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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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.

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