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Alice Waters Throws Chez Panisse Feast for Sauper’s SFIFF Film ‘We Come as Friends’

Alice Waters Throws Chez Panisse Feast for Sauper's SFIFF Film 'We Come as Friends'

The phone rings with an invite to a special dinner at Chez Panisse tonight.  I’m on deadline, at home, hoping to finish a piece before I drive over to the first full day of the 57th Annual San Francisco Film Festival. I’m determined to make it in by the 3 p.m. screening of “We Come as Friends,” by Hubert Sauper.  

Alice Waters, it seems, met Sauper at the Berlin Film Festival in February, loved “We Come as Friends,” and is hosting a dinner in his honor. “Yes, of course, thank you so much, I’ll see you there.” 

I was entertained, engaged, and horrified by his witty, ironic, and moving “Darwin’s Nightmare,” Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary Feature in 2006, and winner of the 2006 Cesar for Best First Film, nominally about the voracious Nile perch, which took over Lake Victoria in central Africa, but actually about the pernicious effects of globalization.  “We Come as Friends” was also filmed in Africa, in the Sudan, once the continent’s largest country, now divided in two warring nations.

As I’ll be staying in Berkeley, I watch “We Come as Friends” online. Not my favorite way to watch a movie, but I am entranced by its beautiful images in service of an ugly reality.  Sauper and his filmmaking colleagues hopscotch across the Sudan in a comical-looking tiny homemade airplane, collecting stories both painful and absurd about the oil and mineral riches that flow out of the Sudan, leaving many of the inhabitants of the war-torn nations impoverished and oppressed — by well-meaning missionaries as well as greedy international businessman and power-drunk politicians.

Come 8 p.m., I join an eclectic crowd of filmmakers and film lovers in the upstairs Cafe at Chez Panisse: as well as Alice, Hubert, and his co-director and cinematographer Barney Broomfield; Noah Cowan, the new Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society; Davia Nelson, SF-based radio and TV producer; B. Ruby Rich, film theorist and UC Santa Cruz professor; singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, who’s a famed film buff; and Mark Danner, UC Berkeley professor and prolific writer on politics and foreign affairs, and his wife Michelle.  It seems that I am the only one without a personal website. Just an old-fashioned girl…

We sip Alice’s favorite Bandol Tempier Rose before being shoehorned into the largest table in the room, a tight squeeze, since we’ve been joined by a charming young man, Jessey White-Cinis, who’s flown in from NYC to surprise his friend Barney, and Anuradha Mittal, the founder and Executive Director of the Oakland Institute, an independent policy think tank, who provided Sauper with background information for the film.  

There are 14 of us. Alice gaily says, “This is more than we’ve ever had at this table, even for New Year’s Eve!” I have seen her hosting notables including Peter Sellars and Jane Fonda (not, I think, on the same evening). Alice has ordered pizzas for the table: one topped with stinging nettles — something of a misnomer, since the prickly nettles grow harmless with cooking — and fresh ricotta, the other with tomato sauce, spicy merguez sausage, and sharp, toothy wild rocket, aka arugula.  There are bowls of assorted olives, good Acme bread and butter, and a fabulous spring salad that I do not get enough of: tender Little Gems lettuce tossed with delicate slivers of baby artichokes, emerald-green lava beans, fragile fronds of fragrant anise hyssop, anointed with a Meyer lemon vinaigrette.  You can tell that I liked it.

We choose our own entrees. Everything looks amazing, but I decide on pan-fried fish cakes — despite having told Hubert that I would eat “anything but fish!” — an allusion to the scary perch of “Darwin’s Nightmare.” The cosmopolitan Sauper, who was born in Austria, but has lived (and taught filmmaking) in England, Italy, and the United States, has a gift for instant intimacy — useful at film festival dinners, as well as flying into remote African locations unannounced.  He now lives in Paris. (I often wonder why anyone lives anywhere else.) 

There’s an our-end-of-the-table discussion about what Martin Marquet, Hubert’s friend and publicist (and grandson of Jacques Tati’s longtime writing partner Henri Marquet, should try, as a Chez Panisse novice: he goes with the famed grilled chicken al mattone (under a brick).  The vegetarians at the table order a luscious-looking (and tasting — I grab a bite) lasagna verde with morel mushrooms, fresh ricotta, and spinach. Ruby Rich, who has brought copies of the new issue of Film Quarterly, which she’s now editing, goes for the pork loin roasted with fennel seed and rosemary. I swap a crusty fish cake (and its accompanying shaved vegetable salad, new potatoes, and garlicky aioli) for more than a few of Noah’s Hog Island clams in a pungent saffron and sorrel broth, jeweled with bright green peas. 

I’m sitting next to Anuradha, who provided Hubert with intel that led to one of the most moving scenes in “We Come as Friends,” in which a village elder confesses that he unwittingly sold rights to all the natural resources of his 600,000 hectares of land to a Texas firm for $25,000. We are not unaware of the irony of feasting in honor of a movie about a land rife with “food insecurity,” an ironic and euphemistic phrase for starvation.  But we are happy to be able to celebrate its creation, and also to hope that it helps to increase awareness in the world of Africa’s continuing exploitation.   

Hubert, Martin, and others have been on the road for grueling and exciting months with “We Come as Friends” — which premiered at Sundance in January, and was shown in New York at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films, as well as in Berlin, and is now en route to the Planet and Doc Film Festival in Poland.  They tell me that they all looked forward to Alice’s dinner as “an oasis in the desert.” It’s a sweet moment, made sweeter by magically-appearing plates of rhubarb tart and the most evanescent of bittersweet chocolate brownies, as well as Alice’s trademark copper bowls filled with tiny Pixie tangerines.  

Barney Broomfield is thrilled that the tangerines are supplied by his uncle and aunt’s Ojai farm, Churchill-Brenneis, which is namechecked on the menu.  “How wonderful and random is that?,” he says, and I tell him, shyly, that, equally randomly, years ago I was invited to a birthday party for his father, famed documentarian Nick Broomfield, and that Nick was more pleased with the Barney’s box that the black-and-white scarf came in than with the gift, because of his son’s name.

“You look like the perfect combination of your mother [documentarian and cinematographer Joan Churchill and father,” I say. “Everybody says that,” he replies.

By now the party is breaking up. I’ve not only dined superbly, but I’ve met some fascinating people. “This evening was like a spoonful of wonderfulness,” one of them emails me afterwards, “such a delicious meal and amazing people to share it with.”  

I’m reminded again of the other reason I love film festivals: not just the movies, but the people who make them and those who come to watch them.  In time to come I may forget some of the movies I see at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, but I’ll never forget this dinner.  We left as friends.

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