Like many 47-year-olds, the San Francisco International Film Festival lately seems a bit preoccupied about its image. After years as one of Northern California's -- one of the world's -- most interesting film fests, the SFIFF is engaging in a little preemptive public soul-searching, with talk about "diverse social issues," "underground movements," "great changes," etc., as if to call attention to its relevance. Which probably won't do any harm. Everyone and everything is entitled to a midlife crisis.
But worrying about street cred is the last thing the San Francisco fest should do. The real world, whatever that is, has been well served by the festival over the years, and continues to be. One of last year's most popular films at the fest, Bay Area documentarian Sam Green's The Weather Underground, went on to receive an Academy Award nomination -- and as if to throw a one-two punch in the political solar plexus, the 2004 schedule boasts another political time capsule, Robert Stone's Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst. The SFIFF has never lacked meaty, thought-provoking documentaries.
The true relevance of a film smorgasbord such as this, however, does not lie in documentaries and social-issue films alone. The nerve endings of international counterculture often reverberate in the most whimsical narratives, from the snowy Kurdish lonelyhearts yearnings of Hiner Saleem's Vodka Lemon to the gooseflesh shivers of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Doppelganger. The 2004 San Francisco fest manages quite nicely, as always, to nail down "reality" without losing sight of fantasy and the flickering realm of dreams. In this 2004 lineup, another remarkably strong year, there are plenty of choices crammed together in too few days for the policy wonks, neo-bohos, subtitle freaks, celebrity junkies (actors Chris Cooper, Cyd Charisse, and Danny DeVito, and filmmaker Milos Forman are set to appear in person), and regular garden-variety movie-holics who rub shoulders in darkened rooms every year at this time.
Not surprisingly, some of the best films this time around are documentaries. One of the finest of those is Control Room, filmmaker Jehane Noujaim's profile of cable TV news channel Al Jazeera, aka the CNN of the Arab world or, as George W. Bush calls it, "the mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden." We drop in on Al Jazeera in March 2003 just as the latest Iraq war is breaking out, and hang out in Centcom, the Allied Central Command media HQ, outside Doha, Qatar, viewing the war and the coverage of it from startling new angles. Al Jazeera's footage of the war is more thrilling, and damning for the United States, than anything on American TV. It dared to present the war from the Iraqi point of view, to the chagrin of Bush-Rumsfeld & Co. "We wanted to show that any war has a human cost," says senior producer Samir Khader. Al Jazeera's journalists and producers come across as sophisticated, candid, and skeptical of US motives: "I hope everyone in the world will get the American passport one day, so that this world will be quiet," one says with quiet, deadpan irony. Director Noujaim herself is no stranger in the belly of the beast. The Cairo native studied at Harvard and worked at MTV before codirecting the documentary Startup.com.
Also on the myth-shattering side is Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's The Corporation. The crisply paced Canadian-made doc tries to answer the question, "How did the US become a corporate oligarchy run by greedy businesspeople?" in 145 coolly argued minutes, using an array of industrial newsreels and talking heads (among them usual suspects Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, plus a carpet manufacturer who saw the light and became a born-again anti-plunderer) in approved Bowling for Columbine style. No new revelations here, but the accumulation of business-related injustices is something to see. The shocks just keep on coming: Nike measures production times in its Indonesian sweatshops to 1/10,000th of a second; the filmmakers assert that the United States is in the midst of an environmentally-caused cancer epidemic; genes are being claimed as intellectual property; in a Bolivian city, Bechtel Corp. owns and controls all water, even that which falls from the sky; Fanta soft drinks originated in Nazi Germany and IBM profited from the Holocaust, and so on. Watching this is enough to send anyone into the street with a Molotov.
Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to the late Akira) is one filmmaker who catches the chilly implications of 21st-century life and then spins them into unforgettably eerie scenarios. Such films as Séance, Serpent's Path, Cure, and Pulse have earned him a following that is now exploding beyond cultishness on this side of the Pacific. The latest, eagerly awaited Kurosawa to arrive here is Doppelganger, a story about people in contemporary Tokyo dealing with the presence of an evil twin in their lives, starring Kurosawa everyman Koji Yakusho as a robotic scientist with problems in human resources. Nothing in this 2003 production conforms to trite thriller/horror formula. Kurosawa appears in person at the festival.
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