The 8th annual Alexander Valley Film Festival, newly rebranded as AVFest, concludes this Sunday with the documentary Kaepernick & America and a closing night party at Healdsburg’s Barndiva and Matheson restaurants, capping 10 days of in-person screenings in Cloverdale, Geyserville, Healdsburg, Windsor and Santa Rosa.
This year, the festival included 38 feature films and 40 short films from 18 countries. On Saturday and Sunday — Mother’s Day weekend — it will screen two documentaries with powerful stories about family.
Jimmy in Saigon, a feature documentary by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Peter McDowell and executive producer Dan Savage, will make its West Coast premiere Saturday at the Clover Theater in Cloverdale and will screen again Sunday at Orsi Family Vineyards in Healdsburg. Mama Bears, a feature documentary by Emmy award-winning director Daresha Kyi, will play Sunday at Orsi Family Vineyards. Both directors will be in attendance for Q&As after the screenings.
Jimmy in Saigon follows McDowell as he embarks on a decade-long journey that takes him across the United States, Vietnam and France in a quest to learn more about the life and death of his older brother Jim, or Jimmy. Jimmy was drafted into the army during the Vietnam War and returned to Saigon after his tour ended. He died there, under mysterious circumstances, in 1972 when he was 24 and McDowell only five.
The years pass and McDowell’s family grieves Jimmy’s death in silence. But as he grows up, McDowell discovers that he cannot rest with so many unanswered questions about his brother. In an effort to discover the cause of his brother’s death and to find out more about who he was, he seeks out those who knew Jimmy during his final years.
In conversations with Jimmy’s friends and with family members, and by reading over 200 letters his brother wrote and sent, McDowell gains a deeper connection with the older brother he barely knew in life and learns that Jimmy was likely gay. McDowell, who also is gay, uncovers a powerful bond between his brother and a young Vietnamese man, who also has passed away, and ultimately brings their respective families together so that both men can be honored.
“When someone dies, I don’t think closure is really possible,” said McDowell. “Turning deeper within and learning more about oneself and the person is, to me, a more realistic goal. Our family is talking about this much, much more than we ever did.”
On Sunday, Jimmy in Saigon will screen just after Mama Bears at Orsi Family Vineyards in Healdsburg.
Mama Bears premiered at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in March 2022. The feature-length documentary follows a groups of conservative, Christian mothers whose lives are transformed when they decide to “affirm and advocate on behalf of their LGBTQ children.” The women, realizing that their love of God cannot come at the expense of their gay and trans children, support one another in a private Facebook group, which they call “Mama Bears.”
The documentary explores the women’s emotional journey, from grief toward personal growth, as they lose the support of their evangelical community and later find a new sense of belonging through the LGBTQ community and the Mama Bears group. They come to realize that faith in God and unconditional love for the LGBTQ community can coexist and they decide to express this through action:
One mother fights an anti-trans bathroom bill in Texas while fiercely advocating for her young daughter; another launches the national Free Mom Hugs movement, which embraces people (figuratively and literally) who have been shunned from their families because of their gender or sexuality; a third joins the Reformation Project, a Christian organization that informs about “the biblical case for LGBTQ inclusion” and shows how Christians can “fully affirm both the Bible and LGBTQ people.”
In a time of pandemic, war and what often appears as irreconcilable political differences, we could all use a reminder that stories about family and love — stories that many of us can relate to, irrespective of who we are, where we came from or what we believe — have the power to bring people together.
Individual tickets to Jimmy in Saigon and Mama Bears can be purchased online at avfilmpresents.org/film-festival/individual-tickets.