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Indies Invade the SFIFF: Snapshots from the Left Coast

Indies Invade the SFIFF: Snapshots from the Left Coast

Indies Invade the SFIFF: Snapshots from the Left Coast

by Carl Russo

From the city’s hilltop aristocrats who buy tickets in bulk to the
Russian cab driver attending one film from his native Georgia, the 41st
San Francisco International Film Festival
is drawing crowds as diverse
as its programming. It is midway through a two-week run (which wraps May
7) and the only people who haven’t turned up are the requisite industry
suits at this decidedly non-market, film lovers’ festival.

Positioned at a cultural crossroads on the Pacific Rim, the festival is
an important venue for smaller, less commercial foreign films to make
the leap to the states. This year’s program includes a whopping 130
films from 44 countries, in addition to 67 U.S. projects. Theaters
around the bay are carrying the program, including the Kabuki (main HQ),
the Castro and the Pacific Film Archive at UC Berkeley.

Public enthusiasm has run high, whether for a grainy Pixelvision short
(Michael Almereyda’s “The Rocking Horse Winner“) or Hollywood star
vehicles (Brian Gilbert’s “Wilde” and Wayne Wang’s “Chinese Box,” the
fest’s bookend galas).

But amid the pomp of such high-brow fare and edgy experimentalism, was a
place saved for those young, tireless American D.I.Y.ers hoping their
showings would make a splash. Would locals get a taste of a few
off-beat, new features before either Sony gobbles them or they vanish
without a trace? In San Francisco, the answer is yes.

indieWIRE offers the following snapshots of filmmakers on the hustle.

Christopher Nolan arrived at the Kabuki with a print fresh from a local
lab. His debut feature, “Following,” is a realist-tinged, noirish story
about a young writer in London who has taken to following strangers
until he is caught by one. Nolan’s film is in competition for the
festival’s Skyy Prize. While brimming with excitement at his world
premiere, Nolan was anxious to view the film with an audience of more
than five. “It really felt complete for the first time,” said the
27-year-old Nolan, a former Londoner now living in Los Angeles. “People
let out a gasp at the parts I gasp at!” Another gasp resounded at the
post-screening Q&A when he told the audience that he completed the film
for $6,000 (before film transfer). Borrowing gear from his college on
weekends and “calling in a lot of favors,” his only real cost was film
stock. “People brought their own lunch,” he added with a laugh. Now
Nolan pays the bills as a script reader while he plots strategies for
“Following.” When asked how he would spend the $10,000 Skyy Prize
should he win, he replied, “Pay my girlfriend some rent!”

For Philadelphia filmmaker Eugene Martin, the first feature is the
hurdle. His debut, “Two Plus One,” enjoyed limited theatrical
distribution. The second time around Martin started a production
company, set up an office, acquired an Avid, and “leveraged” the package
into funding. “Edge City,” in its North American premiere here, takes
the too-easily-exploited subject of teen violence and injects a raw
street intensity into an intriguing plot. Using a combination of young
professional actors and local kids, the film fixes on the social borders
that divide hip-hop kids of south Philly from their wealthier suburban
counterparts. “I involved the kids with everything. With shooting,
cutting, test screening,” said Martin of his methods. “I didn’t want to
preach down to them or water it down. I just wanted to be really
aggressive.” To that end, Martin utilized hand-held camera throughout
the shoot before cutting up a storm. “We had 1700 edits. You wouldn’t
wanna see our negative cuts!” Martin is now wrangling his actors for a
radio interview. In parting, he said that “Edge City” is being
considered by three major distributors.

David Williams scaled down the production of his second feature,
Thirteen,” which garnered great festival response in Toronto, Berlin
and NY’s New Directors/New Films. For “Thirteen,” Williams was able
to trim the crew and save money by shooting 16mm instead of Super-16.
“It’s nice to have a larger crew,” said the filmmaker from his Virginia
home, “but my real interest is getting a unique quality of acting from
the actors.” The result is an intimate, documentary-style study of an
introverted girl who runs away from her family and returns with an odd
goal during the week of her thirteenth birthday. Williams, who made the
film with NEA and Rockefeller grant money, doesn’t seem to mind lacking
a distributor. “I’m just sticking to the festival circuit right now
hoping that it gets good reviews.” His strategy was rewarded at the
Berlin market where “Thirteen” received the Jury Award in its

Vicky Funari collected excellent reviews on a trail of festivals that
wove through Havana, Sundance and Berlin. Now she’s in San Francisco,
where she lives, competing for the Golden Spire in the Bay Area
Documentary division. Her stunning film, “Paulina,” is a collection of
revelations about the Mexican woman who served as the family maid during
Funari’s childhood. “Paulina” leads the audience back to the scene of
her youth through interviews and dramatic recreations where she was
exploited and traded for land. “It was hell,” said Funari about raising
the bucks. “Once I started fundraising it took about ten years.” But
under the wing of distributor Turbulent Arts, and a release plan, she
said she’s ready to tackle more projects which, hopefully, won’t take
another decade.

Angered by stated denials of racial motives and armed with seed money
from the Discovery Channel, Berkeley-based Michael Chandler flew to
rural South Carolina to gain confidences and secure interviews with
local residents about two black churches that were burnt to the ground.
Forgotten Fires” is Chandler’s gripping account of a small town lured
into racial hatred when the KKK sets up shop. The film turns into a
demented Klan fashion show as the camera was allowed full access to
rallies and unhooded one-on-ones, and a gut-wrenching conversation with
the self-confessed arson in prison. (Discretion allows only that the
film contains a surprise ending any doc-maker would die for!) Chandler
returned to shoot whenever he got more money. “If you make the movie,
you’re making the movie. If you wait, you won’t,” he said.

Local filmmaker Susan Stern has a calling card of gold in the title of
her one-hour documentary, “Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour.” A
background of investigative print journalism and a video production
class set her on the path to indiedom. Her adulatory, yet subversive
film follows the webs of the Barbie doll’s influence, from high-rolling
collectors to underground artists that reclaim Barbie for personal
expression. The amazing and ironic life of Ruth Handler, Barbie’s
inventor and Mattel, Inc. co-founder, rises above much camp through
intimate interviews. Stern’s heels are hot from a premiere at Austin’s
SXSW Festival. “I got called by everybody: Miramax and Fine Line and
Goldwyn and Sony Pictures Classics,” recalled Stern. “And then they all
called back and said, ‘It’s too short.'” She’s getting her audience
anyway with a prime airing on PBS’ “P.O.V.” Like many people who’ ve
managed to get their film out, Stern is confidently plotting her next
move. “I have several ideas I’m working on now. Two documentaries, two
features and a television show.”

[For more information about the San Francisco International Film
Festival, call: (415) 569-9700. Their web site is at

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