What's Up? Docs! 

Truth is stranger than fiction at this year's SF International Film Festival.

For a cultural institution with no real Bay Area competition aside from commercial films, other events, nice weather, and what have you, the San Francisco International Film Festival seems to be trying harder in 2003. From this vantage point it appears to be the strongest fest in several years, and not because of its dubious reliance on movie stars such as Salma Hayek and Dustin Hoffman (he'll receive the Peter J. Owens Award) to bestow glamour on what has always been a film nerd's heaven.

The nerds will be overwhelmed as usual, trying to keep up with some 91 narrative features -- 202 films in all -- from the usual smorgasbord of countries, including at least three world premieres. Star director Robert Altman gets an award for lifetime achievement, which he deserves. And the nerds' longtime champion, intellectual tough-guy critic Manny Farber (inventor of the concepts of "termitic" and "white elephant" art) receives the Mel Novikoff Award -- the right award for the right person. There's even something called the "State of the Cinema Address," in which a French cultural chieftain, Michel Ciment of Positif film magazine, will pronounce on "world cinema issues." (Maybe he can explain how, when no one was looking, Gérard Depardieu turned into William Bendix.)

The most gratifying thing about this year's fest may be its terrific lineup of documentaries. Docs have typically been one of the SF festival's strong suits, but appropriately enough during this time when thoughtful culture consumers are eager to separate the truth from the embedded version of reality, the nonfiction form is particularly well represented at the SF festival.

One of the brightest of the lot is The Weather Underground, SF filmmaker Sam (The Rainbow Man/John 3:16) Green and Chicagoan Bill Siegel's inside story of the notorious cabal of leftwing '60s radicals who openly declared their intention to violently overthrow the US government in response to the Vietnam War. "Our country was murdering millions of people," explains former Students for a Democratic Society honcho Mark Rudd, who, along with Weather comrades Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Naomi Jaffe, and semifriendly witnesses like writer Todd Gitlin, provide contemporary talking-head commentary on those days of rage. Then, as now, there was a lot to be enraged about. The zeitgeist, artfully painted in by Green and Siegel, was one of My Lai, Altamont, the Manson Family, COINTELPRO, secret bombings of Southeast Asia, and not-so-secret ones like the infamous Greenwich Village townhouse blast, in which several Weather radicals accidentally blew themselves up with a bomb they were preparing to plant at a party of enlisted men at an Army base in New Jersey. These people played for keeps. And they're still remarkably unrepentant today, although Rudd now admits that "violence didn't work" -- partly because the government was so much better at it than these upper-middle-class idealists who yearned to be working-class revolutionaries. The filmmakers also observe that the cops cracked down much harder on black revolutionaries than these well-connected white Weather bomb-throwers, whose parents were more likely business executives than proletarians. While many of the era's most strident black revolutionaries are now dead or in prison, a number of the Weather people are spending their middle age as university professors. An unnerving portrait of a more innocent time, The Weather Underground plays the Pacific Film Archive on April 28.

Another must-see documentary is The Century of the Self, a four-part made-for-BBC-TV think piece on the impact of Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysis industry on America -- and therefore the world -- in the 20th century. It opens the fest's PFA schedule this Friday, April 18 (Parts 1 and 2), with Parts 3 and 4 on April 25 -- a marvelously deep-dish examination of the power of ideas, in this case modern humanity's self-absorption (as promoted by Freud) and the vast apparatus built up to accommodate and exploit it. Freud's nephew Edward Bernays was a New Yorker who originated the profession of public relations, and in so doing almost single-handedly changed the focal point of American democracy from "citizen" to "consumer." Bernays and Freud's daughter, Anna, echoed Freud's pessimism about the underlying rationality of human beings, a doubt that led their clients -- the mental health industry, the ad industry, the CIA, etc. -- to commit sinister acts in the name of social control, for the public good. Taken together with The Weather Underground (they're different chapters of the same story), The Century of the Self probes behind the turbulent scenes of the past century with remarkable candor and a refreshing skepticism.

Heiner Stadler's fascinating, kaleidoscopic doc Essen, Schlafen, keine Frauen (Eat, Sleep, No Women) attempts to show us a day in the life of the world -- a worried world, we can be sure -- Sunday, October 7, 2001, the day of the first US attacks on Kabul, Afghanistan. September 11 is much on the German filmmaker's mind, of course, as he crosscuts among a slew of real-life vignettes in a variety of places (Stadler shot his footage between 1991 and 2002 to make up this "one day"). We drop in on a movie billboard painter in Rawalpindi, street kids in Hong Kong and Belfast, dancing gold miners in South Africa, street musicians in Kabul and Paris, and a housewife in Ohio, always looping back to CNN's coverage of the Afghan campaign. The tone is wryly ironic ("the West didn't care about the desert for 2,500 years") when it isn't dreamily philosophical. Stadler wonders in voice-over: "Could it be that everything that these men are doing on the 7th of October, is really done to impress the absent woman?" Find out the answer April 21 at the PFA.

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