To Be Real 

Who needs relevance? The San Francisco International Film Festival has a monopoly on dreams.

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.

Three other surefire narrative fiction treats: 1) The Boy Who Wanted to Be a Bear, Danish director Jannik Hastrup's charming, touching animated tale of a baby stolen from his mother by a polar bear. The boy grows up with animal values, which isn't all so tragic. Nice folkish music and a deceptively simple drawing style, with no Disney-like bells and whistles to detract from the story. 2) From Thailand, Beautiful Boxer, the dramatized true story of a young kickboxer from a poor provincial family (played by Asanee Suwan) who combines his success in the ring with his desire to get a sex change operation so he can live his life as a woman. The 2003 Thai domestic hit, directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham, is the sort of rare peek into the hidden side of one country's culture that gives "village pictures" a good name. 3) The title of Vodka Lemon refers to a roadside stand in the frigid highlands of Armenian Kurdistan, a place where lonely folks find companionship, beds roll down snowy highways, and jobs are mostly unavailable. But that doesn't stop director Hiner Saleem from lavishing his best magical realism on a widowed pair, Hamo and Nina, who first meet in a graveyard.

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst tells the endlessly fascinating documentary story of yet another Vietnam-War-era band of outsiders, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and its 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, then a UC Berkeley student. Producer and director Robert Stone's production benefits from the input of SLA honchos Russ Little and Mike Bortin, but has to make do with the nonparticipation of Ms. Hearst. It would make a good double feature with The Corporation -- one doc identifies the problem, the other shows how a group of former TV kids from the 1950s, inspired by Che Guevara and Errol Flynn's Robin Hood, decided to deal with it. It's all there: the demands to "feed all the poor people in California," the TV news orgy around rich-girl-turned-rebel Hearst, the SLA's murderous bank robberies, and the inevitable hushed-up denouement, with pardons for Hearst and death and prison for the Robin Hoods. Filmmaker Stone appears in person.

In Yoav Shamir's doc Checkpoint, we get up close and personal with several squads of Israeli soldiers manning checkpoints inside Israel, mostly hotspots like Nablus, Jericho Road, Bethlehem, and near the Jenin refugee camp. The idea seems to be: Roust every Palestinian who walks up. As one tough-guy soldier puts it: "We handle people who make trouble for the country." Uh-huh. Many of the soldiers resemble Adam Sandler, and their easy banter with the Israeli film crew almost makes us sympathize with them and their dangerous job. Almost, but not quite.

Shola Lynch's brand-new 2004 doc, Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unsold, introduces us to former US Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), who ran for President in 1972 more or less on the platform that she was a black woman who had her finger on the true pulse of ordinary Americans. She failed to win the Democratic nomination, of course, but Lynch's film proves that Chisholm's grassroots spirit is still irresistible.

In every film festival there are one or two puzzling items, pics that send their audiences away scratching their heads and mumbling under their breath. One such film is Tsai Ming-Liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn, a sort of cross between Last Year at Marienbad and Cinema Paradiso. It takes place at the Fu-Ho Grand Theater in Taipei, a cavernous old movie palace full of leaks, where the 1970s Hong Kong martial arts epic Dragon Inn is playing to an empty house, except for a few ghosts (the stars of the original Dragon Inn, apparently) and a somnambulant Japanese tourist. While the show goes on, the theater's disabled ticket-taker hobbles around on grim errands. Writer-director Tsai's message seems to be that no one goes out to movies anymore. With movies like this, it's easy to see why not.

We might put Lars von Trier's 2003 exercise The Five Obstructions in the same Head Scratcher category if it weren't for the fact that its subject, filmmaker Jørgen Leth, has talent so obvious that even von Trier's perverse gamesmanship can't obscure it. The setup is that Leth, von Trier's idol for making a 1967 short called The Perfect Human, is put to work remaking his earlier film as five new shorts under "orders" from von Trier designed to "test" the older Danish filmmaker. But the joke is on von Trier -- any one of Leth's shorts is better than the stuff von Trier has been churning out lately. This one is for Euro-curious film fans only.

The festival is its usual Brobdingnagian self -- 175 films in all, 77 narrative features, 28 documentary features, and 70 shorts from 52 countries. It grows more popular each year. If you're reading this without tickets already in hand, you might be left out. But try to pick one or two of the sleepers, such as Sarah Gavron's English drama This Little Life (about a premature baby and his parents) or Rodney Evans' Brother to Brother, a literary dream-narrative of the gay side of the 20th-century Harlem Renaissance. The delightful Cyd Charisse, leggy dance star of old Hollywood, introduces her 1957 musical Silk Stockings on April 16 at the Castro. The Alloy Orchestra performs live scores for two films, Buster Keaton's The General and Charles Vanel's Dans la Nuit. Veteran filmmaker Milos Forman introduces his Hair and Fireman's Ball. Actor Chris Cooper shows up to screen John Sayles' Matewan. Opening night at the Castro is Jim Jarmusch's set of documentary vignettes, Coffee and Cigarettes. And don't forget one last goodie: three screenings (including one at the PFA on April 24) of the great Eric Rohmer's tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, a WWII spy adventure called Triple Agent. Film festivals may come and go, but we'll always have Paris. For more information including complete schedules, visit SFFS.org or BAMPFA.Berkeley.edu

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