The filmmaking voices that are rewarded at the San Francisco International Film Festival are every bit as quirky as its proudly off-center citizenry. This 15-day affair takes the opposite tack to its cross-country counterpart: Where the Tribeca Film Festival is heavy on premieres but contains only the occasional true find, San Francisco creates a cohesive slate drawn from the best of available cinema.
(Editor's note: Here's an interview with festival programmers Graham Leggett and Rachel Rosen about what they look for in creating the program. Video courtesy Sidereel.com.)
This best-of fest mentality means cinephiles are pulled in all directions. Heavyweights like Werner Herzog, Catherine Breillat, Kelly Reichardt, Miranda July and Michael Winterbottom impress with new work, but the revelations are found deeper in the program. The documentary slate offers sidebars on everything from flat art ("Nainsukh," "The Mill and the Cross," "Cave of Forgotten Dreams") to urban decay ("Detroit Wild City," "Foreign Parts") and our legal system ("Hot Coffee," "Crime After Crime," "Better This World"), while the narrative field is equally eclectic in style and substance.
After a week, the festival is just kicking into gear. The Tindersticks will perform excerpts of their own scores to six Claire Denis films; Terence Stamp will receive an acting award before an ultra-rare screening of his Fellini-helmed feature "Toby Dammit;" and Frank Pierson ("Cool Hand Luke," "Dog Day Afternoon") will discuss the art of screenwriting before picking up an award himself. A particularly intriguing evening promises to be a program with showman-cum-archivist Serge Bromberg, who will present early 3D cinema showcasing little-seen films from the Soviet Union and Disney alongside turn-of-the-century wonders from George Méliès and the Lumiere brothers.
Films that attempt to recreate cinematic language, whether subtly or explosively, feature prominently in the festival; those that succeed are some of SFIFF’s best. Here's the details on four early standouts; if you have personal favorites to add, please add your comments.
Lisa Aschen’s dark and dreamy debut tells an outwardly simple tale of a pair of sisters, raised by a single father, the older of whom becomes fixated on qualifying for the local equestrian vaulting team (a sport that involves gymnastics on horseback). On her first day of tryouts, Emma is offered training tips by Cassandra, the team’s impeccably put-together star, and the two girls quickly form a friendship tinged (and eventually overrun) with competition, neediness and mistrust.
A sort of abject "Black Swan" that exchanges bits of campy CGI-injected horror for truly disturbing moral taboos, She Monkeys toys with coming-of-age genre conventions while borrowing a looming sense of dread and atmospheric unease from Aschen’s beloved Westerns. The film dives headfirst into murky territory, wrestling with moral ambiguities and dragging comfy preconceptions of gender, sex and power into the muck as well.
As we watch Emma’s sister, a precocious prepubescent with an already overdeveloped talent for mischief, glean wicked lessons on getting ahead from her elder sibling, a creepy sense of foreboding sinks in – the ultimate terrors of the film will likely be lived out long after its final frame.
Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg is often described as the cinematic kin of last year’s "Dogtooth" (on which Tsangari acted as an associate producer), but while this depiction is mostly accurate in regard to their shared stylized rhythms and obsession with awkward-outsiders, Attenberg is significantly more concerned with universally human questions than its predecessor. That may sound odd when confronted with a dysfunctional protagonist who spends all of her time watching her father’s slow decay -- except when she is out impersonating animals, literally playing tonsil hockey or going for strange synchronized walks alongside her only friend, Bella.
As her father’s condition worsens, our lonely but proud hero Marina begins to consider (for the first time, at 23) the benefits of integrating herself into society, albeit tentatively. This is not the way her father raised her, and he laments this on his deathbed: “I'm boycotting the 20th century. I'm an old atheist, a toxic remnant of modernism. I will leave you in the arms of a new century without having taught you anything.” As she struggles to piece together a romantic relationship – despite her repulsion of men – with another lost soul (played by "Dogtooth" helmer Yorgos Lanthimos), Attenberg plays for uncomfortable laughs.
Sinister as this comedy may be, it is not without redemption: While looking to replace her father with a male figure, Marina finds some unknown reserve of humanity and manages, despite long odds, to forge a workable romance – one that might eventually flourish into love. The notion that deep-seeded commonalities exist in us all is thankfully too mawkish a sentiment to be voiced aloud by Tsangari, but she allows room for the thought in the parallels between Marina and the animals she mimes. In the sequence that gives the film its title (a purposeful bastardization of Sir David Attenborough’s name), the naturalist Attenborough wonders aloud that he feels genuine kinship with gorillas when staring deep in their eyes; what the gorilla sees back is ultimately the film’s query of Marina.
"Better This World"
Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s chilling documentary portrays the aftermath of the 2008 protests outside of the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis. After a pair of self-styled revolutionaries are caught hiding Molotov cocktails, the government proclaims an open-and-shut domestic terrorism case; in the eyes of the media and the general public, it's a wrap. Combining solid investigative journalism with a compelling storytelling format that plays like a grungier "Man On Wire" with much higher stakes, the filmmakers probe the facts and principal actors from all angles, and come away with a series of truly shocking dramatic twists sure to anger and incite the even the most stoic viewers.
What could easily have turned into a leftist cine-leaflet wisely moves to occupy the more accessible ground of legal system and prisoner-rights investigation, and most sharply, a scrutiny of the shady world of FBI informants. While de la Vega and Galloway clearly sympathize with the activists’ plight, the filmmakers are careful not to elevate them to the status of heroes and question their actions as thoroughly as those of the FBI and the federal prosecutors. Incredibly, the documentarians are able to elicit nakedly honest testimony – some of which is self-damning – from all sides, without resorting to Moore-ish coaxing or trickery. Mixing these firsthand accounts with legal records, wiretap recording and convincing re-enactments, "Better This World" brews a concoction even more potent that the conspiracy charges leveled at its protagonists, aiming its celluloid cocktail squarely at our Byzantine criminal justice system.
"A Useful Life"
Federico Veiroj's film is slight in many ways: A Useful Life clocks in at a svelte 67 minutes, mostly captures a single day and its central character is an affable man who has made a difference in life but can’t claim a great deal of significance. The first half of this breezy color-to-black-and-white transfer concerns Jorge’s daily routine running a retrospective cinema in Urugauy (Jorge is played by real-life Urugauyan film critic Jorge Jellinek). With the feel of a documentary biopic, we follow him to the projection booth to check on aging equipment, past stacks of screeners and to an ever-diminishing audience mainly consisting of die-hard cinephile and bored pensioners.
It's hardly surprising when the theater is forced to shut down due to lack of funds, and Jorge, pale and socially stunted from a quarter-century spent in the cinema, is unceremoniously ejected and left to wander the streets. Instead of lamenting his poor fortune, he rejoices in the absurdity of his situation – he is a man who has frittered away his life watching an approximation of the real thing flicker across a giant screen. As he dances across university steps to a self-imagined score, impersonates a late professor in front of a law class, and mounts the courage to ask a woman out on a date, we witness the liberation of a useless slab of middle-aged man as he matures into a young lad, finally ready to take on the world.
Curiously, this theme of the dangers of nostalgia, and cinema’s complicity it propagating it, was taken up by Christine Vachon in her State of the Cinema Speech, delivered this past Sunday night for the San Francisco International Film Festival.