For the past nine years, the month of November has brought exciting news for the local filmmaking team behind the PBS documentary series, Global Focus: The New Environmentalists.
November is when John Antonelli, Will Parinello and Tom Dusenbery of the Mill Valley Film Group find out the winners of the Goldman Environmental Prize for the upcoming year, and where in the world they will be headed to profile the prize winners’ work. With six winners drawn from the five major continents and island nations, the one thing they know for sure is that they will be covering a lot of territory.
They use November and December for prep work, and then fan out across the globe to document the inspiring and often critical work being recognized by the San Francisco-based foundation, a leading environmental nonprofit. Covering topics from wildlife and energy to pollution and indigenous rights, the Goldman Prize recognizes grassroots efforts to protect the environment, awarding individuals leading the charge in their own communities with a $150,000 cash prize.
After a grueling few months of filming and post-production, the completed film screens for the first time to a live audience at the high-profile Goldman Prize ceremony each April, and is subsequently edited into a 30-minute television documentary for PBS, narrated by Robert Redford.
The Mill Valley Film Group was rewarded for their efforts with a Nor-Cal Emmy earlier this summer for Global Focus VII, in the category of "a program or special focused on public, current or community affairs."
While the trio undoubtedly appreciates the industry recognition, chances are they’ve already been pinching themselves over what sounds like the ultimate dream job for a documentary filmmaker.
Traveling to all four corners of the globe to document brave people doing life-changing work? And getting to do it year after year? Antonelli and Parinello, who spoke to Mill Valley Patch at their Sausalito houseboat headquarters, are well aware of the perception.
“Every single person that we know tells us how amazing it is that we get to do this every year,” says a smiling Antonelli. “And then they ask if they can come along!”
“It’s great, though, because it breaks the year in half – we know what we’ll be doing from November to April of each year – and the other interesting thing happening now is that over last couple years, these mini-films are so compelling that each of us is expanding some of the Goldman stories into feature documentaries.”
Indeed, the annual Global Focus film is only one piece of a finely balanced calendar of projects that take them around the world in pursuit of their passions.
Their collaboration kicked off in the early 80s, when both were working in the Bay Area film and video industry. Antonelli, a native of Lowell, Mass., who was by then living in Mill Valley, had the beginnings of an idea for a film about his hometown legend, Jack Kerouac. And he had some success under his belt: An early film he’d made while working at the Pacific Sun screened at Oddfellows Hall (now ), and caught the attention of Dustin Hoffman, who was in town working on Straight Time, a San Quentin-based prison drama. This eventually led to Antonelli writing and executive producing a behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of Straight Time film for Warner Bros.
Parinello, already an admirer of Kerouac’s who felt an affinity for the writer’s Buddhist inclinations, was ready to jump on board immediately. The two filmmakers set up an office just a stone’s throw from the in Mill Valley, near the (assumed) site of Marin-an, the home that Kerouac shared with Gary Snyder while writing Dharma Bums.
They found an enthusiastic local ally in the , longtime director of the . Antonelli had worked periodically on the annual outdoor production and counted her as a friend.
“She was an incredible bundle of energy,” he says. “She came everywhere with us, jumping in the car to drive down to Mexico with us, arranging a shoot of vintage cars in Kansas through her brother…” Smith wound up as an executive producer of the film, which was released in 1985.
After premiering at the Mill Valley Film Festival (“it was incredibly exciting; we sold out three or four shows,” recalls Antonelli), the film screened at the first Sundance Film Festival under Robert Redford’s leadership.
“From there,” says Parinello, “it took off. It had a great festival life, and was released in every major U.S. city.”
Unlike so many independent films (documentaries in particular), Kerouac made a healthy return, through theatrical release as well as domestic and international broadcast rights. And while the idea of home video hadn’t quite caught on when they began production of the film, it was in full swing by the time they finished, adding an additional revenue stream. The film was successful enough to help support their business for a few years, and continues to generate revenue even now.
From their auspicious first production, the two filmmakers have built an intriguing filmography, immersing themselves along the way into a great variety of subjects and places. Among their many credits:
A Yen for Baseball (1988), tracing the MLB All-Star tour of Japan.
Sam Cooke – Crossing Over (2010) – a portrait of the legendary soul singer.
Though the subject matters of their films at first may seem wildly disparate, it is apparent that they continually gravitate towards a few key themes: human rights, the environment and the arts. With the Goldman assignment coming each November, they are constantly on their toes, waiting to discover new stories that need to be told.
For Antonelli, who has been traveling to Africa regularly since beginning the Goldman collaboration, his current project is The Killing Seasons, a documentary exploring wildlife conservation practices in Zambia and Swaziland, and how they are impacting indigenous people. The film combines the stories of two Goldman Prize recipients, Hammer Simwinga (2007) and Thuli Brilliance Makama (2010).
Parinello, for his part, has frequently traveled to Central and South America for Global Focus segments, and is now at work on a feature documentary tentatively titled Troubled Waters, about a citizens’ movement that reached the highest echelons of power in El Salvador to stop a gold mine from destroying the country’s water resources. Like Killing Seasons, this film is an expansion of a Goldman prize winner's story, in this case Francisco Pineda (2011).
Citing inspiration from a trio of independent-minded Bay Area filmmakers – Les Blank, , and Francis Ford Coppola – both Antonelli and Parinello agree that in the filmmaking world, you just have to do it.
“Noone’s going to give you permission,” says Parinello. “You have to give yourself permission, and just make it happen.”