Hill filmmaker William Farley premieres "Shadows & Light:
The Life & Art of Elaine Badgley Arnoux" at Mill Valley Film Festival

By Lori Higa

Potrero View, October 2009

Inside Farley's cafe, indie filmmaker William Farley (no relation) speaks excitedly, with an accent betraying his native south Boston Irish roots, of the subject of his most recent film slated for screening this month at the Mill Valley Film Festival. "Shadows & Light" is a poignant tribute to 82-year-old artist and teacher Elaine Badgley Arnoux, known for her incisive portraits of San Francisco people, both famous and ordinary, numbering nearly 200, and for her darker, passionate, Goya-esque paintings and sculptures depicting some of the most tragic episodes of human evil and social injustice of modern times.

Described as an "experimentalist," Farley is known for his sly humor, social critiques, collaborations with the likes of David Byrne, the Kronos Quartet, local performance art luminaries George Coates, John O'Keefe and Michael Peppe, among many others. His films have been screened and won awards at prestigious film festivals around the world, from Sundance to Cannes, Berlin to New York. Another noteworthy release by Farley is his recent shoot of playwright-actor John O'Keefe's solo performance of Walt Whitman's 'Song of Myself,' taped at the Mission's Marsh Theater. Farley's lived on the Hill for nearly a decade, first landing in San Francisco in 1969 as a merchant seaman, jumping ship to stay in a city that "bewitched" him.

"This is a film of which I'm really proud,' says Farley. "Elaine is such a courageous person ... she had an abusive childhood, her father was a predator. I wanted to honor her struggle and tenacity, the way she's used art and portraiture to give meaning to her life."

That life started out idyllically in rural Oklahoma growing up with her grandparents. "I was very old when I was young and I wasn't young until I was old," says Badgley Arnoux, an ironic and revealing comment, considering what turned out to be a tumultuous life. Over a career spanning 70 years, Farley's film poetically captures Badgley Arnoux's evolution from a young, apolitical artist in the '30s to one with a moving and politically aware body of work that grapples with subjects ranging from the homeless to the Holocaust and Abu Ghraib. For the inauguration of Mayor Frank Jordan in 1992, Badgley Arnoux and her homeless shelter neighbors wheeled shopping carts topped with canvasses evoking pioneers crossing the prairies in covered wagons in a protest-procession to City Hall where a show of her portraits of the people of San Francisco hung in the galleries.

Next up for Farley is an experimental hybrid biographical narrative feature, "The 5:10 To Cooperstown," a story based on his childhood growing up with an alcoholic father who inadvertently sets fire to things. The film is inter-cut with scenes from past works, including a 1982 performance by the then-unknown Whoopi Goldberg from Farley's "Citizen: I'm Not Losing My Mind, I'm Giving It Away." For more information, visit