A Q&A with Cinema by the Bay Filmmakers

Our Cinema By the Bay spotlight highlights exceptional new work that was either made by local filmmakers or features the Bay Area. This year the Festival will screen 13 shorts and eight feature-length films. We checked in with six local filmmakers to learn more about their process and discover the region's vibrant film culture.

Why did you make your film?

Dan McHale (Splotch): I had been working on an animation job so difficult, I wondered whether I could derive any enjoyment whatsoever from making animated pictures. So I started a new file and drew a blob. Then I drew another in a slightly different position, and so forth, without any plan. This led me into shapes and figures that indeed were fun to animate. Of course, to make them somewhat more coherent required that I give some structure to them. But my initial impulse was just to play with forms that move.

It was our intention to situate the characters’ private drama within the context of the national drama, without letting the political overpower the personal.
— Mario Furloni

Ruby Rae Drake (Run, Run Away): I made this film because I was trying to understand why people quit. I feel that quitting has a very negative connotation, and I wanted to understand that connotation because I don’t think it’s always correct. I think it takes a lot of courage and strength to be able to assess the situation, especially something you are passionate about, to realize it maybe isn’t right for you anymore, and then to walk away. 

Katie Galloway and I spent four years making this film because it deals with so many issues we care about; from institutional racism, to the lack of mental health support in prison, to the criminalization of addiction, to the ‘collateral damage’ to families and communities.
— Kelly Duane de la Vega

Oakland director/cinematographer Amanda Micheli has won 14 awards and was nominated for an Oscar.

Amanda Micheli (haveababy): Over the last three years, my husband and I have struggled with our own infertility issues, during which he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. I was shocked by my ignorance about my own fertility, and bowled over by the financial and emotional costs of treatment... It was in researching possible solutions to my own situation that I came across Dr. Sher’s contest. This competition struck me as a perfectly absurd distillation of the overwhelming world of reproductive medicine in which I found myself; I knew right away that this was a film I had to make.

By humanizing the individual struggles of those who choose to build a family through IVF but cannot afford it, my goal is to ignite a conversation about the flipside of reproductive choice: the choice to have a child.
— Amanda Micheli

Did you make your film in the Bay Area? Do you find anything unique about the filmmaking culture here?

Jay Rosenblatt (When you Awake) : When I came across an old hypnosis film from the 1950s/60s I realized it could be a good structure for a playful exploration of the unconscious mind, something that has always interested me. When you Awake is a found-footage film in the purest sense. All the images, sounds and music came from educational films I got from Bay Area school districts.

Dan McHale (Splotch): I tend to show my work to my animator friends, some of whom I have worked with at commercial studios in San Francisco. They give me encouragement and, when I ask for it, critical feedback!

Ruby Rae Drake was a National YoungArts Winner and a US Presidential Scholars in the Arts semifinalist. She has won both best drama and best comedy at CineYouth Chicago.

Ruby Rae Drake (Run, Run Away): I've had an amazing experience making films in the Bay Area. Starting in 8th grade and throughout high school, I was involved with SF Art & Film for Teenagers. Through that program, I participated in their Film Workshop, where I learned about film theory and film production. They supported me from idea to final edit, with everything from script help to being my crew to critiquing my edits.

The Bay Area is a hub for experimental filmmaking.
— Jay Rosenblatt

Mario Furloni (Someone is Happy Somewhere): We shot Someone is Happy Somewhere in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. My next project, Freeland (supported by the San Francisco Film Society) will be shot in and near the Bay Area in the fall of 2016.

Kelly Duane de la Vega (The Return): The majority of our shooting took place in Southern California but some took place in San Jose. We worked on the project with a Bay Area-based crew.

What’s your connection to this part of California?

Amanda Micheli (haveababy): My company has been based in the Bay Area for twenty years, and while most of the film was shot outside of California, the Bay has been my home base for pre- and post-production for the past two years plus on this project. The incredible talent base we have here in the Bay Area, especially for documentaries, has been invaluable to me and I couldn’t have made this film anywhere else! We are independent, lean and passionate.

In addition to commercial work for Cartoon Network India, Sears and KFC, Dan McHale’s animation has screened on Cartoon Brew and at animation festivals in both Holland and Ottawa. His painting series 36 Views of the Hamm's Brewery was featured in the San Francisco Chronicle and Huffington Post.

Dan McHale (Splotch): I grew up in Berkeley. Going to the Pacific Film Archive helped me develop my interest in film history. With the exception of six years I spent in Europe, I’ve always lived in the Bay Area. I got a film degree at San Francisco State University. 

Mario Furloni (Someone is Happy Somewhere): Originally from Brazil, I’ve lived and worked in the Bay Area for the past seven years.

Jay Rosenblatt (When you Awake): I have lived here for over 30 years but am originally from NY.

I was born and raised in the Bay Area. Our core crew all lives here. It is a deep, life long connection; one that has informed my take on the arts and politics.
— Kelly Duane de la Vega

Ruby Rae Drake (Run, Run Away): I was born and raised in San Francisco. Until last fall when I moved to New York City for school, I had never lived anywhere else. So maybe I am biased in saying this because of all the memories I have from growing up here, but I love the city. I love that there’s a beach but also a thriving downtown. I love that the city doesn’t just have a strong culture, but diverse cultures. I can't imagine myself without it. Growing up here taught me to be open-minded and creative.

Is this your first time screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival?

Dan McHale (Splotch): I had a film screened at SFIFF once before, around 1981, at the Castro Theater. That’s one reason it means a lot to me to have my recent film presented in the festival.

Mario Furloni won Best Documentary at the USA Short Film Festival and was a national finalist for the 2012 Student Academy Awards. His work has screened at Hot Docs and Big Sky and appeared on PBS, the New York Times and TIME.

Mario Furloni (Someone Is Happy Somewhere): I have attended the Festival many times over the past decade, and have always been impressed by its excellent curation. In addition, the San Francisco Film Society has been an invaluable ally and supporter of my next project, Freeland. Our team, which includes writer/director Kate McLean and producers Laura Heberton and Mollye Asher, has received a KRF grant for packaging and a FilmHouse fellowship.

Jay Rosenblatt (When you Awake): I have had many films at SFIFF. The first one was in 1990. It is my home town festival and I'm proud to screen here.

This will be my first time screening a film at SFIFF, and it means a great deal to me to show the film in my adopted home at one of the best festivals in the country.
— Mario Furloni

Kelly Duane de la Vega (The Return): My film Better This World screened at SFIFF several years ago. I’ve been attending SFIFF since before I was a filmmaker. I’ve always loved the curation of the films, and am a particular fan of Programmer Rachel Rosen’s vision and integrity.

Ruby Rae Drake (Run, Run Away): This is my first time screening at SFIFF. I have never attended before but the festival is very meaningful to me because San Francisco is very much my home. I’ve been in festivals across the country and a few internationally, so I love that I can tell my friends and cast and crew that they can come see the film on a big screen without traveling very far. 

Amanda Micheli (haveababy): I’m very lucky that almost all my films have screened here. It means a TON to have the support of the Film Society and screen with our crew and friends and family after all the blood, sweat and tears we all put into this film.

What is your read on Bay Area audiences?

Mario Furloni (Someone is Happy Somewhere): I’d describe the festival-going Bay Area audience as socially aware, political, and highly informed.

Bay Area audiences are awfully nice. They go out again and again to marvel, to despair.
— Dan McHale

Kelly Duane de la Vega (The Return): Bay Area audiences are well informed, deeply political, diverse, and willing to throw challenging questions in the direction of the filmmakers, which is good! The Q&As tend to be smart and robust conversations about both the filmmaker’s artistic approach and the big political themes wrestled with in the film.

Jay Rosenblatt's films have screened around the world including at MoMA, Sundance and on HBO. He has received over 100 awards including Guggenheim and a Rockefeller fellowships.

Jay Rosenblatt (When you Awake): I think there is a true appreciation for all types of films and the Festival has cultivated an audience for non-traditional filmmaking and for shorts.

Ruby Rae Drake (Run, Run Away): I think Bay Area audiences are open-minded and creative. I think they care about the artistic merit of the work. 

Amanda Micheli (haveababy): Bay Area audiences are very smart, astute and left-leaning. Sometimes presenting an indie film in this kind of environment can feel like preaching to the choir. Personally, I like bringing unexpected but everyday stories from the rest of America to our rarified community here. Some of my subjects (in this film, and past ones, too) have strong religious beliefs, and I show scenes of them practicing those beliefs. Some local viewers have responded unsympathetically to this in my work, and I’m saying, look: we live in a bubble here. It’s a nice bubble, but let’s be real about the big span of country that lies between San Francisco and New York.

How does your SFIFF59 screening play into the larger life cycle of your film? Are you just starting on the festival circuit, or are you preparing for a summer release? 

Jay Rosenblatt (When you Awake): SFIFF is the film’s North American premiere. The world premiere is at Visions du Reel in Switzerland and it is screening at some documentary festivals such as Hot Docs and Sheffield. Hopefully the screening at SFIFF will lead to other screenings in the US.

Mario Furloni (Someone is Happy Somewhere): We’re at the start of the festival circuit: the film has played in a few festivals in Brazil, but SFIFF will be one of the first screenings internationally.

My film will actually be premiering to the circuit at SFIFF. Hopefully this will be the start to a successful festival run!
— Ruby Rae Drake

Amanda Micheli (haveababy): Our SFIFF screening is our West Coast premiere and comes right on the heels of our World Premiere at Tribeca. This is the very beginning, which is very exciting/scary/a big frikken deal! As of today we are 100% independent, but hope to sell the film soon. Our festival release will help show buyers that audiences will come out to see a film about infertility, if it’s told well. SFIFF also happens at a critical time, during National Infertility Awareness Week, which will help us connect with a conversation about infertility awareness that will be happening nationwide. 

Dan McHale (Splotch): I’m just starting out and would love to have Splotch screened at some other festivals.

In addtion to multiple Emmy nominations, Kelly Duane de la Vega was a Sundance Documentary Fellow and won a Gotham Independent Film Award and the Writer’s Guild of America’s Best Documentary Screenplay Award.

Kelly Duane de la Vega (The Return): We’ve screened The Return on Capitol Hill and at the Ford Foundation, and plan to show it at the Otisville Correctional Facility in Upstate New York and at San Quentin in San Francisco. We are only screening the film at two US festivals, Tribeca and SFFIF, before going to broadcast. Screening at SFIFF is special for a couple of reasons. It's our opportunity to have a “hometown” screening. It's also our first California screening, and although the stories in the film are designed to reach a national audience, they do unfold here. California led the nation into decades of bad sentencing policies, and this is the story of how we might also be leading the way away from them. 

Each year, the San Francisco International Film Festival features exceptional new work by and about the Bay Area, providing a window into the region's film culture and practice at its best. This SFIFF, 13 shorts and 8 feature-length films from local talent or about the area will screen across Festival sections.