SFFILMFestival or the 61st edition of theSan Francisco International Film Festival, has raised its stakes for another year. During the festival I found myself billeted at the South of Market venues for the documentaries: SFMOMA, more than any other, and the Children's Creativity Museum theater and occasional trips to the Castro Theater for crowd pleasers and big events. My friend and colleague Michael Hawley noted that around 40 percent of all feature films at this year's festival were documentaries, an increase from last year.
The press screenings started with Alexandra CuerdosDish: main course, a film about diaspora Filipino cuisine that elicited stomach rumbling and a belief that Pilipinx had joined the global high-end food movement. Ulam is one of five films that will have their world premiere at the second festivalStartInitiative that enjoys a special boost for worldwide sales. The five films, all documentaries, are described by SFFILM Executive Director Noah Cowan as "representing the values of our city and region."
Another Launch supported film is Matthew TestasThe human element. It's reminiscent of an earlier environmental disaster film, Jeff Orlowski'shunt ice(2012) which also presented the life and work of wildlife photographer James Balog, but this greatly expands Balog's scope both in his personal life and in the range of natural elements he photographs. Balog's premise is that to the four traditional elements of water, air, fire and earth we should add human beings since we have had such a profound impact on these others and we are the only element with free choice. Balog's mission is to bear witness to the conflict between man and nature by documenting the environmental destruction we have wrought during our relatively brief Anthropocene, or geological age of human activity. Howhunt iceand Orlowski's 2017hunt coral,The human elementis another grueling journey through looming catastrophe on multiple fronts: rising sea levels in Icelandic glaciers; polluted air from burning fossil fuels and how it produced a generation of asthmatic children; the emergence of the Megafire, a new phenomenon we know all too well in Northern California; and finally the toxins we dug out of the earth, like the coal that Balog's own grandfather mined until his death in a mining accident. Suggestions for economic recovery in former coal towns, like a hairdressing school or installing solar panels on flat-topped mountain peaks, don't make as strong an impact as the nightmarish images of crabs swimming in people's yards or fires killing 5,000 people in a day wipe out tomorrow .
Alyssa Fedele and Zachary FinkThe rescue listis another beneficiary of the Launch Initiative, a heartfelt and engaging documentary about a Ghanaian organization rescuing boys who have been sold by their impoverished parents into fishermen's slavery on Lake Volta. The Challenging Heights Safehouse/School feeds, educates and counsels the boys for about a year and releases them home on the condition that their families will not let them date strangers again. The film begins with the adult Kwame, who was himself enslaved as a child, approaching fisher boys in a boat. Discovering that the supervisor boy claims they are brothers but cannot name them, Kwame takes one by force. Crying in fear, the possessed gradually learns that he has been freed, but he still agonizes over the friends he left behind. The boys are ordered to dive to untangle webs, but sometimes they tangle themselves and drown. Twenty thousand such children are enslaved, some working as young as three into adulthood, and Challenging Heights is methodically rescuing as many as possible. The film follows three of the boys as a team of workers locate their families, negotiate with them and the village leaders, and carefully repatriate them. It's a little difficult to understand how the organization was able to save a thousand boys and monitor them for two years after their release without government funding, but this movie makes you want to believe it.
Denali TillersTre Maison Dasanis another launch film that brings the idea of saving colored boys to our own country. Tiller's debut film focuses on three boys, one of whom is in prison. (We are told that one in 14 children has an incarcerated parent.) The Rhode Island Correctional System's special program allows children to visit their parents for two hours on a weekend, unaccompanied by another adult but with access to Camera. We see a lot of love on these visits, but it's not enough to sustain the boys in the often overwhelming world outside. They must forgive their imprisoned parent for their absence while dealing with a parent who is deeply flawed in their presence. Ordinary rites of passage like Valentine's Day, Boy Scout camping trips, and the frustrations of adolescence gain meaning through the eyes of a child whose mother or father faces an uncertain future in the criminal justice system.
The title of Nathaniel Kahn's documentary about today's art market,The price of everything, alludes to Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". Easy target Jeff Koons embodies this definition with his warehouse full of restorers in the background, while the mostly forgotten abstract painter Larry Poons quietly continues his work in the countryside. In between are currently hot artists like Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Marilyn Minter, who are puzzled over their current success with buyers and collectors, and the waning interest of the once-named Damien Hirst. Perhaps most interesting is Amy Cappellazzo, director of fine arts at Sotheby's, who shares tips on promoting a work of art as the perfect product for her wealthy clients.
The price of everythingcasually references Jean-Michel Basquiat's multimillion-dollar paintings, recalling that hisUntitledLast year's record-breaking $110.5 million sale put it "in the same league as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso," according to art dealer Jeffrey Deitch. Sara Driver is brilliantBoom for Real: The Late Teenage Years by Jean-Michel Basquiattakes us way back in time, before Basquiat sold a single painting—when he was still an oddball set of cleverly critical wall-scribblers on the Lower East Side and a vital presence in music, art, and the streets in the late 1970s and early 1980s Scenes from New York City. Driver manages to conjure up this fertile and tumultuous world for this West Coaster struggling to make sense of all that is on the pages of thevillage voice.
Basquiat began and ended his short career as an enigma, unable to speak for himself in all the documentaries, biopics and transactions that idolised him after his death at 27. In great contrastA thousand thoughts - a live documentaryby Sam Green and the Kronos Quartet, a hybrid slideshow/video presentation featuring live narration by the director and live performances by Kronos himself, a West Coast musical entity active in various forms since 1973. far-reaching and influential requires this type of meta-presentation, where the musicians' physical presence and on-screen presence force us to think about the "real time" of performance and memory. The film, which Joe Bini is also responsible for directing, won the audience award for the best documentary.
Documentary film's ability to evoke tragic or unrealized events from the past was showcased in two contrasting works at the festival. David Sington and Heather WalshMercury 13is a loving, wistful remembrance of 13 white American women who had a chance to qualify as NASA astronauts but never made it to space. Initially encouraged by a visionary male researcher who championed her and the urgency of competing with the Soviet Union, NASA closed the program despite findings showing that women were psychologically and physically better candidates than men for spaceflight. They simply didn't stand a chance against the prevailing sexist attitude of the time, which viewed the monthly period as a burden, and the unhelpful comments of "space god" John Glenn. Archival footage of the women and their insatiable longing for high-altitude travel, even in old age, only gives a faint glimpse of how the world of female astronauts could have been changed in the early 1960s.
In vivid contrast, Robert Greene continues his excitementKate plays ChristinewithBisbee '17, another film that recreates a repressed past tragedy in order to make sense of it. This is not a matter of life and death for the individual news anchor Christine Chubbuck, but an atrocity involving thousands of people. On a hot summer day in 1917, a sheriff in Bisbee, Arizona, used 2,000 men to forcibly load 1,300 striking copper miners, 90 percent of them foreign-born and supported by the IWW, into railroad cars and take them to the New Mexico border bring to. left to their own devices in the desert without food or water. No one was punished for the Bisbee deportation, which is still a hot topic in town. Today, tourists can ride the "Deportation Express" to learn about the incident. Greene also notes that nearby Tombstone, which was declared "America's Second Amendment City" by its mayor last year, glorifies its violent past in staged shootings at the OK Corral. In a process reminiscent of that of Kitty GreenCast by JonBenetand even Rithy PanhsS21: The Khmer Rouge's Death Machine, locals reenact the tragedy. The resulting "performance" is deeply cathartic for a community that has not come to terms with the evil in its past.
Mila TurajlicsThe other side of everythinghad the strongest buzz around me during the festival and justified all the awards it won. The Serbian filmmaker's direct subjects are her mother, Srbijanka Turajlic, a key player in Yugoslavia's pro-democracy movement, and the stately Belgrade apartment building where her family lived, which was rented by the state when the country became communist. The locked parts of the apartment reflect the unopened doors to the past, which the daughter violently opens one by one, revealing the aching core where the family and the political meet.
Hal Ashby was a brilliant film editor (Oscar winner forIn the Heat of the Night), who went on to direct unforgettable films from the 1970s, such asHarold and Maude,The final detail,Bound for GloryAndTo be there. But making his films was a struggle for the fiercely independent Ashby, who despised authority at a time when classic Hollywood was becoming corporate and a film artist like Ashby stayed up all night to work, fueled by weed. He hated lies and was baffled by negotiations through double talk. He was fully aware of his own privilege as a white American male, but his insistence on telling stories about underrepresented heroes, whether they were people of color or advanced or disabled or just people as they really are, also brought him to the brink . Norman Jewison, his mentor and friend, to whom he wrote affectionate and scolding letters quoted here, wishes Ashby had a happier 'third act' in this excellent biography. But Amy Scott'sHalis a great tribute to this filmmaker who loved and encouraged his actors and cinematographers.
SeeHaljust before I see Amy AdrionsThe half picturewas a good preparation for what follows. Early in his career, Ashby caught the eye of director Norman Jewison and was invited to editIn the Heat of the Night, for which he won an Oscar in 1968. In the 1970s he was nominated for the Palme d'Or in Cannes. Of course, like any other filmmaker, he struggled for big commissions and recognition, but the happy results came within a few years. That was rare in women's careersThe half picture, who describe setback after setback in their struggle to make the films they want. Following a series of startling statistics on Hollywood's shortage of female filmmakers, this outstanding documentary lets the women - black, white, Latina, Asian, old, young, gay, straight - speak for themselves about the racism and sexism, both implicit and explicit, in the industry. Allowing for so many different voices allows for a really nuanced look at what's wrong, what needs fixing, and how to fix it.
Erika CohnsThe judgewon the McBaine Bay Area Documentary Feature Award. It brings some perspective into the ingrained sexism of other cultures, in this case the application of Sharia law in the Palestinian Authority's divorce and family courts. In Ramallah, we follow Kholoud Faqih, the first female Sharia judge, on her journey from designing the first women judge's uniform, to raising four children, to hearing and adjudicating difficult cases involving women. In the midst of the competing claims of multiple wives, how can one administer justice? How should one judge spousal abuse when a husband's sexual assault does not qualify as rape? Judge Kholoud navigates her way through uncharted territory as she uses her power to mentor new judges and bring Sharia law into the 21st century.
In the unforgettableThe distant barking of dogsDirected by Danish documentary filmmaker Simon Lereng Wilmont, who was filming in a Ukrainian village just a mile from the front lines of the conflict with Russia, a grandmother tries to lead a normal life for her two grandsons, Oleg and Yarik. Oleg's mother is dead and Yarik's mother is called to the side of her soldier husband, whom Yarik doesn't like. The cousins want to play as normal boys, but their idyllic summer — a dip in the river, pillow fights in the dappled sun — is soon interrupted by grenades. Grandmother measures her year by times of war: truce at harvest, truce at the beginning of the school year, truce at Easter. But hope blossoms again, she emphasizes, like vegetables that can be pickled in a jar. As Grandmother's own health deteriorates and the boys befriend a gun-wielding teenager, our own growing sense of apprehension follows the boys like the shadows of death.The distant barking of dogswon the McBaine Documentary Feature Award.
For an hour we watch in black and white as a handful of humans and animals complete mysterious tasks with wordless purpose. These works include tall metal structures, makeshift rafts, horse-drawn carts, cattle pens, and mills improvised from car parts. Finally, as a blizzard approaches, a couple prepares an unsavory meal of meat wrapped in leaves and exchanges a few words without subtitles while their dog looks on. isCarcasses, directed by Icelandic and French filmmakers Gústav Geir Bollason and Clémentine Roy, a documentary ? Why not, if we remember an element of form as a focused look at creatures doing things whose comprehensibility may or may not become clearer upon observation? With no apparent clues as to time, place, or purpose, we are free to make this world sense or nonsense: it is a remote post-apocalyptic island where the survivors are reimagining ancient technologies. It is a utopia where humans and animals work together in greater harmony than ever before. Or, with a little searching, we learn that this is one of several "filmmakers' projects on entropy in relation to landscape." Whether things are falling apart or coming together in a satisfying way, our own worldview tinkers with the elements we find here.
The German documentarists Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck give usThe cleaners, a chilling view of a handful of workers staring at computer screens in a Metro Manila skyscraper and saying, "Ignore...delete...ignore...ignore...delete...delete." They are content moderators or contract workers outsourced by social media companies (Google, Facebook, YouTube) tasked with deciding which stills and videos to allow on those platforms. They have to "shoot" 25,000 pictures every day and can't make more than three "mistakes" per month. Some specialize in watching livestreams of people harming themselves or videos of beheadings -- one woman says she's seen hundreds of them. The psychological burden of these workers is only one problem. Another is the consequence of allowing people with almost no contextual knowledge to censor material that should be available to the world for aesthetic, free speech, and humanitarian reasons. As long as companies like Facebook continue to insist that they are not media companies while arbitrarily deciding what kind of images they want the world to see, they will not be blamed for the fake news, hate speech, and terrorist recruitment that clogs the internet. A content moderator shows the iconic photo of Kim Phuc, the naked little Vietnamese girl, walking down the street with napalm burns. He says that according to guidelines provided to him (naked minor), this image would be banned from the platform he oversees without the power it previously held to end the Vietnam War.
British filmmaker Tim WardleThree identical strangersraises more questions than it answers, as a good documentary should. Wardle's feature film debut, about the surprise reunion of triplets separated at birth when they were 19, first revels in the stranger revelations and fun of seeing three cute young guys discover that despite being adopted by three very different couples, they are had so much in common. But then we turn to the adoptive parents, who were so angry at not knowing the boys' origins that they visited the enigmatic Louise Wise Adoption Agency and came away confused and suspicious. Next, we follow journalists' efforts to uncover what was really going on, with psychologists' regular visits to adoptees for testing and videotaping, leaving us with disturbing insights into the unauthorized surveillance of unsuspecting Americans. It's a fascinating story that will fuel some passionate post-film discussions.
Frako Loden is an Associate Professor of Film, Women's Studies, and Ethnic Studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.