San Francisco International Film Festival: The Show Must Go On 

One year later, the long-running film fest is in a reflective mood.

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How European do you really want to go? In Delphine and Muriel Coulin's 17 Girls, a clique of bored-to-tears contemporary female teenagers from the port city of Lorient in France's Brittany decides, in dead seriousness, that the thing they must do is to all get pregnant and have their babies together. Alas, the rebellious epidemic of adolescent pregnancy fails to achieve the desired results, other than parental bafflement, but that's more or less beside the point of this fascinatingly perverse little melodrama, with its camera lingering on the girls' bodies and its ever-present threat of violent reaction. What were they thinking of? Louise Grinberg and Roxanne Duran are wonderful as Camille and Florence, respectively. The Coulin sisters evidently adapted their screenplay from true events that happened in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 2008, but, as always in the best movies, the film is far, far stranger than real life. It screens April 28 at the Kabuki, then April 30 and May 2 at the Film Society Cinema in SF's Japantown.

At a rudimentary medical center called Vanga in the back country of Cameroon, a white European doctor named Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), part of a volunteer medical mission to aid poor villagers, prepares to move his family and himself back to Germany. The local political situation, always difficult because of funding squabbles with Cameroonian officials, has made life even tougher for the well-intentioned European visitors. But Ebbo remains behind when his family departs. Why? Some critics see Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness in this languid, atmospheric drama, Sleeping Sickness, by German writer-director Ulrich Köhler. But to us it suggests Douglas Sirk on quinine, with richly drawn supporting parts by Hippolyte Girardot (as a scheming would-be developer) and Jean-Christophe Folly (as Dr. Alex Nzila, a black Parisian on the outs in the jungle) behind Bokma's gorgeously world-weary performance as Dr. Velten, who never wants to get out of Africa. A Friday, April 20 show at the PFA (6:30 p.m.) is one of three festival screenings.

For hard-edged documentary snap with the all-important local angle, it would be hard to beat The Waiting Room by Peter Nicks. Told in a fly-on-the-wall cinema-verité style, this completely absorbing doc lets us observe what takes place on a regular day inside the emergency room reception area at Oakland's Highland Hospital: everyone from nudniks trying to cop a free Tylenol to teenage gunshot victims dying in the midst of triage. No insurance means limited access, and limited access means long, long waits, even for the hapless guy with testicular cancer or the little girl with infected tonsils, strep throat, and a very worried dad. The hospital is filled to the max, and by regulation no new patient can be admitted until someone leaves. There are enough doctors, nurses, medical assistants, and social workers to fill a dozen daytime dramas, and the star among them is the admitting nurse. Opines one doctor: "The ER is not the place to manage someone's overall health." Another bit of "dialogue" no screenwriter could hope to make up: "We keep people overnight, just as much for their social conditions as for their medical conditions." Before you see any film in this year's festival, be sure to run out and see this. Saturday, April 21, 3:50 p.m. at the PFA.

The Waiting Room Theatrical Trailer from The Waiting Room on Vimeo.

Ethel, Rory Kennedy's documentary profile of her mother, Ethel Kennedy, widow of martyred politician Robert F. Kennedy, just may be the historical must-see of this year's SFIFF. Made for HBO, the younger Ms. Kennedy's tribute to her family puts the "Kennedy years" in sharp relief through the vicarious eyes of Ethel, mother of eleven children, a born competitor and human-rights crusader whose notion of a "contributory life" of public service is notably missing from the contemporary landscape. A side of "Camelot" that deserves to be better known. Baby boomers should probably pack along plenty of Kleenex when this shows at the PFA, April 28.

Iconic performance artist Marina Abramovic staged a seemingly impossible exhibition/spectacle at New York City's Museum of Modern Art in 2010. She sat in a chair all day, for the full run of the museum's opening hours, and allowed visitors to sit across from her. The show ran for two and a half months during which Abramovic confronted some 750,000 faces. Filmmaker Matthew Akers' accessible documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present profiles the provocative Serbian-born artist — controversial nude pieces, obsessive fans, bewildered detractors — but spends most of its time watching other people watching her. The stamina, the endurance, the public, the faces, the unstoppable emotions. A powerhouse. At the PFA, April 29.

Trailer - Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present from Show of Force on Vimeo.

Documentary maker and showman Caveh Zahedi (I Am a Sex Addict) must have been craving a ticklish situation that he could aggravate with his distinctive, uh, personality. The Middle East fits the bill perfectly. Zahedi's latest, The Sheik and I, begs us to believe that the ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah (UAE) commissions him to bring a film crew to Sharjah and make an original film of his own conception without any restrictions. Oh, maybe one or two restrictions. You can guess the rest. Zahedi's uncanny ability to create awkward situations takes flight in the film within the film, a nutty spy adventure with something to offend everyone in the country. As Zahedi's lawyer back in New York explains it, Zahedi's provocative trampling on Sharjah's manners and mores sets up a case of "tribal revenge mode" versus "international arts festival mode." It is to laugh. Catch The Sheik and I April 21, April 25, or April 28, all at the Kabuki.


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