On my first full day of San Francisco Film Festival screenings, the first screening of the day is “Goodbye,” the latest offering from Mohammad Rasoulof, the Iranian independent director who was sentenced (along with Jafar Panahi) by the Iranian government to six years in prison (along with a twenty-year prohibition on leaving the country, talking to foreign press, or writing or directing any films) on charges of propagandizing, at the end of 2010.
Rasoulof was released from jail after 17 days, and Panahi after five months, while the charges against them seem to be still wending their way through the courts. Both Panahi and Rasoulof still managed to have new films, made clandestinely, premiere last year at Cannes.
Panahi’s (reportedly smuggled out of Iran in a flash drive buried in a cake) is entitled “This is Not a Film,” a putative documentary of a day in his life under house arrest, and played at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema two weeks before the Festival. His credited co-director, documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahasb, was banned from traveling to the Toronto International Film Festival in September of last year, when the film was screened there.
Rasoulof’s “Goodbye” is his fifth film. I’ve seen two others: “Iron Island,” (2005) an allegorical film about a colony living on a oil tanker in the Persian Gulf under a despotic captain, which felt didactic and eventually tedious to me, and more seductive “The White Meadows,” (2009), in which allegory becomes beguiling myth, as a man travels from island to island, collecting the tears of its inhabitants, in a mysterious ritual.
“Goodbye” is shot in a totally different style: the sunlight and fairy tales are replaced by grim realism, filmed in muted shades of blue and gray. We follow a beautiful young woman, a lawyer banned from trying cases, as she wends her way through Kafkaesque bureaucracy, attempting to secure a visa to leave the country. Her husband, once a journalist, is mysteriously “working in the south.” She’s beset at every turn: conflicted about her pregnancy, harassed by police, patronized by men who only want to deal with her absent husband. It’s a powerful film on its own, but almost unbearably sad given the context of its creation.
Next up is “Robot & Frank,” a modest American indie with an impressive cast: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, Liv Tyler and James Marsden. It’s set in the near future, delineated by only a few touches, some deft – such as an oddly thin car, and the relentless process of de-accessioning the physical books of the local library — and some not: the baroque, lacquered upswept hairdos on stylish women. The aging and increasingly forgetful Langella, once a cat burglar, is provided with a predictably adorable robot (voiced by Peter Saarsgard) to aid him in his daily tasks.
I find the film sweet but predictable. Afterwards, the pitfall of seeing a film in a festival context arrives: the young first-time director, Jake Schreier, is personable and charming, and who could not fail to re-evaluate the movie you’ve just seen once you learn it was shot in only 20 days, in hundred-degree heat that nearly asphyxiated the small woman encased in the robot suit? I am not unmoved. But it doesn’t ultimately change the good-natured but slender movie I’ve just seen (due to be released next fall by Samuel Goldwyn Films). A questioner in the audience proves to be a geriatic psychiatrist, who politely doubts some of the film’s internal logic. Who goes to the movies expecting reality?
Only two films into the day and I’ve already been confronted with political repression, abuse, Down syndrome, and Alzheimer’s. Among a plethora of choices I’ve decided on seeing “OK, Enough, Goodbye,” because I have never before seen a deadpan comedy about a Lebanese pastry chef, but I am waylaid by film buff and Sundance regular Janet, who is going to see “The Fourth Dimension,” a trilogy of films created around a set of instructions that sound Dogme-esque but more specific (stuffed animals and bad jokes must be included) by Harmony Korine (who I find generally terrible sans l’enfant), Alexy Fedorchenko (the terrific “Silent Souls”), and Jan Kwiecinski, a Polish director and unknown quantity.
I follow Janet into the theater because (a) the movie was on my list anyway; (b) it’s being shown on the biggest screen in the complex, one of my favorite places to see a film in the entire Bay Area; (c) they’re giving out free beer and popcorn; (d) it’s the first film from the beer company Grolsch’s new film arm (!), and I’m curious as to why a beer company has a film arm, anyway.
Onward and upwards with the arts. Korine’s segment, “Lotus Community Workshop,” stars a Sam Kinison-esque Val Kilmer (long hair, doughy face, black beret, but without the compelling intensity) as an addled motivational speaker. An extended, uninvolving inside joke. I’m ready to be charmed by Fedorchenko’s “Chronoeye,” in which a cranky would-be time traveler is seduced by a noisily dancing neighbor, but ultimately I’m not. Kwiecinski’s “Fawns” looks bright and beautiful on the big screen, but again its apocalyptical narrative, initially intriguing (four punk kids rampage around a deserted Polish village about to be inundated by implacable floods) fails to grab me.
Oh well. You take your chances. I am still mystified as to the hopes and dreams of Grolsch’s film arm, even after listening to most of the gnomic pronouncements issuing forth from the stage afterwards, laden with directors, filmmakers, and the creative head of Grolsch, who bears coincidentally another famed beer name, Moretti. He is the one who came up with these filmic rules in concert with Korine (which should in itself have been a good reason to stay away).
All day I have been looking forward to seeing “Wu Xia” (aka “Dragon”): two hours of martial arts set in 1917, although from a Chinese director, Peter Ho-sun Chan, of whose varied output I’ve seen “Comrades: Almost a Love Story,” and the American “ The Love Letter,” romantic comedies, neither of which demonstrate the skill set of an action director. But it’s said to have broken box office records in China, where they know a thing or two about action movies. (Ou sont les Hong Kong films d’antan?)
But reality sets it: it’s not due to start for an hour, and I can walk right in to documentary “How to Survive a Plague,” which is about the political group ACT UP and how its actions influenced the creation of the drug cocktails that turned AIDS from a death sentence into a somewhat manageable disease.
Footage from the 80s and 90s (i.e. before cellphone video) and contemporary talking-heads interviews with many of the protagonists has been skillfully assembled into a moving narrative of the power of activism. I only quibble with the film’s end credits, which might lead the viewer to think that the AIDS drug cocktail has saved the world from the scourge of the virus: the 6,000,000 alive because of protease inhibitors are highlighted, rather than the many more millions who do not have access to the drugs. They’ve erred on the side of triumph. Even Larry Kramer, whose angry letter mentioning “at least 75 million infections and 35 million deaths” was handed out outside the theater when I saw the revival of his “The Normal Heart” in NY last year, seems uncharacteristically warm and cuddly in his closing onscreen moments.
The Q-and-A is long and involving. I finally exit the theater at the same time as the audience of “Wu Xia” (easily identifiable by the martial arts moves they’re trying out on each other).
So much for trying to be pragmatic. Ah well. I can see “Wu Xia” on Monday afternoon.