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Just in time to help film fans celebrate Memorial Day, the third annual Mammoth Lakes Film Festival runs May 24-28th. The fest screens narrative and documentary features and shorts.  MLFF was named one of the “Top 50 Festivals Worth Your Entry Fee” by Movie Maker Magazine in 2016. Having attended last year, we look forward to another full schedule of eclectic entries which we’ll be covering daily during the festival run.

Festival founder Shira Dubrovner notes that the third year brings expanded programming to the festival, doubling the number of filmmakers attending the festival and bringing more spotlight events and featured artists to the festival.

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“This year our opening night screening is Up In Smoke with Tommy Chong in person; later in the festival we will honor John Sayles with the Sierra Spirit Award, presented to him by Vincent Spano; and for our Saturday Morning Indie Cartoons event, the Bum Family will fly in from Calgary, Canada to give a presentation to kids on how to make paper cut-out animation,” Dubrovner notes.
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Above, festival founder Dubrovner, center, at the closing awards ceremonies in 2016.
While the festival continues to expand, the intimate nature of the festival will not change, Dubrovner attests. “We will always keep our commitment to filmmakers by making Mammoth Lakes a filmmakers-first festival. That has been our vision and commitment since day one. We continue to help each filmmaker with the expense of attending the festival by offering travel stipends and housing. We create a fun, intimate and accessible experience for everyone that attends—filmmakers, audiences, industry professionals, press and our local volunteers.”
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The festival is very different from others throughout California, and different too than well-known behemoths like Sundance and Telluride. We found attending the event last year to be a special experience, one in which we could spend time with filmmakers, and uncover international as well as local films that were extremely fresh in terms of subject and style. From smart comedies to awe inspiring documentaries, the festival doesn’t hold back when it comes to presenting intimate stories.
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“We take our time to create a program with a specific vision; we champion personal, innovative storytelling. We showcase filmmakers who are unafraid to dig deep into themselves and bring their work to life with sensitivity, playfulness and a depth of vision,” Dubrovner attests.
Of course the beauty of the fest’s Sierra setting is also first class.
“We give a platform to these artists in a nurturing and awe-inspiring setting in the Eastern Sierra. Our primary commitment is to the talented, maverick artists that we bring together every year in May.”
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And to creating a stellar line-up of films that will have audience’s talking for the rest of 2017.
– Genie Davis; Photos: Courtesy of MLFF and Jack Burke
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