This Year the Mill Valley Film Festival’s Offerings Will be Screened Virtually

Zoë Elton and Mark Fishkin (photo by Tommy Lau)

It’s been a roller coaster ride for planners of the 43rd Mill Valley Film Festival. First it was happening in theaters, then probably happening in theaters and now, definitely not happening in theaters. But there has been an upside to all the plot twists — festival planners have been able to put together an exciting lineup of films that audiences can watch in their homes October 8–18, and have discovered new ways to get films out to virtual attendees, including at a planned drive-in event at the Civic Center. We talk to the festival’s director and founder, Mark Fishkin, about running a festival during a pandemic, and to its director of programming, Zoë Elton, about its innovative Mind the Gap gender equity initiative.

A Different Kind of Festival

“Many of these films have been sitting there for months, waiting to have a debut. We want to give a voice to those filmmakers,” Fishkin says. “I think the experience that people will find, either online or at the drive-in, is going to be equally rewarding.

“There is a film we already booked, starring one of the biggest and most respected actors in the history of cinema, and by the end I’m sitting here at my computer crying, looking at it on a 13-inch screen,” Fishkin says. To make this year’s event happen, the MVFF invested in a new ticketing and streaming platform that guarantees that the security, capacity and presentation is first rate, and it kept its commitment to providing extra content in the form of conversations with directors and stars. “We are working really, really hard to bring audiences the best possible films available,” he adds.

An Equitable Festival

A 2013 MVFF panel revealed that only 7 percent of directors in Hollywood were women, and this caught Zoë Elton’s attention because it was the same number she had heard quoted in the 1990s. “I started wondering what we could do to make a dent. Mind the Gap was born out of that lightbulb moment,” she says. So in 2015, Mind the Gap was launched with the goal of achieving a 50/50 balance of women directors represented at the festival by 2020.

“For us, 2020 was going to be the culmination of our commitment of getting to 50/50 of women and men directors and also the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote — there were a lot of significant milestones that seemed to be popping up,” Elton says. “The rug was completely pulled out from under that when Covid happened. But we are still on track for 50 percent women directors.”

According to Elton, with the Black Lives Matter movement sitting front and center, this year also presented a unique opportunity to use the Mind the Gap initiative to look at all kinds of inequities. “I think that some of the groundwork that we’ve done with Mind the Gap in the context of gender equity leads us into thinking about how we enhance the commitment we’ve made,” she says. “The principles it stands for have to be inclusive of people of color and LGBTQ+; we have to make sure we have that sensibility running through this program. I think it becomes a practice.”

Elton says this year’s shift to a virtual festival is really about looking at the tools that are available and considering unforeseen benefits to the challenge. “I think this is changing the film industry forever, although it doesn’t mean that theaters are going to go away,” she adds. “But it does mean that what we will be seeing online is going to have the potential for reaching so many people in so many places who wouldn’t have had access otherwise.” And maybe that even includes the next history-making female director.

Annie Kaempfer directs "The Falconer"
Byambasuren Davaa directs "Veins of the World"

Top MVFF43 Women Directed Films

The Falconer

In this documentary, Brooklyn-based director Annie Kaempfer introduces audiences to Rodney Stotts, a former drug dealer and prison inmate who becomes a trained falconer.

Ruthless Souls

Canadian director Madison Thomas follows Jackie as she grapples with grief and guilt surrounding her partner’s death due to complications from gender reassignment surgery.

Veins of the World

A child’s-eye view of the pressures facing the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle is the focus of Mongolian director Byambasuren Davaa’s enlightening, message-led drama.


First-time French director Zoe Wittock tells the strange tale of a shy young woman and her whirlwind love affair with an amusement park ride despite her mother’s wishes.

Coded Bias

In this documentary, Brooklyn-based director Shalini Kantayya looks at how artificial intelligence, when left unchecked, can exacerbate racial and gender inequities.

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