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.
Social context also is the key to a much more intimate documentary, Ralph Arlyck's Following Sean. It begins with filmmaker and narrator Arlyck reminiscing about living in an apartment on Cole Street in SF's Haight-Ashbury at the height of the hippie days, and befriending a talkative four-year-old named Sean Farrell -- the free-range son of stoned parents upstairs -- who became the subject of Arlyck's 1969 documentary, Sean. The new film catches up with Sean more than thirty years later, but what appears at first to be a simple then-and-now doc opens up into something engagingly personal and yet universal, about how people live their lives and the choices they make. The wild child who ran barefoot up and down Haight Street and smoked grass with his dad is now a union electrician in San Francisco, a member of the working middle class with a child of his own. His father Johnny, meanwhile, is still a rolling stone. Philosophical without announcing it loudly, Arlyck's beautifully shot and constructed film may be the best documentary in the festival's strong field, and it's highly recommended.
Other docs worth catching: Werner Herzog's The White Diamond, with master manipulator Herzog accompanying another eccentric into the South American jungle; Touch the Sound, filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer's globe-girdling profile of percussionist Evelyn Glennie; and The 10th District Court: Moments of Trial, French director Raymond Depardon's experiment in recording real-life happenings in a Paris courtroom, a few of which deserve their own movies. And let's not forget Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-Screen, a tribute to the notorious low-budget director who excelled at making artful films for pennies because he had no other choice. We learn that in his most dire period on Hollywood's Poverty Row, Ulmer was allowed only 15,000 feet of film per feature, he was forced to shoot 2-for-1 (meaning only two takes per setup), and that his films were held to a 70-minute running time. No wonder he's worshipped today; Edgar Ulmer died for our sins.
One of the joys of the SF Film Festival is that it frequently delves vertically into one country or another in a given year, so that curious audiences can really explore another country's films without ever leaving the Bay Area. This year the big destination is Indonesia, with nearby Malaysia thrown in for good measure. Pick of the crop is Shape of the Moon, a Dutch-made documentary directed by Leonard Retel Helmrich. It's a remarkable "real-life" vérité-style portrait of a family and its hectic existence in Jakarta, the very image of a congested, chaotic Third World city, with scenes of fires, crowded trains, cockfights in alleys, anti-government demonstrations, and the family's special wrinkle -- Grandma Rumidja is Christian, but one by one her children are converting to Islam, the country's predominant religion. Shape of the Moon plays the PFA on April 29. The domestic Indonesian narrative drama Of Love and Eggs, by Garin Nugroho, sets its multi-character story about the need for kindness and understanding in the same teeming Jakarta slums, but it's definitely soapier, more like a TV movie. And the film was clearly made on a sound stage.
The Malaysian-Indonesian prod Princess of Mount Ledang shows us another side of domestic entertainment in that part of the world, the ancient legend of Gusti Putri Retno Dumilah, a beautiful princess (played by a beautiful actress, Tiara Jacquelina) who loves Admiral Hang Tuah but is who is pursued by the bad guy, Sultan Mahmud of Melaka. This costumed epic with martial arts, battles, pageantry, and music has fine production values, but is a bit slow and stately for Western commercial tastes, despite the influence of Mira Nair's romances in the love scenes. The Year of Living Vicariously, half of a double feature titled "Split Screen: Two Films by Amir Muhammad," has Jakarta-based Muhammad interviewing film professionals and students on the set of a movie about the troubled Suharto era, from which Indonesia is still trying to recover. As in many other nations, Indonesia's once-robust film industry (two to three hundred films per year in the 1970s and '80s) is now a shadow of its former self, thanks no doubt to Hollywood. And yet it's the non-commercial docs, à la Vicariously and Shape of the Moon, that appeal to our curiosity, rather than the melodramas and soap operas that are ostensibly more popular over there.
The docudrama Omagh, coproduced and co-written by Paul Greengrass of Bloody Sunday and directed by Pete Travis, uses terrific performances by character actors Gerard McSorley and Michèle Forbes as a springboard into the murky, deadly politics of Northern Ireland, in this instance the terrorist bombing that took 31 lives in the crowded market street of the town of Omagh in 1998. The film suggests that the police, the British army, the "Real IRA," and even the government of the Irish Republic all knew it was going to happen, but that those 31 people were allowed to die as sacrifices to the "peace process." There are other specialty treats for discriminating film fanatics: Haneda Sumiko's Into the Picture Scroll, a movie version of the "Yamanaka Tokiwa" picture scroll from 17th-century Japan, told as a joruri ballad with shamisen accompaniment, about the death of a noblewoman at the hands of mountain bandits; the WWII drama Dear Enemy by Albania's Cjercj Xhuvani, featuring an Italian soldier, a Jewish shopkeeper, and a growing number of other refugees hiding from the Germans in a cellar; Josué Méndez' Días de Santiago, the tough times of a recently discharged sailor in gritty present-day Lima, Peru; and, from Argentina, a comic road trip in a camper van to a wedding by a disgruntled Rolling Family, written and directed with no frills and wry laughs by Pablo Trapero.
What's a film festival without a sprinkling of new releases by famous French directors like Agnès Varda and Claire Denis? Denis' entry is The Intruder, the latest in her increasingly elliptical series of character studies of unknowable individuals. In various picturesque locales -- the mountainous Jura region of France, industrial South Korea, and the tropical island of Tahiti -- a retired contemporary mercenary warrior (Michel Subor) is haunted by ghosts (or are they?) of his misspent life. Wily art filmmaker Varda is in a reflective mood with Cinévardaphoto, a packaged trio of previously released shorts about an eccentric museumkeeper with a teddy bear fetish, Varda's former neighbors in Paris, and Cuba in the early days of the Castro regime, in that order. Go with the Havana one, Salut les Cubains (1963).
The festival is wise to continue its "Midnight Movies" event of cultish items for outré hipsters at the Kabuki -- it keeps things from getting too stodgy. The superhumanly prolific Japanese splatter-and-tits honcho Miike Takashi is represented by Three ... Extremes, a trilogy with fellow Asian shockmeisters Fruit Chan and Park Chan-Wook, and also with his 2004 release, Izo. The latter tells the tender tale of one Izo Okada, a samurai from the Tokugawa Shogunate era who is doomed to magically travel the space-time continuum forever, carving all comers with his sword. The bodies pile up and Izo marches on, just like the Energizer Bunny. He never dies. We first meet Izo as he is being crucified, and sadistic guards are thrusting lances into one side of his body and out the other, slowly. Things go downhill from there for our plucky but taciturn hero. Izo looks suspiciously like Kill Bill. Or is it the other way around? See you at the festival and we'll discuss it.
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