Bed-and-breakfast knickknacks come into focus — a cross-stitched pillow, a lighthouse bedspread — as Berkhout answers a guest's questions about bookings. He's polite. His voice is level. It's clearly a conversation he's had before.
Berkhout rarely smiles in this short documentary, "Between Land and Sea," and neither does his wife, Dina, who lives and runs the inn with him on the tiny island near Point San Pablo. This is no romantic tale of working in paradise. While the guests watch the San Francisco skyline shimmer, the Berkhouts make beds, cook four-course dinners, field calls and work in the garden, always presenting a professional face. The tension between the innkeepers' heavy workloads and stunning surroundings makes for a visually striking but wistful film.
The filmmakers, Sarah Berkovich and J. Christian Jensen, wouldn't have told the story any other way. As Stanford University graduate students of documentary filmmaking, they strive to depict just what they see.
"It's a unique job," Jensen said of the innkeepers' life. "It comes with rugged nostalgia, but the reality is they're also running a business."
The story is one of more than 75 that will be told in this year's Palo Alto International Film Festival, Sept. 27 through Sept. 30. Documentaries and fictional films, features and shorts will be screened in a program that also includes talks and classes.
Now in its second year, the festival will take place at the Aquarius and Palo Alto Square movie theaters, TalentHouse and the Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto. A "festival village" on High Street between University and Hamilton avenues will have an outdoor theater and music stage. The nine-minute "Between Land and Sea" starts off a program of local shorts scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 28 at the Palo Alto Square.
Put on by the nonprofit Palo Alto Institute, the festival often focuses on innovation, screening films that were made in an innovative way or that explore technology issues. This year's schedule includes a 9 p.m. free outdoor screening of "Paperman," a new Disney film with an unusual mix of hand-drawn and computer-generated animation, on Sept. 27 at the festival village. Directed by John Kahrs, the film centers on a lonely man watching a woman in a window across from his high-rise — and using cleverly folded pieces of paper to get her attention. It's set to open in mainstream theaters Nov. 2.
As an added free event, Kahrs will be part of a panel discussion about "Paperman," along with Disney engineer Brian Whited and Andy Hendrickson from Disney Animation Studios. The talk is planned for 11 a.m. Sept. 28 at Talenthouse, 542 High St.
Another unusual film is "[Renga]," billed as an "interactive cinematic game" about a hero's journey, in which audience members work together to harvest asteroids, fight off warships and rebuild their own spaceship. The movie by Adam Russell and John Sear will be shown at 4 p.m. on Sept. 28 and 29 at the Aquarius Theatre, 430 Emerson St. Tickets are $12.
Among the films exploring issues related to technology are "Sexy Baby," a Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus documentary about the new sexual culture being created by the cyber age, 4 p.m. Sept. 28 at Palo Alto Square, 3000 El Camino Real; and "We Are Legion: The Story of the Hactivists," a Brian Knappenberger doc about civil disobedience in the digital age, at 7 p.m. Sept. 28 at the Aquarius.
Meanwhile, the documentary "The Startup Kids," screened at 1 p.m. Sept. 28 at the Aquarius, looks at young Internet entrepreneurs. Made by a pair of Icelandic entrepreneurs, the film includes interviews with the founders of Vimeo, Dropbox and Soundcloud.
Other free panel talks include "Netflix: Data, UX and Entertainment," with Mike Hastings, Navin Prasad and Michael Spiegelman from the product-development team at Netflix. They will speak at 11 a.m. Sept. 29 at Talenthouse.
The festival also makes time for young local filmmakers, with a program of shorts made by high school students starting 5 p.m. Sept. 28 at Palo Alto Square. The offerings include: Ryan Lee's dystopian "Citizen 4422"; Charlie and Henry Badger's "The Tunnel," about a boy trying to prove himself by swimming through an ocean tunnel; Dean Moro's "His Last Day," about a young man's final day before he joins the military; and Annalise Tahran and Lauren Amorese's "Jimothy's Big Adventure," a quirky film about a boy checking off items on his bucket list.
For filmmakers getting started in the movie world, the first film-festival premiere can be a major event. Berkovich and Jensen are certainly looking forward to introducing "Between Land and Sea" to a new audience. They've shown it to others in their Stanford MFA program, but this will be their first festival.
The pair, who are in the last year of the two-year graduate program, made the movie last year as a class assignment to work in pairs. Berkovich had stumbled onto the story of the East Brother Island innkeepers while reading about historic-preservation programs. She got in touch with Peter and Dina Berkhout and found them open to being interviewed.
While Berkovich and Jensen knew they had an unusual story, they didn't at first realize the challenges the Berkhouts were facing on the tiny island. This quickly added dimension and emotion to the film, which was a plus, Jensen said. "We didn't want to make a film just about a unique job. We wanted to explore the good and bad."
The filmmakers went to the island several times, and Jensen did some scenic, time-lapse photography at different hours of the day and night, shooting Bay vistas from Richmond. He and Berkovich found that they worked well together. She particularly likes story development and planning; he brings a news sense from his background in print journalism. Together, they edited and revised, and gathered feedback, something they found in abundance at Stanford.
"Our professors demand high quality, and the students do too," Jensen said. "We have a lot of high levels of perfectionism."
In the MFA program, the students produce three films in the first year, with a longer thesis film in the second. While many movie-makers opt against film school, Jensen and Berkovich said they've been very pleased with their decision. Both praised the connections they've made and the ways they're growing artistically. A master's degree can also open doors for teaching.
In addition, Jensen said he's been learning ways to get his films out there, through social media, networking and other types of promotion. These skills are increasingly crucial in the digital age, where anyone can shoot a film.
"I don't think you can be just an artist anymore," he said.
As a case in point, Berkovich and Jensen have their work cut out for them this academic year. While they work on their thesis, they'll also continue to promote the films they've already made, submitting them to other festivals and looking for new opportunities.
Berkovich already has a few other festivals planned. "Blank Canvas," another short she made last year at Stanford, will be screened next month at the United Nations Association Film Festival. It's about a woman who has her head painted in an intricate henna design after she loses her hair from cancer.
Berkovich was moved by the woman's story, and filmed her in artistic, dramatic black and white. "She really wanted to talk about what she was going through," she said.
What: The Palo Alto International Film Festival, with 75-plus feature films and shorts, panel discussions, classes and other events
Where: Events are in Palo Alto, at the Aquarius and Palo Alto Square movie theaters, Talenthouse and the Garden Court Hotel, with an outdoor theater and music stage on High Street between University and Hamilton avenues.
When: The festival runs Sept. 27-30.
Cost and info: Talks and some screenings are free, with ticket prices varying for other events. For cost and schedule details, go to paiff.net or call 650-641-8947.