FESTIVALS: Jekyll and Hide, San Fran Seizes on Intern'l Films Light and Dark
by Carl Russo
There was a refreshing lack of biz talk in the bustling lobby of the Kabuki Theater. Cell phones were rare among the thousands of wide-eyed, paying moviegoers that lined up day and night for two weeks during the 42nd San Francisco International Film Festival. "The last of the humanist festivals" is how film scholar David Robinson described this non-competitive, market-free event. For many, the eclectic program of 186 films from 58 countries--which concluded May 6--proved to be something closer to movie heaven.
Witness the fate of Alexei Gherman's ponderous experiment "Khrustaliov, My Car!" (Russia/France), which virtually emptied a theater at Cannes in 1998. This year, Bay Area audiences gave the film and its maker a standing ovation, prompting a second screening.
The jocular atmosphere culminated in the closing awards ceremony when Artistic Director Peter Scarlet stepped onstage dressed in Mongolian ceremonial costume. The generally reserved programmer donned the garb in tribute to the fest's sidebar program of recent works from Kazakhstan, and to the winner of this year's Audience Award for Best Documentary, "Genghis Blues" (US/Tuva). S.F.-based filmmaker Roko Belic followed blind blues great Paul Pena on a trek to Mongolia to meet the masters of multi-toned throat-singing that Pena has mastered. Belic's film picked up an additional award, the Grand Prize for Best Bay Area Documentary. With sadness, he told the audience that Pena has been diagnosed with cancer, and that he is raising funds towards his aid.
Independent Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhang Ke received the $10,000 Skyy Vodka Prize for his gritty tale of a street hood, "Xiao Wu" (China/Hong Kong). Additionally, the Grand Prize for Best Documentary went to Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini's "Divorce, Iranian Style" (UK/Iran), and the Audience Award for Best Feature was given to Carlos Bolado's "Under California: The Limit of Time" (Mexico).
Hollywood had a place at the table this year, and the star-struck could seek out Sean Penn (who received an award and tribute), Aidan Quinn (promoting his new star vehicle "This Is My Father") and David Byrne and the original Talking Heads (assembled for a revival showing of "Stop Making Sense" at the Castro Theater).
And for giddy, youth-market fare there was the world premiere of "Drop Dead Gorgeous" (US). An unintentional update of the teen beauty pageant in 1975's "Smile," the irreverent mockumentary sends-up small-town mores from rich WASPs to trailer park mamas. The film stars Kirstie Alley and Ellen Barkin and is scheduled for a July release. It also marks the feature debut of MTV's "The State" alumnus Michael Patrick Jann.
In an interview with indieWIRE, Jann spoke of his frustrations as the new kid on the set: "There are a lot of people involved in the process who have different agendas for what they do that don't have much to do with getting your idea up on screen. It feels like torture." He said his experience churning out TV spots quickly gave him a leg up on the sharks. "Doing commercials gave me the skills for dealing with them. But I've also just been really lucky."
Further up the Hollywood food chain sits playwright/director David Mamet, who came to launch the world premiere of his Edwardian drama "The Winslow Boy," now in theatrical release. The mannered period piece is a departure from his verbally violent films of the past. "I knew the [original 1948] movie when I was a kid. I wanted to do the play as a young director," Mamet told indieWIRE. "Many people could probably direct 'Hamlet' better than I could, but that doesn't mean I don't want to direct 'Hamlet.'"
He added that he's been bitten by the Victorian bug. In addition to rehearsing a new play set in a turn-of-the-century drawing room, Mamet has scripted his take on "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" for Fox, set in the same era. "It's about a prototypical psychoanalyst--an alienist--who's trying to find the connection between the mind and the brain."
Jekyll/Hyde would have been an appropriate mascot for this year's festival. The catalog was a mix of both sunny (Sony) studio product poised for wide theatrical release and the darker, more difficult works that have come to characterize SFIFF. Mamet's and Jann's films played alongside controversial shockers like Gaspar Noe's "I Stand Alone" (France), Tim Roth's "The War Zone" (UK), and Daniele Cipri's "Toto Who Lived Twice" (Italy). And, with perverse irony, a trio of outrageous black comedies from Yugoslavia screened as NATO bombs fell on Serbia: Emil Kusturica's "Black Cat, White Cat," Goran Paskaljevic's "The Powder Keg," and Srdjan Dragojevic's "The Wounds."
Filmgoers willing to gamble a ticket were treated to a particularly strong slate of foreign films premiering stateside. What starts as vacation footage develops into the documentary "Chief" (Cameroon/France), Jean-Marie Teno's damning expose of Cameroon's brutal dictatorship. His camcorder captures the colonial legacy: a hierarchy of corporate-sponsored chiefs and a prison system straight out of Dante. Another video project shot on the fly is Eoin Moore's "Break Even" (Germany), an improvised feature about a drifter who is befriended by two hookers. While the film is filled with great scenes and rich characters, the structural patchwork falls apart, leaving us hopeful for Moore's next project.
Less verite is Lucien Pintilie's "Last Stop Paradise" (Romania/France), featuring a young pig farmer who falls tragically in love with a spunky waitress. The ever-jealous boy launches a violent attack on the amoral institutions that shaped him in this twisted descendant of "Badlands." Bourlem Guerdjou's similarly-titled "Living in Paradise" (France/Belgium/Norway) imagines Eden as a squalid immigrant shantytown in a racist France of the 60s. The gritty drama is a depressing but moving account of an Algerian laborer who would better his situation at the cost of his family and identity.
Two Asian films explore the comic possibilities of death: Hiroshi Shimizu's "Ikinai" (Japan), wherein the dour members of a suicide pact charter a bus for their final field trip, unbeknownst to a capricious tag-along; and Wang Shaudi's "Grandma and Her Ghosts" (Taiwan/Korea), a clever animated feature about a city kid sent to stay with his spooky old grandmother, a keeper of ghosts.
Less successful among the U.S. premieres were Aki Kaurismaki's "Juha" (Finland), the veteran helmer's tedious pastiche of silent film melodramas; and Johan Soderberg and Erik Pauser's "Lucky People Center International" (Sweden), a collection of cool images matched to hip beats that comes off like a Benetton commercial.
The occasional turkey is forgivable in the face of rare and dazzling programs like a tribute to absurdist Mexican director Arturo Ripstein; retrospectives of Dutch documentarian Johan van der Keuken and Senegalese director Djibril Diop Mambety; and shimmering, archival screenings of German expressionist classics and erotic works by Gustav Machaty.
The house lights come up and the Kabuki's eight theaters empty, but keeping those film-hungry crowds sated until SFIFF 2000 isn't much of a problem. The fest's parent organization, the San Francisco Film Society, presents special programming year-round. For more information, call (415) 931-FILM.
[Carl Russo is a radio programmer and freelance writer living in San Francisco.]