Two Weeks in the Hall Of Mirrors 

The 58th San Francisco International Film Festival, showing at twelve venues in San Francisco and the East Bay, is especially feisty and strong this year.

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The San Francisco International Film Festival, in its 58th year, is finally ready to enter its baroque period. It presents itself as a Hall of Mirrors, endlessly reflecting and refracting the world through the lenses of enough filmmakers to fill the balcony of the Castro Theatre on a foggy April night.

If all those filmmakers really did magically gather together in the Castro balcony, they would never run out of things to talk about between screenings. This year, the SF International — the longest-running film festival in the Western Hemisphere — boasts some 181 films and videos from 46 countries, in 33 languages, from at least 181 individual points of view. Even the most modest of these offers a unique perspective on the human experience. This cinematic Hall of Mirrors is unpredictable, as it should be, and often refreshingly personal, unlike most commercial entertainment product. The latest edition of the SFIFF is especially feisty, with one of its strongest and most challenging fields in years.

For those with the curiosity to wander off the beaten path, it all begins on a small farm in Tuscany, the scene of Alice Rohrwacher's The Wonders (Le meraviglie). A German-Italian family of back-to-nature hippies, headed by an irritable, impatient man named Wolfgang, raises bees and sells the honey in the town. The oldest of Wolfgang's four young daughters is Gelsomina (played by Maria Alexandra Lungu), a radiant teenager with a calm, serene face and a quiet determination to take part in the district's upcoming "local products" festival — a celebration with an ancient Etruscan flavor, complete with costumes and folkloric rituals. Wise for her age, Gelsomina does most of the work on the farm. A foster child from Germany, a mishap involving the honey processing machine, and the family's pet camel (to go along with their goats and chickens) add to the whimsicality of writer-director Rohrwacher's vision. There's a definite sense of the everyday miraculous in this irresistible little fable, which plays April 29 at the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive.

The 2015 SFIFF does not skimp on social consciousness. Witness a pair of topical documentaries, Dreamcatcher and All of Me. The former, the latest from veteran issue-oriented filmmaker Kim Longinotto, takes us to the tough streets of Chicago, where activist Brenda Myers-Powell and her Dreamcatcher Foundation work to rescue young women from sexual exploitation, and the soul-grinding cycle of poverty, violence, self-disrespect, cruelty, loss of hope, and distrust of practically everyone. It's a huge and often frustrating job, but former street prostitute Myers-Powell, a big-hearted woman on a mission, is up to it. Sober and extremely moving, Dreamcatcher screens at SF's Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, with Longinotto in attendance, on May 2.

The subjects of Arturo González Villaseñor's All of Me take a novel approach to the phenomenon of poor Central Americans migrating northward for jobs. Instead of building fences and hiring guards, the residents of the rural community of La Patrona in Veracruz state spend their days cooking up nourishing meals, bagging them in plastic, then standing by the railroad tracks when freight trains precariously loaded with migrants pass through their village, to hand out food and water to them as they whiz by. The poor, mostly female Patronas see their work in basic terms. "I would like to defend people in need," says one. Thus a group of poor women, who sell chili paste to raise money for their effort, reach out to help those even poorer. If both Dreamcatcher and All of Me were to play as a double feature, the theater would have to hand out Kleenex. That won't happen, but you can still see All of Me on May 1 at the BAM/PFA. You'll be glad you did.

Speaking of trains, J.P. Sniadecki's China /US production The Iron Ministry shows us the many faces of China from the viewpoint of rail travel — miles and miles of train rides through the country, over three years. Without narration, Sniadecki's documentary camera captures the minutest details of a trip on a Chinese railway: cigarette smokers chatting between cars; raw meat hanging in a filthy passageway where passengers spit on the floor; produce porters crowding onto a train; passengers asleep in a variety of uncomfortable positions; young men discussing the unaffordability of housing; women talking about their jobs, etc. Common denominator: Everywhere you turn, it's crowded. In many ways this is the ideal festival documentary. Catch it April 25 at BAM/PFA.

Also from China is writer-director Diao Yinan's Black Coal, Thin Ice, the stylish and well-constructed story of a police detective on the trail of a serial killer in a dingy industrial city in the northern province of Heilongjiang. Plenty of atmosphere, of the dirty-snow coal country variety, as obsessed cop Zhang Zili follows an intricate chain of events and miscreants that always seems to lead back to the aptly named Rong Rong Laundry, where wrong folks do wrong. Actor Liao Fan turns in a suitably gritty performance as Zhang, who spends five years on the case and becomes a drunken has-been in the process. Black Coal, Thin Ice shows April 25 at BAM/PFA.

South Korea's A Hard Day aims for morbid laughs in the policier genre, as a klutzy homicide detective (actor Lee Sun-kyun) lurches and stumbles his way through an obstacle course of a scenario that begins when he accidentally runs over a man one night while driving drunk to his mother's funeral. Can he get away with it? More appropriately, can director Kim Seong-hun get away with channeling Park Chan Wook, Quentin Tarantino, and Eddie Murphy, all in one movie? Kim piles on the grotesque situations and sight gags in this slapstick procedural, which also stirs in police corruption and an overloaded coffin. A Hard Day is at the Kabuki on May 3 and 7.

Every year the San Francisco International touts its special programs, but this time the high-profile events really rate superlatives. Three noteworthy people are set to receive San Francisco Film Society awards. Fantasy-meister Guillermo del Toro gets the Irving M. Levin Directing Award for his body of work, represented by a screening of his 2001 shocker The Devil's Backbone, introduced by del Toro in person, on April 25 at the Castro. Then actor Richard Gere receives the Peter J. Owens Award on April 26, also at the Castro, accompanied by a showing of Oren (The Messenger) Moverman's Time Out of Mind, with Gere as a homeless man. Finally, screenwriter extraordinaire Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Rolling Thunder) is honored with the Kanbar Award on April 28 at the Kabuki, followed by a clips reel and Schrader's 1985 lollapalooza Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

Many film festivals have broadened out (read: watered down) their film offerings by presenting musical performances, but the SFIFF has a keener touch than the rest. On May 6, the Kronos Quartet collaborates with filmmaker Bill Morrison for Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, a 41-minute combination documentary/musical piece on the horrors of World War I, by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. The program, which includes a post-film discussion, takes place at the Kabuki. One day before that, Japanese electro-pop duo Cibo Matto provides the backing for an adventurous program of film shorts — including works by artists Yoko Ono and Oskar Schlemmer — in a rare one-off, May 5 at the Castro.

Black Panthers? At the San Francisco International Film Festival? Wake up and smell the gunpowder. On April 25 at the Kabuki, members of the Black Panther Party sit down for a Q&A after a screening of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, director Stanley Nelson's new documentary tracing the rise of the Panthers in Oakland in the 1960s. The film is shown again on April 28, sans the Q&A. In a more rarefied sphere, translator/film historian Lenny Borger and critic Scott Foundas talk about "lost" films, and how to find them, before a showing of Henri Fescourt's 1929 silent, Monte-Cristo. It happens one time only, May 3 at the Kabuki.

For its annual "State of the Cinema" address, the SF Film Society invites renowned visual effects artist Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner) to tell us what's on his mind at the Kabuki, May 3. Expect the unexpected. For sheer topicality, nothing tops "Boomtown: Remaking San Francisco," a combo of short docs and live opinion by editor Tim Redmond, plus various artists and filmmakers, on the city's number-one kvetch: What the hell has happened to San Francisco? Take $15 out of your rent money and buy a ticket. April 30 at the Kabuki.

For Bay Area residents in particular, filmmaker Jenni Olson is some sort of shaman. Her highly personal, ultimately universal documentaries, like the extraordinary 2005 tone poem The Joy of Life, cast a veil of healing mystery over even the most mundane locations, on their way to larger truths. She's the reigning queen of pregnant-with-meaning establishing shots. Olson's voiceover sets the mood for her latest, The Royal Road — part history meditation, part diary entry, part lonesome valentine to what some people still imagine to be the "California Dream." Who else could tie up Junipero Serra, Double Indemnity, Marcel Proust, and Outer Sunset dreamscapes into one achingly gorgeous package, with the express purpose of sharing her obsessions? Shot on 16mm film and miraculous to behold, The Royal Road rises before us on April 29 and 30 at the Kabuki.

There was a time when the San Francisco International Film Festival meant a steady diet of Hollywood stars in person, studio blockbusters, and jostling paparazzi. Imagine running into Rita Hayworth, Catherine Deneuve, Gregory Peck, or Dustin Hoffman in the lobby, or standing in line for popcorn with Akira Kurosawa. The fest has settled down to earth in many ways since then. It's a little more organic and process-oriented now, a tad less star-struck. But it still knows how to turn on the celebrity heat when it wants to, especially the reflected kind. Listen to Me Marlon, a revealing showbiz documentary by English director Stevan Riley, captures the essence of Marlon Brando with the actor's own voice, in a treasure trove of tapes that Brando recorded over the years as an audio diary. His whole career is there, in candid self-critique: method acting, Streetcar, Waterfront and Kazan, Tahiti, The Godfather, the Oscar snub, Apocalypse Now, and Brando's heartaches over his unfortunate offspring. It's amazing how much the young Bud Brando resembles James Franco. Listen to Me Marlon shows April 27 at BAM/PFA.

Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon is a cinch to be one of the major crowd-pleasers at this year's SFIFF. Adapted from the coffee-table book of the same name, filmmaker Douglas Tirola's breezy, hilarious documentary profile of America's funniest magazine and its long-running comedy franchise has more talking heads than a William Castle horror flick. So how did a claque of Harvard snobs tap into the main vein of American putdown humor and shock the squares? Ask P.J. O'Rourke, Bill Murray, Henry Beard, Chevy Chase, Judd Apatow, Harold Ramis, and Matty Simmons, among many other conspirators and admirers. Major credit for the doc's overdue recognition of the late writer Doug Kenney as the guiding genius behind most of the mag-and-movie empire's biggest hits. Two screenings at the Kabuki, April 24 and 26.

Two grassroots documentaries on Africa shed welcome light on that all-important continent. Camila Nielsson's cinéma-véritè Democrats investigates the eddies and crosscurrents of participatory democracy in Zimbabwe, where opposition candidates are shown traveling the back roads in an effort to rouse public support against that country's president-for-life, Robert Mugabe, who has been in office since 1987. Their constitutional outreach program is blocked at every turn by government secret police and paid hecklers, but they persevere. Meanwhile, in the hopelessly divided nation of Sudan, refugee residents of villages in the Nuba Mountains region of South Sudan dodge the Khartoum regime's air raids to make music and dance (men and women together! What a sin!) in a cultural rebuff to their oppressors in the country's ongoing civil war. Ethno-musicality and African politics mingle defiantly in Beats of the Antonov, a stirring and eminently newsworthy doc by Sudanese activist Hajooj Kuka. Democrats plays May 2 at BAM/PFA, where Beats of the Antonov screens on May 4.

One of the most captivating films at this year's festival is a completely atypical time-traveling portrait of one of the last century's least-understood social upheavals — the leftist "terrorism" of West Germany's Baader-Meinhof gang, aka the Red Army Faction (RAF) — told in free-form documentary style by French filmmaker Jean-Gabriel Périot in A German Youth (Une jeunesse allemande). Périot, whose often-experimental, cut-and-paste short docs have examined atomic-bomb survivors in Hiroshima and reprisals against German collaborators in post-WWII France, utilizes archival news footage (as well as clips from directors Jean-Luc Godard and Rainer Werner Fassbinder) to fashion a street-level view of the RAF and its violent reaction against what it saw as state terrorism in the 1960s and '70s.

Seeing this, we're able to understand why Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhof, Gudrun Ensslin, and their comrades did what they did, whether we approve or not. The RAF behaved in the same way as revolutionaries everywhere (bombings, political assassinations, etc.), but because they were from the "film generation," they recorded it all. The result is a 93-minute immersion in the chaotic anger of middle-class First World rebels with the monkey of their parents' Nazism on their backs. Périot's provocative documentary screens April 25 at BAM/PFA, followed by Kabuki dates on May 2 and 5.

Bota takes place in and around a small, downscale roadside cafe, sitting on stilts in a tidal plain in contemporary Albania, one of the most unspectacular settings of all the films in the festival. The movie's tag line is: "One week at the Bota café. Nothing happens. Everything happens." The "nothing" part of that is accurate, aside from one or two murders, a couple of cases of theft, some everyday adultery, and the perfect Albanian curse: "May the tears never dry from his eyes." Directors Iris Elezi (an NYU grad now living in Tirana) and Thomas Logoreci (a cinematographer-turned-helmer who worked on Caveh Zahedi's I Am a Sex Addict) keep a tight lid on the scheming characters and let the pressure build. Cows and sheep go by. Nora the redhead gets picked on by Beni the boss. People drink too much raki. And everything eventually happens. An exalted village picture from a country we don't often glimpse at film festivals. Bota plays May 3 and 7 at the Kabuki.

Also recommended: Fidelio: Alice's Journey, the French-language chronicle of a woman merchant marine ship's engineer, played by Ariane Labed, and her relations (including sexual trysts) with her male shipmates aboard a modern commercial vessel visiting Dakar, Marseille, and Gdansk, directed by Lucie Borleteau (April 30 at the Kabuki; May 2 at the Clay). Carlos Vermut's Magical Girl (May 3, 5, and 6 at the Clay) may well be the eeriest film at the fest, a creepy character study of stressed-out, murderous apartment dwellers in Madrid.

More worthwhile festival films scheduled for the BAM/PFA: Andrei Konchalovsky's The Postman's White Nights, the misadventures of a comical country mailman in a Northern Russian hamlet, starring non-professional actor Alexei Tryapitsin as the bumbling Lyokha (April 26). Of Men and War, director Laurent Bécue-Renard's no-frills documentary about the Pathway Home, a treatment center for veterans with PTSD and war-related traumas in Yountville (May 5). Murder in Pacot, filmmaker Raoul Peck's drama of survivors of the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, starts out as an ecological thriller full of apprehensive atmosphere, then grows into a story of class resentment (May 2). In How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy, one masterful documentarian, the East Bay's Les Blank, drops by to pay his respects to another, Richard Leacock, maker of Lulu in Berlin (April 24). Vincent is a whimsical French fable about an ordinary man with unusual powers, directed by Tomas Salvador (May 1). Eryk Rocha's Sunday Ball (May 5) takes us to the Rio de Janeiro favela of Sampaio for a neighborhood-league championship futebol match, the scene of more intensity than many professional games.

Every spring at the San Francisco International there's at least one pic that prompts the question: "What's that thing doing here?" This year it's 54: The Director's Cut, a "rediscovered classic of unbridled excess and existential longing" (let that sink in for a few seconds) about a star-struck Jersey City kid (Ryan Philippe) and how he worked his way into Studio 54, the quintessential New York City Quaalude-coke-glitter-celeb disco of the 1970s, as a combination bartender/gofer/sex toy. Mike Myers splinters the woodwork with his impersonation of Studio 54 honcho Steve Rubell, but the rest of the cast — with the possible exception of Breckin Meyer as the guy who takes garbage bags full of money out to the van — seems to be caught on camera waiting for direction. Anybody dying to see cameos by Sheryl Crow and Donald Trump? This is your chance. It plays April 24 at the Castro.

The festival opens Thursday, April 23 (7 p.m.) at the Castro Theatre with a slightly dubious attempt to ride the wave of the high-tech marketplace. Alex Gibney's documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine is neither the first nor the last movie to capitalize on the late Apple godhead's popularity. Whether Gibney's profile of Jobs manages to capture the spirit of the times will be dealt with later, at the box office and in reviews, but this week the SFIFF has it all to itself for one night. Whoopee. The San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 23–May 7 at twelve different venues in San Francisco and the East Bay. Programs, non-film events, venues, and personal appearance dates are subject to change. The best way to keep up with the latest festival news is in your pocket, via social networks, the Film Society's blog (Blog.SFFS.org), or at the mother ship, SFFS.ORG/SFIFF58.

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