SFFILM’s San Francisco International Film Festival is once again amongst us, often brilliantly
At the age of 66, SFFILM’s San Francisco International Film Festival—the oldest film fest in the Western Hemisphere—is one of the world’s very few such events in which a curious but uninformed viewer could pick films at random and expect to see something challenging and enlightening every time.
To test that proposition, this space looked at the movies chosen to represent the festival during its East Bay run at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive on the UC Berkeley campus, April 14-23, and plucked out a handful of promising-looking titles, using very little research. As if by magic, the films are a revelation. They run the gamut from the unexpectedly enthralling to the urgently newsworthy—a concise selection of films that upholds SFFILM’s reputation as a knowledgeable film addict’s dream.
The feature-length documentary Rally lays out the life and career of one of the Bay Area’s most influential political figures, the late Rose Pak. As told by filmmaker Rooth Tang, the Chinese-born Pak—a former newspaper reporter with a Columbia School of Journalism degree—became San Francisco Chinatown’s pre-eminent power broker in the 1980s.
Politicians lived in fear of Pak’s sharp tongue and her clout in the Chinese community. Right up until her death in 2016, Pak was instrumental in shaping the opinions of many San Francisco elected leaders—even though she never held public office and was in fact an illegal immigrant.
The talking heads are a who’s-who of prominent pols singing Pak’s praises, including former mayors Willie Brown and Art Agnos, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, City Attorney David Chiu and former supervisors Jane Kim, Carmen Chu and Chris Daly. No voyage through the Bay of Pak ever offered smooth sailing.
Tang’s well constructed doc looks at Pak’s domination of San Francisco’s political life with surprising candor, especially in recounting Mayor Ed Lee’s steamrolling of everything that stood in the way of the city’s wholesale sellout to Big Tech. As pointed out by Tang, the combination of Pak, Lee, Brown and venture capitalist Ron Conway gave the high-tech industry everything but Karl the Fog.
If a viewer wants to trace how a few people rammed the “tech boom” down the formerly progressive city’s throat, this is where to start. Rally shows April 23 at BAMPFA, April 21 at CGV San Francisco.
SFFILM has always thrived on documentaries. Especially noteworthy in the 2023 lineup are films by cultural commentators W. Kamau Bell and Mark Cousins. Bell’s 1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed, the epitome of a feel-good movie, listens as mixed-race kids step up and explain how they feel and what they think about their “mixedness.” The thoughtful subjects display wisdom and tolerance that many “unmixed” people may not come to as easily and naturally.
Sample insight: “There’s a lot of danger in not talking about race. We live in a deeply racist society.” 1000% Me plays April 22 at BAMPFA.
Northern Irish director Cousins examines the dangerous appeal of fascism in The March on Rome, his newsreel-heavy account of the rise to power of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Over gorgeous scene-setting shots of the Eternal City, Cousins profiles the black-shirted Fascists and how they controlled Italy by stressing the aesthetics of brutality. The film is hypnotic and disturbing, with an inescapable sense of dread—especially when Cousins sets Mussolini’s words alongside those of Donald Trump, and draws parallels to fascists in other countries.
The March on Rome screens April 20 at BAMPFA, at which time Cousins is being presented with SFFILM’s Persistence of Vision Award. Also at BAMPFA: Cousins’ bio-doc My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock, April 21.
Likewise worth a look at BAMPFA: director Sofia Alaoui’s fascinating sci-fi allegory Animalia, in which a Moroccan woman loses her way home, April 23. And Mary (I Shot Andy Warhol) Harron’s Dalíland, a gossipy dramatized account of the last days of Spanish Surrealist Salvador Dalí, starring Ben Kingsley, April 15.
For more info: sffilm.org.
April 14-23 at various venues