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.On with the Show: The SFFILM Festival is back, more diverse and unpredictable than ever

After the pandemic descended on us two years ago, we did without a number of public events that had meaning for us in the “before time”–athletic contests, concerts, fairs, conventions, etc. For die-hard film fanatics, the event we missed most was the “shared movie experience”–the semi-personal, somewhat risky sensation of sitting in a dark room full of strangers and letting the magic lantern show wash over us. It was a communal land of dreams, and we missed it terribly.

Good news, everybody. The magic lantern show is back in town. SFFILM, the governing body of what used to be called the San Francisco International Film Festival, is bringing back the annual SFFILM Festival for live theatrical screenings, after two years away–the 2020 festival was abruptly canceled because of the lockdown and the 2021 fest was an abbreviated online-only event. The 2022 fest has a feeling of starting all over again, in a framework designed for an audience that has gone through some changes.

SFFILM Festival 2022 boasts 130 films (including 58 features) from 56 countries, presented almost entirely digitally, April 21 through May 1, at the historic Castro Theatre, various other venues in San Francisco and at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive in the East Bay. The event casts the widest possible net for titles, with an emphasis this year on female and non-binary directors, as well as filmmakers who identify as Black, indigenous, or people of color. As before, SFFILM’s programmers aim to please a famously sophisticated crowd with its often-challenging narrative features, documentaries, shorts and online talks–plus special appearances by filmmakers. 

One of the hardest to describe, most fantastic items on display at SFFILM 2022 is Neptune Frost, a kaleidoscopic Afro-sci-fi parable co-directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Anisia Uzeyman and her partner, hip-hop storyteller Saul Williams (Slam, Aujourd’hui). As the enigmatically mythological characters–some with doppelgangers, all with names like Memory or Innocent–interact in the Rwanda village settings, the film’s free-form plot line wanders along “Struggle Against the Authority” lines, blending traditional African themes with the 21st Century world of righteous hackers.

The movie has an Apichatpong Weerasethakul bush-mystical feel, with a pronounced dash of Sun Ra. Primitive modernist? Perhaps. Gender-irrelevant? Certainly. Uzeyman’s startling images and Cedric Mizero’s costume design and art direction hit us with a whoosh. And the “Fuck Mr. Google” and “Who Owns the Future?” songs leave no doubt about the film’s anti-colonialism. Neptune Frost was a hit at Cannes in 2021—it’s about time this particular East African spaceship landed here. Screening April 23 at SF’s Roxie Cinema and April 27 at BAMPFA. 

In Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road, an endearingly wacky Iranian family of four does just that–bouncing from spot to spot in their truckster through some idyllic Persian scenery. Are they disorganized or merely trying to look as if they’re not fleeing the country? Dad (Hasan Majuni), on crutches, does a drily humorous slow burn. High-spirited Mom (Pantea Panahiha) lip-syncs pop tunes and embarrasses her grown son (Amin Simiar) by showing snapshots of his youthful bed wetting. Little brother (Rayan Sarlak), meanwhile, is a hyperactive tornado of energy, inserting himself into the slightest hint of conversation. Is this Iran’s answer to the Royal Tenenbaums? Writer-director Panahi, son of master filmmaker Jafar Panahi, handles the family circus with the greatest of ease. It’s either a zesty comic character romp or the most boring film you’ve ever seen–depends on your sense of humor. We smiled all the way through it. At SF’s Vogue (April 22) and BAMPFA (April 23).

Documentaries have always been a strong suit for the San Francisco fest. This year’s absolute must-see doc is a scrapbook of historical memories, both bitter and hopeful. American Justice on Trial, co-directed by non-fiction veterans Andrew Abrahams and Herb Ferrette, takes us back to Oakland in the bad old days of 1968, when Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton went on trial in a federal courtroom, charged with killing one white policeman and wounding another after a traffic stop (Newton himself was seriously wounded in the gun battle.)

As the doc carefully points out, the incident in question became secondary to the political ramifications. Were Newton and the Panthers “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country” (in the words of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover)? Or were the Panthers unwilling victims of the Oakland PD’s apparent vendetta against the “charming, handsome, soft-spoken” Newton, who saw his mission as teaching the law to the police after years of violent official overreach? Great period footage and dramatic editing bring the landmark trial to life, as tribute to a civil rights struggle against police brutality that is still making headlines today. The world premiere takes place April 22 at the Roxie. 

Likewise highly recommended are two very idiosyncratic documentaries: Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love and Emilie Mahdavian’s Bitterbrush. The former paints a blazingly exciting portrait of the careers of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft, whose devotion to the study of the world’s active volcanoes–the “scenic” red kind and the “killer” gray variety–took them into nature’s most fiery locales all over the globe. Volcanoes somehow always inspire the language of myth. The Kraffts go down some remarkable holes and engage in death-defying feats: rock climbing, spelunking, “canoeing” down a lava flow and boating on a lake of sulfuric acid. Their beautiful, risky, up-close images of Nyiragongo, Unzen, Augustine, Una Una and St. Helen’s are enough to make your hair stand on end. Fire of Love plays the Castro (April 23) and BAMPFA (April 24). 

Meanwhile in the uplands of Idaho, a pair of young modern-day cattlewomen, Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline, saddle up and move into a mountain cabin with their horses and dogs, for their seasonal job herding cattle over the rough terrain. The work is tough, the weather sometimes harsh, but director Mahdavian’s unobtrusive observation of the women’s fortitude and camaraderie paints a genuinely moving portrait of the American West. See Bitterbrush at the Victoria Theatre in SF, April 24. 

There are other docs worth looking at for adventurous reality junkies. At BAMPFA, seek out: Midwives is a cinéma-vérité-style trip to Rakhine state in Myanmar, where a Buddhist midwife and her Muslim apprentice assist in birthing and provide other essential medical care for women caught in government ethnic-cleansing violence aimed at the Muslim minority. Superb ethnography, directed by Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing. Screening May 1. Riotsville, USA is an alarming doc on the subject of the militarization of American police departments. Filmmaker Sierra Pettingill gathers together archival material from the 1960s, when military personnel and civilian police were being trained to stop civil disturbance by “outside agitators.” Battle lines were being drawn even then. It plays on May 1 too. Also good: The Exiles, a look back at the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement through the eyes of peppy Chinese-American activist Christine Choy, directed by Violet Columbus and Ben Klein (April 24); and I Didn’t See You There, disability activist Reid Davenport’s first-person video account of his wheelchair-bound life in Oakland and his Connecticut hometown. Davenport’s “home movie” highlights the plight of disabled persons better than any well-meaning “inspirational” drama. In several ways, this is one of the most noteworthy films in the festival (April 30).

Documentary notables in SF include a mockumentary: Sell/Buy/Date, with co-writer/director Sarah Jones playing multiple roles for her ostensibly humorous look at the sex industry, adapted from her stage show. Thought-provoking and ultimately sobering, Jones’ investigative “report” uses actual sex workers plus actors (Rosario Dawson, Bryan Cranston, et al.) to arrive at mixed signals over the issue of authority on such a touchy subject. Audience emotions could run high. April 24 at the Vogue. Land of Gold, a lightly likable look at rehearsals for John Adams and Peter Sellars’ opera Girls of the Golden West, specializes in exploding preconceptions of the American Old West, as in sexism, racism and lynchings in the California gold fields. This free screening is April 28 at the Castro.

In common with most film festivals, SFFILM takes advantage of promotional-minded early looks at commercial coming attractions. Director Abi Damaris Corbin’s 892 (co-written with Kwame Kwei-Armah), from Bleecker Street, is just such an experience, a tense and ultra-realistic crime story with enough social dimension to satisfy the pickiest Bay Area festival goer. In it, an ex-U.S. Marine played by British actor John Boyega, driven to desperation when his VA disability payment doesn’t arrive, walks into a Wells Fargo bank, threatens to set off a bomb, and demands only one thing–that the VA send him his check. It’s a thriller with unmistakable real-life meaning, and it shows April 27 at the Castro. 

Two movies that could only be seen at a film festival: Benediction, from British writer-director and SFFILM favorite Terence Davies, takes a dramatized deep dive into the life and times of anti-war poet Siegfried Sassoon (played at different ages by Jack Lowden and Peter Capaldi), who outraged the ruling class with his hard-earned pacifism as well as his bisexuality. Sassoon traveled in exalted literary/artistic circles, and so does this witticism-heavy costumed drama. It shows April 29 at BAMPFA, April 30 at the Castro. At the other end of Europe, Radu Muntean’s Romanian Întregalde indulges in an absurdist take on humanitarian efforts and general nincompoopery, as a carload of befuddled aid workers gets lost in the woodsy Transylvanian hinterlands. Unpleasant peasant predicaments galore, it screens April 27 at the Victoria, April 30 at BAMPFA.

Our wild card pick: Fans of actor Aubrey Plaza will swill in her ill temper at the sight of Emily the Criminal, the story of a ne’er-do-well who lands the best job of her career–as a credit-card-fraud hustler for a gang of surly hoods. Writer-director John Patton Ford’s screenplay is no great shakes, but that sort of thing has never hampered Plaza before. Her prospective-employment interview with an ad agency exec belongs in the Take This Job and Shove It Hall of Fame. April 29 at the Castro. 

Of the obligatory special-tribute personal appearances at this year’s SFFILM, there is one clear front runner, the in-person celebration of legendary action star/comedian/producer and Malaysian native Michelle Yeoh, aka the only actor who could upstage Jackie Chan. Her April 29 evening at the Castro (6pm) takes the form of an on-stage interview by actor Sandra Oh, as well as a screening of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film that catapulted Yeoh’s career out of the martial arts ghetto and into “Bond girl”-Star Trek international superstar territory. 

Want more brand-name fun at SFFILM 2022? Try 32 Sounds, an interactive documentary by SFFILM regular Sam Green that takes the audience on a tour of the wide world of cinematic sound engineering. While filmmaker Green narrates over a live score by JD Samson, birds tweet, kitty cats purr and a Zamboni machine grooms an ice rink. What, no Top Fuel dragsters or a Rage Against the Machine sound check? Each member of the audience will be provided with a personal headset. It happens April 24 at the Castro.

Also on tap: The timely release of Navalny, director Daniel Roher’s documentary profile of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the fly in Vladimir Putin’s vodka martini. Someone tried to kill Navalny with a deadly nerve agent on a flight from Siberia to Moscow in 2020. Roher’s doc investigates. See it April 23 at the Castro. Or, for confrontation of an entirely different kind, Kathryn Ferguson’s doc, Nothing Compares, gets up close and personal with Irish singer/rebel Sinéad O’Connor, aka Shuhada Sadaqat. Let the chips fall where they may at the Victoria, April 29.

Last but not in any way least, a “mid-length” film in competition deserves mention: The Time of the Fireflies, directed by Mexico’s Matteo Robert Morales and Denmark’s Mattis Appelqvist Dalton, looks at an immigrant story from a uniquely nostalgic angle, April 30 at the Roxie.

Vaccinations and masks are required for all festival attendees. For more info and updates, visit 


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