No one will ever accuse the San Francisco International Film Festival of being bomb-throwers, but the 2005 edition has a distinctly political tinge to it. Blame it on the polarized state of the union, or chalk it up to the success of last year's crop of anti-establishment documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, Control Room, and The Corporation (the latter two of which played the fest in 2004). It may be a coincidence, but the W. Bush years have seen the festival -- now a ripe 48 years old -- embrace a cautious but pronounced skepticism toward authority very much in keeping with its international point of view. The SF Film Fest's liberal Bay Area roots are showing, and the natives are restless.
You don't have to go any further than the festival's list of honorees to catch the whiff of rebellion. Highly respected film programmer Anita Monga, whose dismissal from her job at the Castro Theatre last autumn united the Bay Area film community in her defense, is receiving the Mel Novikoff Award, a further sign of solidarity on her behalf (although why the festival continues to patronize the Castro is another, troubling question).
The Peter J. Owens Award for acting, historically given to such pleasant personalities as Nicolas Cage and Winona Ryder, this time goes to edgy Joan Allen, who has excelled in socially conscious roles in Nixon, The Ice Storm, The Crucible, and more recently The Upside of Anger -- most often playing stressed-out middle-class women. Producer-director Taylor Hackford, the man who gave us Ray, takes home the fest's Lifetime Achievement Award for Directing. Music-lover Hackford has made a career out of embracing pop culture's fighters, from Ritchie Valens (La Bamba) to Muhammad Ali (When We Were Kings), and his narratives bristle with discontent -- just think of Kathy Bates in Dolores Claiborne or Jeff Bridges and James Woods in Against All Odds.
Even more in-your-face is English documentarian Adam Curtis, executive producer at the BBC in London, recipient of the fest's Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award for such thought-provoking mini-series as The Century of the Self, which looked at the impact of Sigmund Freud and Freudianism on the 20th century, and his latest, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear. Curtis appears in person May 1 at the Kabuki in SF to introduce Nightmares, which is good. We need someone to hold our hand as we stroll through the blizzard of unsettling images and damning testimony that make a case against both American neo-conservatives and radical Islamic jihadists in the Middle East for waging a fierce, multi-front holy war with their common enemy: Western liberalism, which they equate with moral rot. Among Curtis' conclusions is that the much-ballyhooed "terrorist threat" is mostly a fantasy, and that in these fearful times, those with the darkest fantasies have become the most powerful. The Power of Nightmares also screens at the PFA on April 30.
For its opening night this Thursday, April 21 at the Castro, the SFIFF welcomes longtime naysayer and political filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gavras and his grim slapstick dramedy, The Ax (Le Couperet). Costa-Gavras has been making leftist critiques disguised as thrillers ever since Z, his protest against the Greek colonels (which played the SF Fest in 1969, by the way). His filmography is studded with anti-fascist bombshells: State of Siege, Missing, Hanna K. , Music Box, etc. The Ax, a French production that bears a queasy resemblance to Falling Down, stars actor José García as Bruno Davert, a commercial-paper-industry exec in provincial France who takes it too personally when he's pushed out of his job. He begins eliminating other unemployed men -- competitors for the job he thinks he deserves -- the old-fashioned way, with a rusty Luger he finds in his attic. Then, movingly, he finds he is not alone.
The beat goes on with a typically winning selection of documentaries, now as in past seasons one of the festival's major strengths. Anti-corporate audiences will no doubt flock to writer-director Alex Gibney's exposé Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the all-too-familiar story of a crew of energy-industry pirates run amok under the seemingly approving gaze of the Bush White House -- until they're caught and spanked. Pump-and-dump, The Selfish Gene, the California power scam, shredded files, Merrill Lynch's Nigerian barges, duped stockholders and deceived employees, millions in ill-gotten gains -- this one has it all. And while we're on the subject of criminal abuse of power, let's not forget Alberto "El Chino" Fujimori, whom you may remember as the former president of Peru (his slogan was "Un presidente como tú"). Fujimori stamped out terrorism in that country without regard to the usual niceties. Peru fought back. As Ellen Perry's well-done doc The Fall of Fujimori reports, the former math professor is now living in Japan, #1 on Interpol's most wanted list.
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