Q&A: A film lover who’s sticking with Marin

Name: Mark Fishkin

Age: 68

City: San Rafael

Position: Director, Mill Valley Film Festival

Mark Fishkin

J.: You founded the Mill Valley Film Festival in 1977. This year, it runs Oct. 6-16, with more than 200 international filmakers represented. Why did you choose Marin County as the site of your festival?

Mark Fishkin: I was appalled at the lack of good cinema in our area at the time. A lot of great things were happening in film, but not much of significance was showing in the Bay Area except at the Pacific Film Archive. I also realized it was expensive to live here, even then. So I started looking for a theater for an art house cinema, as a way to earn income. There was a program at the College of Marin called “The Saturday Night Movie.” At the right opportunity, I bought the program from the two guys who had started it, and expanded it to three nights. Mill Valley seemed like a perfect location. In the fall of 1977 I bought a small theater, then applied for a grant from the Mill Valley Arts Commission.

Tell us about your influences, and how you fell in love with film.

My father was a Russian Jewish immigrant who manufactured children’s wear. My mother was an accomplished classical pianist. She played in concerts and as an accompanist in silent movie halls, so I started watching movies at a very young age. I studied creative writing at the University of Maryland, but took all the perfunctory courses in film studies as well. When I moved out West, first to Colorado, I attended the very first Telluride Film Festival, which really resurrected my lifelong love of film. So when I moved to the Bay Area in 1976 or ’77, it was with the idea of working in movies, as a screenwriter or producer.

So what brought you to the Bay Area?

The mid-’70s were a tumultuous time. I had some friends who were wanting to go out West on motorcycles and I thought that sounded like a good idea. I bought a motorcycle and we spent a summer driving across Canada. It was the year after “Easy Rider” came out. I guess we were inspired. From Canada we headed to Colorado, where I met a young woman artist. We opened an art gallery, where she painted and I did ceramics. But at some point we wanted to make a change. We visited friends in Mill Valley, fell in love with it and decided to move there.

Was Mill Valley at that time a place for someone who wanted to work in film?

Marin has physical beauty, but also an artistic sensibility: it’s the best of both worlds. There was a survey done when I first came in which 50 percent of locals described themselves as working artists. The place was full of writers, painters and filmmakers, living in the hills and surrounding areas.

Does your passion for films reflect your heritage or personal values?

When I started this festival, I naively thought I could change the world with one film. I quickly learned that was not to be possible. But I did recognize what a powerful tool film was to give people greater understanding of themselves and the world around them. So we built into our festival programming a focus called Active Cinema, which commits to showing films that explore the world and its issues, and aim to transform society.

Documentaries are needed now more than ever. There are more news stations, but they mostly offer sound bites. If you really want to get into depth on a subject, docs are the way to go. Plus now they can be made quickly and less expensively, and be more current. I am also interested in the creative expansion of the documentary form, the ways filmmakers are finding to get closer to the truth. The Bay Area is one of the great documentary communities. By supporting the grassroots activism of filmmakers, I think we can have an impact.

What is the secret of the Mill Valley festival’s success?

I’ve always wanted to acknowledge great film work both international and domestic, regardless of its budget; to have a noncompetitive festival environment; and a curatorial perspective that considered our audience. We’ve respected the incredible vibrancy of the Bay Area, its talent, its cultures. At first we showed primarily Bay Area films, but our programming evolved into a breadth of talent from all over.

Why did you choose “Denial,” a drama about the Holocaust, for an opening night film?

“Denial” plays on opening night, but is not an official opening night film. It opens nationally in theaters the following night, Oct. 7, and this was literally the only festival night we could show it. But it is a tremendous film and one that we all love. I love the fact that it is not just a courtroom film, but rather one that is about humanity. It’s a very beautiful, important film and we want people to be aware of it.

Have you ever had aspirations to make a film of your own?

In the mid-1980s, I took a sabbatical and developed a film project with screenwriter John Kaye. It was a comedy I intended for Bill Murray, but he didn’t do it and it didn’t get made. I would like to give it another shot, eventually.

But there are a lot of other things I still want to do, most of them here and at the California Film Institute (a nonprofit  Fishkin also founded). We are working on many initiatives that involve education and that advance the health of the independent film sector in the area of diverse films —  international films, subtitled films, films without recognizable talent, documentaries —  to make sure that these kinds of films still have the same healthy existence they’ve had for decades and that theaters like the Rafael and other nonprofit venues stay viable and the theatrical experience continues to thrive.

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Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.