The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival
23 April to 7 May
films of 27 to 30 April
A really busy 15 days… besides the Festival, The American Institute of Architects National Convention was in San Francisco – I volunteered there three days – and we had tickets to a Giants game. I volunteered for two days of the Festival, but didn’t have time to cash in my freebie tickets. We took a different approach this year. Carol and I picked films and bought tickets using CineVouchers. We covered every day of the Festival except opening night which included a party and cost $60.
We saw more films than ever – 20 for me, 16 for Carol, including 14 together. Eric was in town for a week in the middle and joined us for 4 films. All in all, together we saw 22 different films. Good times, and we never really felt burned out. Carol bagged two films, but I sold her tickets to the Rush Line for a profit.
Reviews and ratings – I copied the film descriptions from the online Film Guide or the Daily Scoop – shown below in block quotes – and appended “my take.” Stills are from the Film Guide, pictures from my camera. I rated the films * to ***** mainly for my own reference. Films that have distribution are noted. Enjoy.
GOLDEN GATE PERSISTENCE OF VISION AWARD
The Elegant Insurgent_On Monday evening Lourdes Portillo accepted what she called the “stubbornness award”—otherwise known as the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award—for her 30 years of fearless, innovative work in documentary filmmaking. As Director of Programming Linda Blackaby handed her the trophy, Portillo joked, “Today I’m really nervous and I feel like I have to maybe drink.”
In an onstage interview, film critic John Anderson asked the Bay Area-based filmmaker about the formative experience of moving to the U.S. from Mexico at the age of 13. Portillo replied that 13 was very special, because she was just old enough to retain a sense of self-possession in a society that “really diminished me as a human being.” She spoke of the distressing experience of looking around her school at Latina girls who were born here or had moved here earlier and had lost their sense of self-worth. “It really propelled me to make films that were meaningful, that looked at us as full human beings, with intelligence and humor.”
After a start in educational filmmaking, Portillo branched into more daring documentary work, exploring important Latino issues on both sides of the border. Señorita Extraviada, the film that garnered her the most attention (and the most death threats) was a jolting examination of the murders of hundreds of women in Ciudad Juárez. When asked how she is able to take on “things people don’t want to know about,” Portillo said it was part of her upbringing, and described a family that always talked about important issues around the kitchen table.
Renowned for her funny bone, Portillo said that documentarians should not take themselves so seriously all the time. Indeed much of her work contains playful fantastical sequences that show an imagination unleashed. Her latest film Al Más Allá, is a hilarious mix of fact and fiction about a clueless documentarian who tries to find a story of corruption in a sleepy seaside Mexican village. —LK
AL Ma°S ALLa°
dir Lourdes Portillo
prod Lourdes Portillo
U.S. Premiere. Tributes:
USA, 2008, 43 minutes
A documentary film crew arrives at a tranquil aqua-toned beach town on Mexico’s Mayan coast, chasing the story of three fishermen who happened upon a wayward package of cocaine—flotsam from a steady narco-stream flowing up from South America en route to northern markets. The fishermen sold it to the local police chief, who warned them (in vain) not to spend their money in town and prophesied, “Whatever comes from the ocean, has to go back to the ocean.” “I think it will take a few days to nail this one down,” opines real-life sound recordist Jose Araujo to the crew’s somewhat flustered and self-important director, played by renowned Mexican actress Ofelia Medina—a delightfully arch stand-in for this sly, prodding film’s real-life director, acclaimed Bay Area–based filmmaker Lourdes Portillo. Gazing at a nearby ruin, meanwhile, Portillo’s fictional alter ego resolves, “I have to find out what this has to do with the Mayas.” A playfully serpentine, semi-fictionalized investigation of a true incident thus de-centers its ostensible subject—three fishermen who never do appear, increasingly seeming the stuff of parable—while undercutting the “heroic” pretensions of the documentary genre itself. What emerges is a rumination on globalization’s violent erasure of local culture—but also on the manufacture of stories and the circulation of “truths” as the counterparts, and uneasy accomplices, of circulating goods, services and people in a voracious economic system that leaves much more than the occasional bag of narcotics in its wake. —Robert Avila
my take ***** – I had not heard of Lourdes Portillo. Interviewed by John Anderson she was a delight, a Mexican/American filmmaker living in San Francisco and focusing on Mexican Women’s civil rights. At the same time, she is witty, charming and often downright funny. Loved it.
The description above of Al Mas Alla is perfect. It was amusing – an insiders look, so to speak – watching a real film crew trailing the actress stand-in for Lorurdes Portillo, while she interviews real people in the dirt roads of the ex-pat community. Instead of seeing just the subject, we see the subject, the interviewer, the cameraman and soundman. We see them between takes, scrambling to get to the next location. Revealing and beautiful, you may find it on PBS or IFC.
Director – Rashid Masharawi
Cast – Mohamed Bakri, Areen Omari, Nour Zoubi
Distributed by Kino International
A judge turned taxi driver navigates the absurdities of modern Palestine in this deadpan “road trip” through a land of checkpoints and barriers both physical, political and emotional. A fascinating, surprisingly comic look at contemporary Palestine.
my take **** – Carol saw this and liked it a lot.
IN THE LOOP
Director – Armando Iannucci
Cast – James Gandolfini, Tom Hollander, Peter Capaldi, Mimi Kennedy, Anna Chlumsky, Chris Addison, Steve Coogan, Gina McKee Distributed by IFC
Job Description: Swearing Consultant
Graham Leggat introduced political satire In the Loop as his personal Fest favorite, due to the film’s star Peter Capaldi, “the world’s angriest Scotsman.” Director Armando Iannucci stated that he is, by contrast, “the world’s mildest Scotsman,” an admission greeted by a long round of applause. Based on Iannucci’s popular BBC series The Thick of It, In the Loop deals with the decision to invade Iraq and is, Iannucci insists, “entirely fictional” (never mind the occasional uncanny resemblance to real events). After its U.K. release, a few politicians called In the Loop “a terrible travesty of truth,” said Iannucci. “I think Tony Blair had a fundamental belief that what he was doing was right,” he added. “But for anyone who has a fundamental belief, facts may become slightly annoying.” In casting, Ianucci looked for “naturally funny” actors who were “happy to improvise.” Tom Hollander, Gina McKee and James Gandolfini fit the bill perfectly. The incomparable Peter Capaldi, who plays director of communications Malcolm Tucker, had to stick to the script, however. “All Malcolm’s very elaborate threats of physical violence were impossible to improvise,” admitted Iannucci. The production even employed a “swearing consultant,” who adorned the finished screenplay with quite a baroque foul language.—MB
my take ** – Even the great James Gandolfini couldn’t save this f*cking turkey – that is, unless you like loud, fast talking, f*cking British sitcoms. I don’t.
SELECTED PROGRAM SHORTS
In this program, listeners will delight and be moved by the dulcet sounds of a ring tone, the poignant last recording of Harvey Milk and the musings of an elderly artist who gleefully admits, “I live for beautiful women.” These films depict a variety of real people and fictional characters whose voices impact with humor, insight, experience and tragedy. —Rod Armstrong
my take **** – I always like to see a shorts program, and only this was not targeted primarily to kids. All in all, it was a pretty dark program, dealing with death, gluttony, and general creepyness. I loved (nearly) every minute.
A retired sculptor lovingly creates a variety of female figures, filling his studio and home with women who “watch” him as much as he watches them. (Bartosz Blaschke, Poland 2008, 17 min)
Young Yoni, recently fired and possessed of a hilariously malfunctioning cell phone, joins his brother on a very particular fishing trip. (Boaz Lavie, Israel 2008, 26 min)
Ring ring ring ring ring ring ring, banana phone… — just sing it, you’ll most likely get the tune right – and then it will drive you nuts.
575 Castro St.
Shot in a storefront recreated for Gus Van Sant’s Milk, the final words of the slain politician play in voiceover. (Jenni Olson, USA 2008, 7 min)
The camera is unmoving in one room, then another as you see changing light and reflections pass over the walls. The sound is the tape recording Harvey Milk made, to be opened only on the event of his murder. Very powerful.
The Conscience of Nhem En
At 16, Nhem En was forced to take pictures of several thousand Cambodians before they were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. Nominated for an Academy Award, this film interrogates the photographer who is endeavoring to come to terms with his actions. (Steven Okazaki, Cambodia 2008, 25 min).
The now adult photographer is pictured above.
A delightfully creepy, Cronenbergian tale of an unprepossessing man who discovers a boil in a most uncomfortable place. (Johan Lundh, Sweden 2008, 18 min)
At an opulent and diverse banquet, diners discover the perils of abundance and gluttony. (Denis Villeneuve, Canada 2007, 12 min)
Set to the strains of classical music, a dozen overweight diners around a table gorge themselves until… the floor gives way. The chandelier above the table is lowered one floor and the gluttony continues, until…
AN EVENING WITH ROBERT REDFORD
Interviewed by Phil Bronstein (former managing editor of SF Chronicle and husband of Sharon Stone)
Three Cheers for Robert Redford_An adoring crowd jumped to its feet when Robert Redford strode onto the Castro Theatre stage Wednesday evening to accept the Peter J. Owens Award. The house was aglow with the light of cell phones, as audience members tried to take home a small piece of the man who has set the gold standard for A-list celebrity, philanthropy, integrity and patronage of the arts for over four decades. In his onstage interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Phil Bronstein, Redford’s stories covered the gamut—from growing up in a no-frills neighborhood to shadow boxing with fame. He tactfully fielded a question from the audience about the recent passing of close friend Paul Newman, noting “he lived a life that mattered, and I respect that.” This year marks the 40th anniversary of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, giving Redford a chance to reflect on the passage of time. With his typical sardonic wit, the 72-year-old actor makes aging gracefully look easy. Audience members couldn’t get enough of him—one woman continued to ask her questions even after the microphone had been taken away. When he got up to leave, the audience was again on its feet, cheering wildly for one of the biggest icons of our time. —KH
BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID
Director – George Roy Hill
Music – Burt Bacharach
Cast – Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Katharine Ross, Strother Martin, Cloris Leachman, Sam Elliott
Two bank robbers find it hard to stay ahead of the law in the iconic Western that first teamed Redford and Newman. William Goldman’s script is both elegiac and comic, and George Roy Hill’s direction blends traditional tropes with an unmistakably modern sensibility.
my take *** – Neither Robert Redford nor Phil Bronstein seemed at ease during the interview – Redford looked like he would rather be somewhere else. Given that, he was polite and had some tales to tell.
As for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I didn’t much like it when it first came out – and although the new print is awesome – still didn’t much like it. Both Robert Redford and Paul Newman have made far better films.
CITY OF BORDERS
Director – Yun Suh
Cast – Sa’ar Netanel, Boody, Samira Saraya, Ravit Geva, Adam Russo
No Borders Here
Director Yun Suh first happened upon Shushan, Jerusalem’s only gay bar, during a visit to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a journalist. Finding a place where Israelis and Palestinians would flirt, dance and celebrate life with each other “renewed my faith in humanity,” said Suh following Thursday evening’s screening of her documentary City of Borders. The audience was extremely engaged in the Q&A, peppering Suh with questions about how she found her remarkable subjects, who include the doggedly brave city councilman/bar owner Sa’ar, a sweet young Arab man named Boody and a nationalistic Israeli settler named Adam. All are incredibly forthcoming in the film, but the most charismatic, candid subjects are lesbian couple Ravit and Samira. “Finding an Israeli/Palestinian couple is like finding a unicorn,” said Suh, who was able to capture the two women exploring their differences with great introspection and sensitivity. “They disagree on almost everything, yet they still love and respect each other. To me they represent the future of Israel.” When asked about the danger level that her subjects experienced in a city where ultra-religious groups vehemently protest Pride gatherings, Suh replied that the risk was especially high for Palestinians like Boody, who would sneak through the border for a night out at Shushan. Yet, said Suh, many members of the gay community prefer to live by the saying, “I’d rather die my life than live my death.” —LK, Scoop du Jour
my take *** – I must admit, I dozed off a few times during this film. I had seen about a dozen films by this time, and this one started at 9:30pm. Sorry. When I looked around during the Q and A, I saw the house was packed. As the questions rolled in, it became clear that it was populated by young, fervent Palestinians, Israelis and gays… either or both. Trapped in the middle of a row and unable to leave, I probably learned more than if I had seen the whole film.