Three J-school documentaries to premiere at Mill Valley Film Fest

Filmmakers Shaleece Haas (top), Bagassi Koura, Alba Mora Roca.

Filmmakers Shaleece Haas (top), Bagassi Koura, Alba Mora Roca.

To tell the story of egregious corporate dumping in Africa, Berkeley graduate student Bagassi Koura sneaked a video camera into a toxic waste site so poisonous that one of his crew was sickened after just 15 minutes breathing the air.

To film the living limbo of the Nukak Maku tribe of indigenous Amazonians, fellow student Alba Mora Roca flew with Colombia’s national police into a war zone. She filmed the dilemma faced by the Nukak people, who had never seen a white man until 1988 and now have been forced out of the jungle by armed conflict and modern life.

Shaleece Haas, another documentary-film student, faced a challenge of a different sort. She set out to capture on film the complexity and humanity of elderly people making a decision everyone faces: if and when to give up driving.

The results of their efforts are three short documentaries that were made as part of Berkeley’s master’s in journalism program and now have won coveted spots in the Mill Valley Film Festival, which starts Thursday on multiple screens in Marin County.

All three 26-minute films — Koura’s “The Stinking Ship,” Mora Roca’s “Guests of Space” and Haas’s “Old People Driving” — will premiere there on the same bill, and the three 2010 J-School graduates will be on hand for the event.

The showing, titled “Truth Be Told,” is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 10, at 4:45 p.m. at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley. (Tickets and more information are available online.)

The films were made as the graduate students’ master’s theses, using skills learned and honed at the J-School. All three students entered the two-year program with backgrounds in journalism, and their work was shaped in part by critiques from their professors and fellow students.

“I thought that if I could spend much more time researching one single story over time, and using the tools of cinema, I could better tell a story instead of just writing about it,” says Koura, explaining what brought him to Berkeley.

Here is a quick look at the three graduates and their films.

Old People Driving
By Shaleece Haas

“Old People Driving” has its genesis in Haas’s grandfather and his beloved Model T. Milton has been driving since he was 14. Now 96, he has no intention of stopping. In one scene, you see Milton tooling down the roadway, unperturbed by the towering semi bearing down on his bumper.

People tend to be aghast when they hear that he’s still driving, Haas says. And they all have their own stories to tell — about their mother, or father, or someone they know who’s approaching the point where the family thinks they shouldn’t be driving.

Talking about it made her realize that everyone has a strong opinion about who should stop driving when. But she also came to see it’s a very individual decision.

She tells her story through her grandfather and a Davis man named Herbert, who is 99. Herbert, unlike Milton, has come to accept the fact that he needs to give up driving, and Haas films him as he tries to find an alternative means of staying mobile, and then on his final drive.

“The film I made is not the film I set out to make,” Haas says. Her original idea was to follow someone being forced to relinquish the wheel involuntarily. The contrast of Milton and Herbert told a more complicated and realistic story, she says.

Milton really feels that his independence is a big reason he’s still alive and strong, she says. Herbert’s longevity, she thinks, stems in part from his accepting attitude.

“Driving is not just a public-policy issue,” Haas says, “and there’s not a good single solution.”

Haas, who grew up in Mountain View and now lives in Oakland, has a background in documentary still photography, oral histories and non-profit work in the field of women’s reproductive health. She came to Berkeley, she says, after realizing that “the best way I could influence the causes I cared about was through storytelling.”

Filmmaking added a new level to her skills. The hardest part of making “Old People Driving,” however, wasn’t technical — it was finding people right at the point of giving up driving. Haas says she called every senior center and resource she could think of, and worked with the California DMV’s older-driver ombudsman program.

“It was a long and arduous process — I knew they were out there.” Eventually she found Herbert through a senior center in Davis.

Haas’s hope is that the film becomes a tool to help people facing the driving decision, and their friends and families, start a conversation about a delicate subject.

In addition to Mill Valley, “Old People Driving” will screen at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in Arkansas this month. In December, Haas is taking it to Washington, D.C., where it will be shown as part of a National Transportation Safety Board conference on older drivers.

More information on the film is available online.

The Stinking Ship
By Bagassi Koura

Koura grew up in Burkina Faso, next door to the Ivory Coast, so he had a front-row seat to the tragedy that unfolded there in 2008. A tanker named the Probo Koala, turned away from ports on other continents, dumped 500 tons of horrifically stinky chemical waste in and around the Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan — and people started dying.

Trailer for “The Stinking Ship.”

Its owner, a London-based multinational company called Trafigura, always maintained that its waste wasn’t toxic. It eventually paid $250 million to the Ivory Coast government without claiming responsibility for any harm. But little or none of that went to any of the victims — 17 dead, some 200,000 affected, according to Koura.

A correspondent whose work appeared on PBS’s Frontline, and was carried by the Reuters and Agence France Press wire services, Koura followed the story from Berkeley after starting graduate school.

Watching the news one day, he heard a Trafigura spokesman say the incident was over. “I said, ‘This is not over. This is just wrong,'” Koura recalls. He set about working on the story, with the intention of telling it from an African perspective.

The Ivory Coast government refused to give him a permit to film on the subject — but he did, anyway, for 10 days early in 2010. He went into the dumpsite to document the evidence — the waste still sits there in white plastic bags, giving off a toxic chemical cloud. He found and interviewed people burned and sickened by the waste — and who still suffer when another noxious cloud blows their way from the dumpsite.

After the dumpsite shoot, his crew member, a fellow J-School student, was unable to film for the rest of the day.

“Some people live with it,” Koura says.

In addition to Mill Valley, Koura’s film will be shown at the United Nations Association Film Festival at Stanford University in late October. His dream is to show it in West Africa, where TV coverage has been scant to nonexistent, he says.

His hope for the film is that “maybe it will force people who have the power to say, ‘Wait a minute, I thought it was over but maybe it’s not.'”

More information on the film is available online.

Guests of Space
By Alba Mora Roca

Mora Roca learned of the Nukak Maku when she was in the Amazon for another story and met an anthropologist who was highly concerned about the tribe. Marooned in a camp outside the Colombian town of San José del Guaviare, near the edge of their native jungle lands, the Nukak children are growing up without learning their traditional skills, but without learning Spanish either.

Still from "Guests of Space."

Still from "Guests of Space."

Mora Roca, a Barcelona resident who already worked in documentary film, had come to Berkeley to study with J-School professor Jon Else, who made “Cadillac Desert” and “The Day after Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb,” among other acclaimed documentaries. When she heard the Nukaks’ story, she knew it needed to be told more broadly.

“I didn’t know if it was possible to shoot anything in the conflict zone,” she says. “To get there was very difficult.” She ended up catching a ride to the settlement camp on a national-police plane.

Then, there were language and cultural hurdles to overcome. The result is poignant footage of a lost people for whom there exists no way to get back to the life they once knew. Their number has been devastated by disease since encountering the modern world in 1988, and now their territory is overrun by armed coca growers and paramilitary, guerrilla and government forces.

“The saddest thing is to see the young people in the camp, who don’t learn to hunt and fish but they don’t go to school or get to live in the city either,” says Mora Roca. “They’re in limbo.”

Mora Roca, now a documentary intern in Los Angeles, hopes to take her film back to Colombia to show the tribe. She’s also talking with the nonprofit Survival International about teaming up to start a campaign to help the tribe.

“Guests of Space” will be shown at the Kassel Documentary Film and Video Festival in Germany in November.

More information is available online.