Press Democrat Joshua Dylan Mellars 2

Movie director’s journey carries message of longing

By Joelle Burnette – Press Democrat

Joshua Dylan Mellars has traveled the world making award-winning documentaries, but he credits his North Bay childhood with inspiring his work.

“A lot of what I really loved about growing up in the Bay Area was that we have so much cultural diversity,” said Mellars, 35.

His new film, Heaven’s Mirror: A Portuguese Voyage, tells the story of fado, a centuries-old style of music that grew out of the Portuguese culture.

It premieres on Saturday at Deerfield Ranch Winery in Kenwood and will be shown again Sunday at Summerfield Cinemas.

Mellars was raised in Marin County by parents who took him to a spectrum of Bay Area cultural festivals and moved to Rohnert Park when he was 10.

Prepared with a solid foundation in Spanish (thanks to Mrs. Bates, his Rancho Cotate High School teacher), Mellars lived in Madrid for a year while attending Brown University to focus on film and Hispanic studies.

After graduating, he moved to Latin America as a journalist for United Press International and BBC radio, covering everything from the economic crisis in Argentina to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Eventually, his interest in other cultures drew him to documentary filmmaking.

“I look at what I’m doing as being sort of a tour guide,” Mellars said.

“What I’ve always liked about going to other places is bringing back pictures or telling stories to people back home and letting them in on what it’s like in these other places.”

Music is a prevailing theme in his movies, another of his parents’ influences.

“Listening to good music allows my imagination to soar,” Mellars said. “I start traveling in my mind and seeing images.” 

In Heaven’s Mirror, he explores the culture of fado and reveals its link to “saudade,” a Portuguese word roughly translated as “a feeling of loss or longing,” he said. “There are probably as many definitions as there are people.”

While everyone can relate to longing for something, he said, saudade is more than just missing home. “Saudade is a particularly Portuguese concept,” rooted in a rich history of sailors and explorers leaving the coastal country.

“The strength of that word and what it means is more a part of their cultural vocabulary” than in other cultures, Mellars said. “They have developed this nuanced way of missing things, people.”

Saudade represents the Portuguese approach to life, and fado musicians are the experts, he said. So when filming the movie, “it was important to capture the music from the inside out. When you tap into that emotion, there are a lot of places it can take you.”

The more he travels, the more he realizes how fortunate he is to live in Sonoma County and in Rohnert Park, which he describes as an ideal place.

“It’s amazing to look out and see the green rolling hills in the winter after the rains, and to be able to drive to Bodega Bay or take a hike out at Armstrong Woods,” he said.

Its natural beauty has influenced the way Mellars intertwines scenery with culture in his films.

“When you grow up in this area, it naturally inclines you to be interested in the world and getting to know other places and cultures,” he said. “Once I had that first opportunity, that first taste of living in another country, it whetted my appetite for more.”

His background in journalism helps shape Mellars’ documentaries, but so did participating in high school theater productions.

While performing in a school production of “Harvey,” Mellars befriended Mojib Aimaq. Aimaq now works on films with Mellars and inspired the story behind Play Like a Lion: The Legacy of Maestro Ali Akbar Khan.

That film will premiere in Mill Valley in October.