To Be Real 

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

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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.


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