Bay Area documentary filmmakers are a socially conscious lot who, by and large, treat serious subjects extremely seriously. So the most unexpected aspect of This Is the Life, George Spies and Andrew Black's slice-of-life portrait of two developmentally disabled S.F. friends, is the laugh quotient. "We don't want people to think this is a film they ought to see," Spies says. "It's an entertaining film, and along the way your head gets turned around."
The humor is even more surprising given that Spies had a mentally disabled older brother who passed away when the filmmaker was still in his teens. Spies admits he didn't learn how to deal with his sibling until it was too late, and that This Is the Life, which screens Oct. 9 in the Mill Valley Film Festival, "was some kind of an attempt to come to terms with that experience."
The 44-minute film's matter-of-fact approach makes its subjects, the gregarious Michael and the brooding Gary, instantly accessible to the viewer. 'Twasn't that way in real life, however. "One of my misconceptions going in," Spies confesses, "was that they would be transparent -- that they wouldn't have constructed personas as part of their social arsenal. Gary in particular is an endlessly complex person, and that was one of the things that kept me motivated." This Is the Life is the first in (Spies hopes) his series of intimate portraits of marginalized people. "Mentally disabled people are the last minority group that people can feel justified believing are different than themselves," he notes.
Get out your handkerchiefs: Wunderkind Sarah Jacobson (I Was a Teenage Serial Killer, Mary Jane's Not a Virgin Anymore) is moving to New York City at the end of the month to take a job with -- well, I can't tell you until all the i's are dotted. (But I will the minute they are, 'cause it's a really cool gig.) "I've been filming San Francisco totally nostalgically before I go," Jacobson says, confiding that she keeps a digital video camera in her purse. (She credits local low-budget icon George Kuchar for converting her from film to DV.)
Before she leaves, however, Jacobson is booked for a one-night Learning Annex seminar, "How to Make a Low-Budget Film," on Oct. 20. Expect an inspirational sermon (Jacobson is the DIY poster girl, after all) combined with an insider's guide to Bay Area filmmaking resources. She also promises to let loose on her favorite subject: self-distribution. "If you're going to be a low-budget filmmaker," she emphasizes, "no one's going to see your film -- unless you're the exception. But why bother [to make a film] if you're not going to show it to people?" The solution for the 99 percent who don't get a distribution deal: DIY. "Can all your dreams come true at the Learning Annex? We'll see. If you want to be a Hollywood filmmaker," Jacobson laughs, "this is not going to be the class you want to take."
The exceptions Jacobson mentioned, incidentally, are almost always male. Her coast-to-coast success with Mary Jane -- a punky, spunky triumph of persistence and perspiration -- established her as a kind of spokeswoman for disaffected young women. "I'm 28; I'm not really a girl," she muses, "so I can't be the bad-girl filmmaker anymore." Who's willing to step in and seize her crown?
Before anyone accuses Jacobson of mellowing, consider the secret to her success: "I set my own rules by doing what I wanted from the beginning. When I was younger I thought I just wanted to be a filmmaker. Now that I'm older, I realize that I just want to fuck shit up."