MC-ing for Napa Valley Film Festival

Since meeting Dania Denise on the set of a local TV news show that was covering our respective stories, we occasionally collaborate as volunteers for the non-profits we each support. For Dania, I manned the journalism post at a career exploration event for Citizen Schools students. Next, Dania and her Think Post Productions partner Rob Carrera joined me for a WeXL panel discussion hosted by the organization’s founder, Arabella DeLucco.

The David/Dania collaboration culminated at the Napa Valley Film Festival, November 7-11, when she brought me in as a Ringmaster (MC) to introduce films from the stage and lead post-screening Q&A sessions. The lessons learned from the filmmakers and the emotional impact of their work were worth the price of five days’ free work.

It’s one thing to privately cry in the dark at a movie, perhaps because the character on-screen is crying. It’s quite another to then watch the actor wipe tears in person in front of hundreds of audience members, asking their post-screening questions.

Actors, directors and producers put so much of themselves on the line — facing emotional vulnerability, financial risk, and threats to a coherent personal identity. They must in order to achieve artistic integrity and keep alive their slim chances for “success.” To be along for that ride, asking questions that can connect creator and consumer, maybe in ways that deepen thought about critical social issues the films explore, is a dream-come-true for a “Ringmaster” who is still just a journalist at heart.

Re-viewing the Festival and Films

The Festival’s screenings sprawl across 10 venues in Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. My little corner of that world was the JaM Cellars Ballroom, upstairs from the Blue Note jazz club in the historic Napa Valley Opera House.

Each day started around 9 a.m. in preparation for a 10 a.m. show and ended about 10 p.m. The rest of the volunteer corps, ranging from teens to retirees, worked in shifts and became a team. Rapport with the projectionist, Dave, and venue managers, Brad and Antonio, were key to a smooth operation.

Day one started with a series of four shorts, marked by the last, Tzeva Adom: Color Red. The eventual winner of the Festival’s Audience Favorites Award for Narrative Short dramatized a relationship between an Israeli Defense Forces soldier and two Palestinian youth injured in a confrontation with her unit. My Q&A with Michael Horwitz, the director, began the week-long trend of asking filmmakers about the social impact they hoped for their films. His answer amounted to a wish for improved dialogue among the stakeholders in that conflict, which four days later flared again as it has for decades.

Next up was A Fatherless Generation by Nathan Cheney, recounting his quest to reunite with his estranged father. Cheney intermingled his personal story with interviews of  famous figures who faced similar challenges, such as George Lopez, and expert commentary on fatherlessness from Dr. Donald Grant, Dean of the School of Human Development at Pacific Oaks College, Executive Director of Mindful Training Solutions, and Director of the Center for Community & Social Impact.

For Q&A, Cheney took the floor with Executive Producer Billy Bush (yes, that Billy Bush), who grabbed my microphone the way Donald Trump grabs…well, nevermind, and conducted his own conversation with the audience.

Our day one finale was When We Grow Up, a family dramedy about inter-racial adoption, marital strife, the emerging independence of “grown” children, and the range of reactions to grief as the family assembles for its dog’s funeral.

During Q&A, Director Zorinah Juan and her all-female crew, including Grace Hannoy (who excelled as Producer/Writer/Actor), articulated the need for diversity in filmmaking. Their statements amplified the case they already had made by taking matters into their own very capable hands and delivering a film that many more people should see.

Day two started with The Dancing Dogs of Dombrova, a comedy fueled by quirky characters. A Jewish brother-sister team attempts to fulfill their bubbie’s wish to retrieve the buried bones of her dog from the anti-Semitic Polish town where she grew up. Days after the Tree of Life synagogue massacre, audience laughter was tinged with cringes, but the Q&A confirmed that a director as able as Zach Bernbaum can meld comedy and tragedy in a way that reminds viewers of humor’s role even in dire circumstances.

Next, Ordinary Days told the story of a missing college student. She may or may not have been abducted, but the plot unfolds in multiple points of view and layered timing, so the audience does not know the student’s fate until the very end. Actress Jacqueline Byers steals the show and stole our Q&A, exhibiting in real-life conversation all the grit her character did and all that is required to succeed at the level she inevitably will.

Spare Room is a heart-rending study of a vet returning from Afghanistan. The film’s portrayal of small-town America and the people who inhabit it is sympathetic without sliding into sentimentality, which was the focus of our Q&A. Any further info shared here would constitute a spoiler. See for yourself.

The evening closed with The Trouble with Wolves, a penetrating, well-balanced, deeply-researched documentary on the re-population of wolves in Yellowstone National Park and its impact on local ranchers. Like most films here, Director Collin Monda’s work raises significant social questions.

That trend persisted into day three, which opened with Ask for Jane, a dramatization of the Jane Collective formed by University of Chicago students to help women obtain abortions in the pre-Roe v. Wade years. Until introducing this film, my introductions held to script other than occasional jokes about the audience balloting process (“It’s a one-to-five scale. Five means you love the film a lot. One means you love it 80 percent less.”)

But sensing the audience energy, I started along these lines: “For a theater to be packed at 10 a.m. on a Friday, I have a feeling that you didn’t all just want to get in out of the ash from the Camp Fire. And I doubt that you all came here to celebrate Volunteer Appreciation Day. I suspect you’re here because all these years later, the issue this film covers is somehow still an issue.”

The film is extraordinary for its spot-on period-piece details from clothing to apartment wall hangings to depictions of the era’s mainstream attitudes toward sexuality and women’s role in society, many voiced by stereotype characters that ring resoundingly true. Again, humor spices the serious material, and again in Q&A, Director Rachel Carey explained humor’s role in helping people cope with even life-threatening situations.

Next came Tomorrow, eventual winner of the Festival’s Jury Award for Best Narrative Feature, about a wheelchair-bound British veteran of Afghanistan who falls in with an interesting group of friends. In Q&A, Director Martha Pinson credited Executive Producer Martin Scorsese with some key guidance. All of the main actors nailed their parts, and Sebastian Street, a day before winning the Audience Award for Favorite Actor, took our stage with tears in his eyes, which almost re-started the tears in my eyes.

So did this view of the 3 p.m. sun through the haze of the wildfire smoke.

Back in the theater, Only Humans told the story of a man cleaning out his deceased mother’s house and the relationships that he develops with the next door neighbors. The Q&A with Director Vanessa Knutsen reflected much of the film’s significant humor, but saying more here would spoil your viewing experience.

And We Are Boats was an enjoyable and stylish drama, tracking the adventures of a dead woman who returns to Earth with a job assignment to intercede in other lives so she can earn a visit with her surviving daughter. James Bird’s film about life and death packed plenty of social commentary punch, plus he mentioned during Q&A that We Are Boats is the first-ever 100% Vegan feature film. No animals were harmed, worn, or eaten during the entire production, including cruelty-free hair products, make up, wardrobe, and catering.

Day four entered laughing, thanks to The Long Dumb Road, a hilarious film about mismatched serendipitous travel partners. Explorations of class differences provide some weight, but Jason Mantzoukas soars with flights of comic genius. Audience members during Q&A likened Jonathan Duffy’s film to such classics of the genre as Midnight Run.

The next film, Ride, also had its humor. How could it not with rap-hero Chris “Ludacris” Bridges in one of the main roles? And it offered kick-ass BMX tricks and aggressively angled shots of the cyclists in action. And Producer/Actor Ali Afshar and his crew packed the theater to SRO with cyclists who pedaled from miles to form the biggest, most diverse and enthusiastic crowd our room hosted all week. “Is there anyone from the BMX community here?” I asked as part of my introduction, and their response left no doubt.

But in contrast to all the upbeat pre-show exuberance, this adaptation of the life story of BMX starJohn Buultjens was the heaviest film I saw, with brutal scenes of domestic violence, incarcerated youth, and sob-inducing displays of Aryan Brotherhood hate, racism and recovery.

Up onto the Q&A stage — along with Ali and about a dozen cast, crew and BMXers — limped Buultjens himself. We discussed the difficulty of him sharing his life story and seeing it interpreted for film. Although the film is set in Northern California, Buultjens is Scots, and I will never forget the moment during Q&A that he shared his first memory, from age three, “When my dad t’rew me into the burning fireplace.”

From the audience, a man I recognized from earlier in the Festival asked Ali how the film could help rally a movement against hate groups and domestic violence. After Ali answered, I said, “To elaborate on the question Dr. Grant asked, keep in mind the need for action on this front. Of the 953 hate groups in the United States tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center, two states are tied with 66 each — Texas and Florida — but one state has 75 hate groups, and that’s California.”

After the gasps subsided and Ali and John answered all the audience questions, Dr. Grant met me in front of the stage to begin plotting our own course of action.

The last two films of the evening were You Can Choose Your Family with Jim Gaffigan as the father of two families who are secret to each other until they aren’t and Madness, Farewell, about a man and woman thrown together in circumstance brought on by their desires to commit suicide.

Day 5 was Veteran’s Day.

Our first film of the morning, Summer ’03, was a coming of age comedy (with sprinkles of seriousness) about a teen influenced by her grandmother’s dying words. Next came Thunder Road, another serio-comic romp focused on a cop whose life takes some twists stemming from the eulogy he delivers at his mother’s funeral.

Jim Cummings, who directed himself in the one-man short about the eulogy that grew into this feature, is a stunning actor. His rage scenes reminded me of the all-time greats. As I mentioned in Q&A with Producer Natalie Metzger, “This may be heresy, but I was thinking of Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces.” She explained his technique, the detail of his self choreography, and the process in which the set is prepared to roll, sans the roll-camera-and-slate routine, as soon as Cummings hits his mark.

Are You Glad I’m Here portrayed the friendship between a 24-year-old American woman teaching school in Lebanon and her neighbor, who suffers spousal abuse. Impeccable acting and the collaboration between Director Noor Gharzeddine and writer Sam Anderson, winner of the Festival’s award for Best Screenplay, make the film sing. In Q&A, Sam generously shared information on his writing process, and Noor shared the secret sauce of the film’s exquisite casting, crediting her casting director and detailing the rigor she and Sam also brought to vetting the actors.

We closed with the winner of the Special Jury Award for Best Genre Bending, White Tide: The Legend of Culebra. Covering the true story of a treasure hunt for a couple million dollars’ worth of buried cocaine, genres were so bent that one audience member asked Co-Producers Bryan and Amy Storkel whether they were more influenced by Christopher Guest or Quentin Tarantino.

Watching 22 films in five days, so many of such high quality from names I had not known, provided great inspiration to keep working creatively. Talking with these creators also gave me new views into the why and how of authorship in any medium. Most of all, the experience heightened my appreciation for all my collaborators, past, present and future.

Reaching Youth Sports Summits from Coast to Coast

Just outside the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program’s Project Play Summit last month, I saw a good sign, literally and figuratively. Sitting on an easel, the sign read: “We envision an America in which all children have the opportunity to be active through sports.”

That was a welcome sign for Fit Kids, which I was representing at the event, showing we had arrived at the right place at the right time, even as epidemics of youth obesity and other ills resulting from physical inactivity rage throughout our country. I walked past the sign into a room filled with some 400 other thought leaders in sports, fitness and youth development, who represented teams, leagues, corporations, non-profits, Olympic governing bodies, media outlets, and government agencies.

Tom Farrey, Executive Director of the Sports and Society Program and a frequent collaborator throughout the last dozen or so years of my career, welcomed us and outlined an incredible agenda, with such highlights as:

    • Strategy sessions, including one on “Reintroducing Free Play”
    • Master of Ceremonies and legendary broadcaster Mary Carillo, interviewing first Olympic Champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee and then skateboarder Tony Hawk.

Beyond the obvious star power, it was exciting to learn how all are on the front lines of youth sports and fitness issues. Hearing Kobe explain the challenges of coaching his kid’s middle school basketball team sounded eerily familiar, made us peers for a moment and provided hope for a future in which the rich, powerful and vastly experienced turn their attention to youth sports and fitness. Tony Hawk’s take on how he fit into skateboarding when he did not fit so well elsewhere sent a powerful message to millions of kids left behind by the ever-growing elite youth sports power structure.

The exchanging of ideas, stories and business cards throughout the sessions and into the evening networking event created great potential for Fit Kids to partner and collaborate with like-minded organizations. At the end of the day, all signs pointed to a bright future.

From the heights of the Project Play Summit, I flew to Los Angeles for the LA84 Foundation Summit, convening hundreds more thought leaders in our field. The event surpassed in inspiration its aspirational title: “Athlete Activism & Social Justice: Taking Action for Our Youth.”

Even before the sessions started, attendees could feel the spirit of improving the world through sports by standing in the footsteps of giants. We were given a photo-op atop a replica Olympic podium in front of a sign depicting the iconic moment when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised fists during the medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics. We had the choice of holding one of the Olympic torches on display or donning a black glove and emulating the stance of Smith and Carlos.

Again, on the way into the working sessions, I saw signs of like-mindedness, such as an LA84 banner that read: “1 in 4 poor kids are obese. School based sports and structured play is an answer. #PlayForAll”

The on-stage content soared from the start, with opening presentations by LA84 Foundation President and CEO Renata Simril, as well as Master of Ceremonies Sal Masekela, the TV personality and son of the late South African anti-apartheid activist and musician Hugh Masekela. Other highlights, in no particular order, included:

    • “The Legacy of the 1968 Olympic Games and Its Impact Today” with James Blake (former tennis star, who suffered a police brutality incident caught on video in New York City), Tony Dungy and Mike Tirico of Sunday Night Football, and Olympic Medalists Greg Louganis and Ibtihaj Muhammad, who are outspoken on gay and Muslim issues, respectively.
    • “Why I Coach” by Serena Limas, college student, LA84 intern and 2018 recipient of Coaching Corps’ Volunteer Coach of the Year award, who gave her answer in this moving throw-down that melds essay with poetry slam.
    • A panel discussion titled “P.E. is a Social Justice Issue: Working Together to Support Our Youth” with Nichol Whiteman, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation, which funds Fit Kids Programs in Los Angeles; Christa Gannon, Founder and Executive Director of Fresh Lifelines for Youth, which helps prevent youth from entering or returning to the juvenile justice system; and leaders of several other organizations.

After the panel, audience members could ask questions. I practically shot out of my chair, and promptly received the roving microphone. To set context for my question, I explained Fit Kids to the crowd, mentioning our work at a dozen L.A. schools, due to funding from the Dodgers Foundation and Los Angeles Lakers Youth Foundation and our collaborations with Positive Coaching Alliance, LA84, and the Saint Sebastian Sports Project.

I then asked any of the panelists to compare, in light of #PlayForAll, the impact of organized youth sports to that of programs like Fit Kids, which offer structured fitness opportunities for every kid, regardless of skill level or interest in sports. The answer, essentially, was “Great question, but we’re getting the signal that we’re out of time.”

A few people approached me afterward, seeking more information about Fit Kids. All of them received our brochure and a promise, since kept, of follow-up emails to explore how our shared paths can lead to better health and fitness for more kids. All signs point to this working out very well.