Video Killed the Celluloid Star

Mill Valley Film Festival

About six months ago the organizers of the Mill Valley Film Festival found themselves with a potential classification controversy on their hands: Dozens of entrants who had shot their works in digital or beta formats had, it seemed, brazenly placed the "x"s on their applications next to the box for "film" instead of "video." But rather than banish the entrants to the DV dungeon, the festival staff decided to get with it.

"We thought, "Oh dear, we're not quite on the ball here,'" says MVFF 2000 Director of Programming Zoë Elton. "We realized there was a shift happening in the way filmmakers see their own work."

In fact the festival, known as a pioneer in its treatment of video work, has seen the shift coming at least since the inception of its Video Fest a whopping 23 years ago. But this year the Video Fest finally gets a progressive set of new rules, a new identity, and a sleek new name -- the VFest. Now digital works will no longer be confined to their own category but eligible to appear in any of MVFF 2000's programs. And with the collapse of technological segregation, the character of the video showcase -- always popular in the festival -- should become more complex. "It's beginning to identify itself more as a sensibility than a technology," Elton says. "There's an improvisational quality that lends itself to digital cameras. It really has to do with bold personal work. That's kind of the tie -- they're bold filmmakers."

A scene from Abe Levy's It's Alright, Ma (I'm only trying).
A scene from Abe Levy's It's Alright, Ma (I'm only trying).


VFest opens at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 6, with a tribute to talk show host Dick Cavett and presents 13 programs through Oct. 14. MVFF 2000 runs Thursday, Oct. 5, through Oct. 15. Tickets are $5-8.50; call 455-8005 for more information, or visit the Film Institute of Northern California's web site at
Sequoia Theater (25 Throckmorton, Mill Valley), the Rafael Film Center (1118 Fourth St., San Rafael) and other Marin venues

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For example? "We all love Superstarlet A.D.," Elton says of John Michael McCarthy's kitschy sci-fi tribute to cinema. "It's really wonderful. It's an homage to film on a certain level but it's shot on tape -- and it's quite irreverent." Also attracting a lot of buzz is It's Alright Ma (I'm only trying), a digital video Bildungsroman by Sonoma County filmmaker Abe Levy. It is his first feature.

But while the new-wavey title VFest conjures images of scrappy young renegades, the move toward digital methods is hardly constrained by age. "Rob Nilsson is 60 now and he came to us in the summer and said, "I have three new features that I want to premiere at Mill Valley, all of them shot on tape,'" Elton says. MVFF 2000 hosts a tribute to Nilsson Tuesday, and his videos Stroke, starring actors from his Tenderloin YGroup, and Winter Oranges, a collaboration with Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiro Suza, receive the honor of appearing in the main film festival.

Just what kind of feature will go where in the future, given the burgeoning unification of video and film, is anyone's guess. "This is the epicenter shift," Elton says. "The way the land settles in the coming years should reveal some interesting inroads."

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