For Linda Blackaby, the festival never ends. Her job — providing films to show at the society's multitude of events — must seem like a Möbius strip, a perpetual reel of celluloid with no beginning, numerous finales, and scant downtime. The San Francisco Film Society's director of programming is constantly looking for films to fill her organization's ambitious schedule, which used to ebb and flow with the regular springtime arrival of the San Francisco International Film Festival. No more. These days, a serious, major film festival means year-round programming.
"The festival is the jewel in the crown, the tip of the iceberg," explained Blackaby in a phone chat from her office at the Film Society's headquarters in the Presidio. But with such ongoing calendared minifests as the SF International Animation Festival, New Italian Cinema, French Cinema Now, and the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki on her desk, it takes what Blackaby calls a small army to dig up enough films to make the necessary splash.
She's at the head of that army. Alongside her staff of two programmers and input from Audrey Chang, who runs the Golden Gate Awards (the competitive component of the SF International fest), the effort also involves platoons of movie production and distribution people from all over the world, plus two special consultants, one each in Europe and Asia. Then there are the opinions and predilections of the film society's charismatic executive director, Graham Leggat. "The festival happens once a year," says Blackaby, "but now we're developing a pipeline that operates full-time. It adds to the complexity."
Blackaby reads the trades, talks to sales agents, and watches hundreds of films every year, often on a computer screen but sometimes at other film fests. "I went to Thessaloniki for the first time this year," she noted. "Also to Cannes, Toronto, San Sebastian, and Vancouver. I took some time to go to Locarno last summer. Oh, and Sundance and Rotterdam, too." That's one heck of a lot of film festivalizing. "It's not much compared to some other festival programmers."
As in the past, when it comes to struggling national film industries around the globe, Hollywood is still the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the room of marketing. It's hard to make a dent in Brad Pitt. But not all state-sponsored cinemas are obliged to justify their existence commercially — for instance, some countries have regulations on the percentage of national films that must be shown on local screens. According to Blackaby, among the ever-shifting hot spots for festival-style films are countries in the combined UK, the former Yugoslavia, Turkey, and the Scandinavian nations.
A film festival obviously needs narrative-feature premieres for publicity, but Blackaby has a built-in fondness for documentaries, perhaps stemming from her background in progressive politics and university film societies in Oregon (she grew up in Portland, where "our family went to movies a lot"). Since Blackaby joined the SF Film Society in 2001, the feature documentary category has become one of the highlights of the festival each year. "The level of prize money has gone up," she observes, "and the result has been gratifying. We're starting to get a higher level of work submitted."
The SF International has long been championed for its lack of pretentiousness and its ground-level appeal to the Bay Area's sophisticated audience. People don't go the SFIFF to buy and sell or to be seen, but to simply feast on the smorgasbord of world cinema. For Blackaby, the festival also functions as a meeting place for the creative community. "When filmmakers come here, they can go to ITVS, to Dolby, and meet other filmmakers, socially as well as for business. I don't like the word 'networking.'" She's especially looking forward to again hosting French director Claire Denis, an SFIFF regular, and her film 35 Shots of Rum this year, and has fond memories of greeting Argentine auteur Fernando Solanas (Argentina Latente) and his filmmaking son, Juan Diego Solanas, in 2008. Another thrill from the past: last year's opening-night reception for director Catherine Breillat. "She was so happy, absolutely joyous. She had this wicked laugh," Blackaby recalls.
What kind of movies does the programmer of the longest-running film festival in the western hemisphere watch for fun at home? "I read," admits Blackaby. "I have a hard time watching DVDs for pleasure. Not even Blu-Ray. I don't have one of those megascreen home video theaters. I'd rather go watch anything in a movie theater, like going to the Castro and seeing The Exiles or watching The Turquoise Necklace. I went to Iron Man last summer and, surprisingly, I liked it. I'm really looking forward to the restored Once Upon a Time in the West we're getting this year. It's always amazing to me how much better a film is on a big screen than on a little one."
As a Film Generation veteran who has taught and organized festivals all her career (she founded the Philadelphia Festival of World Cinema before moving to the Bay Area to take a job at the SF Asian American Film Festival), Blackaby's list of favorite filmmakers has a classic tinge: Cassavetes, Bergman, René Clair, Chaplin, the aforementioned Denis, and local legend Francis Coppola. "I'm a generalist," she explains. "I like a well-made narrative based on a play just as much as a good documentary."
In Blackaby's eyes, the epitome of the film festival experience would probably resemble something that happened to her one evening in New York when Emile de Antonio, the leftist maker of such antiestablishment docs as In the Year of the Pig and McCarthy: Death of a Witch Hunter, took a group out for sushi — then a novelty cuisine. Blackaby had never had sushi before, but de Antonio held forth and offered a course on the subject, how to order it and what to avoid, and charmed his colleagues. Blackaby swears: "I've loved sushi ever since."
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