The San Francisco International Film Festival kicks off tomorrow with world premieres, awards to veterans of cinema — and a screening of “The Third Man” as a memorial to the event’s last director. Bingham Ray died in January soon after taking the job of leading the San Francisco Film Society, before ever presiding over an actual festival.
Ray’s well-worn shoes will be hard to fill. Doing that is the festival’s priority, all the more crucial since the society’s previous director, Graham Leggatt, died last summer.
“Our plan is to get a new executive director and until we have someone in place, we’re going to keep doing what we have been doing, which is to do programming year-round,” said Rachel Rosen, head of programming for SFIFF, who has been at the festival for all but eight years since 1993.
“You’re going to see the continuity in the mission of the festival, which has not changed drastically under either of their tenures,” Rosen said. “The aim of the San Francisco International Film Festival has been to present the best of world cinema to San Francisco audiences for many many years, so that’s going to stay the same.”
Would SFIFF’s programming have changed if Ray were running things now? Probably not too much, at least not so soon, said advisory board member Tom Luddy. “He had connections all over the board,” he said. “But he loved Ireland and I did tell him, ‘You should have a small series of Irish cinema that is curated by you.’ His reaction was, ‘Great idea.’ I was hoping that he’d bring a little of that Irish thing to San Francisco.”
The festival of 174 films opens with “Farewell My Queen,” Benoit Jacquot’s adaptation of Chantal Thomas’s 2002 novel set in Versailles in 1789 (which premiered at the Berlinale in February). If Sofia Coppola can have a shot at Marie-Antoinette, why not a Frenchman?
“Marie-Antoinette remains an extremely controversial person in France. There are people who adore her. There are people who still detest her. Either she’s viewed as a saint or a whore. What interests me is that, personally, I think she’s both,” Jacquot told me earlier this year.
Rosen offered some recommendations within the program that begins April 19.
One is Vice Media’s “The Fourth Dimension,” the three-part project of short films by Harmony Korine, Alexey Fedorchenko and Jan Kwiecinski. Vice’s mandate was to explore the relationship between space and time.
The film makes its world premiere at SFIFF on April 20 and travels to Tribeca on April 24. “Our note writer said that it sounds like it might be too hip for people when you look at the setup, which is a manifesto of rules that the filmmakers have to follow,” said Rosen, “but when you look at the totality of these three films by these three directors, I think people will find it surprising.”
“Target,” by the Russian director Alexander Zeldovich, is another title that Rosen recommends: “an interesting mix of near-future sci-fi and melodrama and social commentary.”
A much-awaited doc making its world premiere at SFIFF is “Informant” by Jamie Meltzer, in which we meet Brandon Darby, a radical activist from Austin who worked with the FBI as an undercover informant. Those who saw “Better This World” will already know him.
Testimony from Darby led to the arrest and imprisonment of two Texas activists for making homemade bombs, which the government said they planned to detonate at the 2008 Republican National Convention. The film poses a delicate question: Would they have made the bomb and planned the bombing without Darby’s input? The same question can be asked of many federal terrorism prosecutions that relied on informants.
Darby’s political itinerary ranges from post-Katrina New Orleans to Venezuela and back to the US, where he turns against his former colleagues and eventually accepts an offer to inform for the FBI – and eventually finds friends in the Tea Party and in Christian groups. The doc is all the more unusual because it is told largely by Darby himself, and because Darby agrees to recount his own story. Darby is expected to appear at the SFIFF screening April 22. We can probably assume that the audience may include some people who aren’t his fans.
Another world premiere is the multimedia project, “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller,” a film on the visionary architect and engineer that includes live narration by director Sam Green and musical accompaniment by Yo La Tengo. Once a hero to a younger generation – Fuller was frequently listed as one of those people over 30 whom young people could trust – Fuller’s legacy has receded from view at a time when his focus on small-scale engineering and sustainability couldn’t be closer to the zeitgeist.
“It’s sort of like when I made a movie about the Weather Underground. When you tell people what you’re doing, everybody over a certain age knows who you’re talking about, and everybody under a certain age has no idea who you’re talking about,” Green said. “In some ways, it’s weird. He’s more relevant now than ever. He was talking about how to deal with limited resources or how to use resources wisely to make sure that everybody had a fair share. It’s now that we’re really having to face all that.”
“The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller” is already sold out in San Francisco. Green said that suggests live events might point to a better business plan than trying to put docs in theaters or on television. He promises similar events in New York City and elsewhere.
Also making its world premiere is “Tokyo Waka: A City Poem” by Bay Area filmmakers John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson. The protagonists of this meditative doc-poem are the crows of Tokyo, a hardy species that turns out to be less despised than might have been expected. The crows are still a nuisance, even in the zoo, where they steal food and snatch newborn animals. Baby guinea pigs are an excellent source of protein and don’t weigh much, we are told. Like it or not, the crows turn out to be ingenious adaptable survivors. Comparisons between the birds and humans lead to sober reflections on life and death.
SFIFF will also host the local premieres of two Bay Area Projects, “The Waiting Room” and “Cherry.”
A mix of a Fred Wiseman doc and “ER” (with ITVS as a producer), “The Waiting Room” is director Peter Nicks’ trip to the overburdened emergency room of Oakland Hospital. Its characters are memorable and tactile. To say that this emergency room is overcrowded is like saying the New York City subway is packed during rush hour. But not everyone on the subway has an urgent health emergency. Seeing this doc, you will never want to be without health insurance again – although even the insured wait a long time at this hospital.
Also on the bill is “Cherry,” Stephen Elliot’s ode to the porn trade that made its debut in Berlin – and met with a mix of skepticism and incredulity. This coming-of-age story takes a teenager who’s under the thumb of poverty, has a violent father and opportunistic boyfriends, and follows her to freedom – in San Francisco, where else? — first as a porn actress, and then as a porn director – in a tale that needs to be seen to be believed. Feminists beware.
Newcomer Ashley Hinshaw leads a cast that includes James Franco, Heather Graham Lili Taylor, and Dev Patel. (Full disclosure – I reviewed the film for Screen in Berlin and saw it as a triumph of unintentional humor.) The critics panned “Cherry,” but San Francisco is the capital of America porn and its consumers and performers will turn out to applaud Elliott (also a novelist) and his cast, which also includes the adult actress Lorelei Lee, the star of “Fuck Slaves Three,” “Black Cock Addiction 3” and “Anal Nurse Whores.” I’m not kidding. It’s another hot ticket among many at SFIFF.
Awards this year at SFIFF, always honoring as noteworthy range of film veterans, will go to actor Kenneth Branagh, actress Judy Davis, doc director Barbara Kopple, French film factotum Pierre Rissient and screenwriter David Webb Peoples.
To honor Branagh, who receives its Founders Directing Award, SFIFF will show “Dead Again.” “It might have been more obvious to go with one of the Shakespeare adaptations, but I think it’s good to remind people that Kenneth Branagh is about more than Shakespeare, although he clearly is the master at that currently, at least on film,” said Rosen.
At the Barbara Kopple tribute for “Persistence of Vision,” SFIFF will present “Harlan County USA,” which won Kopple her first Oscar in 1976. “The San Francisco Film Festival was one of the first places after New York where Harlan County showed, at the Castro,” Kopple said by phone from her office in New York. “Getting the Persistence of Vision Award — I sort of like the name of the award, because persistence is so crucial to the work that we do as documentarians. It’s so much about the parts that the characters have played in so many people’s films. And if you’re not out there, if you’re not struggling with them, it’s not going to happen.”
A lot of cinema could describe the career of David Webb Peoples, recipient of this year’s award at SFIFF for excellence in screenwriting – “Blade runner,” “Hero,” “Unforgiven,” “12 Monkeys” and “Ladyhawke,” among others.
Peoples first worked in movies as a film editor and moved to screenwriting full-time in the late 1970’s. “The competition is so fierce now, I feel certain that I wouldn’t have had any success if I’d started right now,” Peoples said over the telephone from his home in Berkeley, where he collaborates on scripts with his wife, Janet Peoples. “I find it terrifying. I don’t know how kids succeed in that environment.”