By Indiewire | Indiewire May 7, 2001 at 2:00AM
FESTIVALS: San Fran Fest's Wild Ride: Crescendo or New Beginning?
by Carl Russo
(indieWIRE/ 05.07.01) -- Open a film festival in Frisco with two nights of pornography and the town will beat a path to the front row. Yet the premieres of "The Center of the World" and "Baise-Moi" put the sizzle on a pretty tough steak: fifteen days worth of worldwide chaos courtesy of Peter Scarlet, the Artistic Director of the San Francisco International Film Festival. Fortunately, almost every film Scarlet screens these days is a sellout.
The 44th installment of the Americas' oldest film festival -- which ran April 19 through May 3 -- marked the end of an era. Call them the Scarlet Years. An unabashed Francophile equally at home translating Gerard Depardieu's words at a press conference or smoking with the volunteers during intermission, Scarlet bids adieu to his post as the fest's chief programmer. His next assignment is a natural: directorship of the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. His successor has not been announced.
Scarlet's heavy stamp was obvious on this year's catalog: French features outnumbered American ones. But more telling was the subject matter. Documentaries exploring the most incendiary conflicts of the here-and-now played alongside narratives infused with harrowing realism. To wit, three North American premieres:
Adi Barash's all-too-real documentary "Diamonds and Rust" (Israel) proves that apartheid is alive and well on the deck of a trawler sucking the resources, not to mention the soul, out of the Namibian coast. The white ship officers' hostility to the crew of color extends to the filmmakers, who endured a hellish season on board. Issa Serge Coleo's "Daresalem" (France/ Burkina Faso) opens with a spear to the neck of a military tax collector in 1970 Chad, followed by a civil war story fraught with particular inhumanities.
And for real button pushing, there's no beating the image of a US flag sown to an Israeli flag, set aflame by a mob of students in Khaled Youssef's "The Storm" (Egypt). The political melodrama finds two brothers fighting from opposite sides of a Gulf War skirmish between Egypt and Iraq, but when the cast suddenly bursts into song mid-movie, we're endeared to the mushy love story.
Depictions of a dystopic Europe are always guaranteed a slot at SFIFF, and the latest works were a thrill to behold. Nicolas Klotz exploits the verite urgency of digital video in "Pariah," which begins with a New Year's Eve sweep of homeless Parisians, then flashes back a day to plot the downfall of a teenage bullshit artist. Slicker, but no less explosive is Michael Haneke's "Code Unknown: Incomplete Tales of Several Journeys," which uses an incident of police brutality on an African transplant named to unravel modern Paris. Dito Tsintsadze's "Lost Killers" pairs a large Haitian street performer with a squat Vietnamese hooker, each deciding that selling organs and enduring gangbangs are their tickets out of a wretched Mannheim, Germany.
Carmen Maura seems to have stepped out of an Almodovar romp and into "The Harem of Mme. Osmane," Nadir Mokneche's outrageous ensemble piece that reveals the colonial hangover suffered by bickering women in 1993 Algeria. Reversing the situation, as well as the mood, is Philippe Faucon's "Samia," the name of an Algerian girl in Marseilles oppressed by members of her immigrant Muslim family, who in turn are victims of French racism.
Bleaker still are two taxicab tales that also focus on multicultural dislocation in France. Robert Guediguian's Marseilles-set Venice favorite "The Town is Quiet," and "Save Me," in which Roschdy Zem plays Mehdi, a cabby of African descent hustling fares in a nondescript French city. His dull routine is broken by the arrival of a capricious Romanian woman searching for a past lover. Director Christian Vincent exhibits a free-spirited style as his characters form makeshift families to survive a corrupt employment system.
Shaken fest-goers were offered a much smoother ride -- in a big, yellow Checker Marathon to be precise. The vintage 1980 taxi made a run from New York to Los Angeles in "American Saint," an independent DV feature which had its world premiere at the Kabuki Theater. A Brooklyn hack (character actor Vincent Schiavelli) agrees to drive a Kerouac-struck actor (indie perennial Kevin Corrigan) to the Coast for a Milos Forman casting call in this refreshing twist on the road trip genre.
"The original idea came to me when I was actually in the back seat of a New York City cab, and I just felt like I wanted to take this cab from New York to L.A.," writer/director Joseph Castelo told indieWIRE. "The fare is something like $9,713." The Columbia University film student caught the attention of producers Michael Hausman ("The People vs. Larry Flynt") and Jeff Levy-Hinte ("High Art") with a 30-page treatment. Aside from a few location snafus with the police, the improvised joyride was completed without a hitch, costing about $250,000 including 35mm transfer.
"American Saint" refers to the character of Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's "On the Road," and Castelo admits that he is devotee of the late author. Commenting on an indie film tradition of beatnik-wannabe characters, Castelo said, "The way I avoided cliches was just keeping it real. As long as everything was truthful, I wasn't pandering to the audience."
Moments that ring true outshine a few bad improvs. "We would show up somewhere and people didn't know we were coming. I'd say, 'This guy is really interesting. Let's get something going.'" The film coalesces when the principals meet Joe Light, a funky "outsider" artist discovered during the course of the shoot, whose presence gave cast, crew and the San Fran audience a dose of authentic Americana.
The distributor-less "American Saint" was one of the few highlights on the domestic front this year as a record number of studio films crept into the program just weeks or days before opening wide.
A strong slate of Iranian features and shorts were artistically satisfying, if a bit depressing (add Mehdi Sabaghzadeh's "Maral" to the list of recent works attacking Islamic patriarchy with pizzazz).
Consider the Japanese for comic relief. 90-year-old director Kon Ichikawa dusted off an old Kurosawa script about a maverick commissioner sent to rid a town of vice. At once mannered and reckless, "Dora-Heita" points up the absurdities of samurai bureaucracy with a boss who would rather gambol than report to the office. Makoto Shinozaki's "Not Forgotten" takes the bittersweet premise of a WWII soldier reunion and slaps on a wicked subplot: a corporate mind-control cult recruits youngsters to swindle geriatrics out of their benefits. Rounding out the quirk factor were two dark comedies: Takeshi Kitano's upcoming yakuza-in La-la-land actioner "Brother" and Junji Sakamoto's "Face," which debuted at this year's New Directors/New Films.
Celeb spotters hoping for a glimpse of Clint Eastwood or Stockard Channing -- each of whom received awards at sold-out tributes -- might have missed one of Johnny Depp's latest leading ladies dashing about in a spiky red 'do. According to German actress Franka Potente, few people realize that the star of Tom Tykwer's "Run Lola Run" also played the cocaine moll in Ted Demme's "Blow." "It was probably because I was convincing as an American," Potente told indieWIRE in telltale German accent. "Two months of hard work on every little sentence." Potente came to the festival with Sony Pictures Classics' "The Princess and the Warrior," her second collaboration with Tykwer. Dreamy and disturbing with a cool, haunting score, the film is a web of providence and coincidence. Later in the fest, Potente hopped a bus and rode seven miles out to visit the San Francisco Zoo. And nobody recognized her.
Change is in the air for the festival, and a big question mark hovers over 2002. A new Artistic Director and possible changes of venue and season are being discussed. Was this the last of a really good thing, or just another wild ride at SFIFF?
[Carl Russo is a radio producer and freelance writer living in San Francisco.]