San Francisco International Film Festival: The Show Must Go On

One year later, the long-running film fest is in a reflective mood.

Call it shell shock, or perhaps just a pause for reflection, but this week’s opening of the San Francisco International Film Festival has a bit of lingering sadness hanging over it. That’s because the San Francisco Film Society, the festival’s presenting body, lost two executive directors since last year’s fest. Graham Leggat, the dynamic architect of the SFFS’ recent expansion, died of cancer last August. And then his successor, former movie-biz executive Bingham Ray, succumbed to the effects of a stroke at the Sundance Film Festival in January, a little more than two months after being appointed to the exec-director post.

For many arts organizations, that two-pronged upper-echelon disaster would be enough to derail a festival. But the Film Society these days gives every impression of being a supremely well-drilled group of professionals, quite capable of carrying on the 55th edition of the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running film festival all by themselves. Sometime soon the Film Society will announce a new executive director, and that will be a good thing, but in the meantime there’s a film festival to get up and running, and the SFFS staff knows exactly what to do and how to do it. The show must go on.

As announced by Film Society board president Pat McBaine at a press conference, this year’s festival is all about art and artists. The usual smattering of Hollywood and international talent will be on hand — including actors Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis, who will receive awards — but the SF International, never much of a glamour pit, tends to pay more attention to filmmakers than to movie stars. So we have the chance to meet such behind-the-scenes folks as screenwriter David Webb Peoples (he’ll screen Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven), documentarian Barbara Kopple (maker of Harlan County, USA), author Jonathan Lethem (presenting a State of the Cinema Address, April 21, at the Sundance Kabuki Cinema), and French film maven Pierre Rissient.

Rissient is pretty much the ideal San Francisco festival guest. As profiled in the live-wire documentary Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema, he’s the apotheosis of the movie hound, a haunter of cinemas who started as a film geek and guest programmer at a Paris neighborhood theater called the MacMahon in the 1950s, worked as a press agent and ad man, and eventually became the “King of Cannes,” a tireless promoter who “broke” films in the European marketplace by word of mouth — his mouth. Rissient is famous for announcing that it’s not enough that you like a certain film, you have to like it for the right reasons.

This kaleidoscopic profile by critic Todd McCarthy (2007) scratches the same movie-crazy itch as Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque. The two obsessive Frenchmen, Rissient and Langlois, grew up inordinately enchanted by films and devoted their entire lives to enshrining the right ones. For Rissient, the directorial “Four Aces” were Otto Preminger, Joseph Losey (he had a falling-out with both of them), Raoul Walsh, and Fritz Lang, but he championed the work of John Boorman, Quentin Tarantino, Sydney Pollack, Bob Rafelson, King Hu, Lino Brocka, Olivier Assayas, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien just as fiercely. Anecdotes run wild: Rissient describes taking Lang, at the legendary German master’s request, to a Paris screening of Deep Throat, where Lang was anxious for the money shots. Rissient, now a robust 85, appears in person at the Pacific Film Archive on April 30 for a showing of Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema. He also pops up April 28 at the Castro Theatre to introduce one of his favorite overlooked pics, Lang’s House by the River.

While we’re on the subject of film-history docs, Davy Chou’s Golden Slumbers takes us off the beaten path to Cambodia, where, up until the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, a lively domestic film industry flourished. Chou visits decaying Phnom Penh former movie palaces now occupied by squatters, film-location settings in the countryside, and the homes of such Cambodian film figures as director Ly Bun Yim and screen goddess Dy Saveth in hopes of recapturing some of the lost magic of the era, but what’s left are mostly a few old posters and stills. The films themselves suffered the same fate as the movie community, snuffed out by the cadres for the crime of decadence. The killing fields murdered stories and imaginations as well as people. A former fan notes wistfully: “I couldn’t remember my parents [after Pol Pot] but I remembered the actors.” Golden Slumbers plays the PFA, May 1.

At the first moment we meet 34-year-old Anders (portrayed indelibly by Anders Danielsen Lie), the central character of Oslo, August 31, he’s attempting suicide by filling his clothes with rocks and walking into a pond. He doesn’t succeed, and indeed things get worse from there. Director Joachim Trier’s nervous character study, which he and writer Eskil Vogt adapted from Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel Le feu follet, shifts gears only slightly from the source — instead of an alcoholic, Anders is a heroin addict who walks away from the drug treatment center for a series of awful encounters. Somehow, some way, Anders and his misadventures assume a magnificence far above their origins. A remarkable film with a mesmerizing performance by actor Lie. See it this Friday, April 20, 8:50 p.m., at the PFA.

How European do you really want to go? In Delphine and Muriel Coulin’s 17 Girls, a clique of bored-to-tears contemporary female teenagers from the port city of Lorient in France’s Brittany decides, in dead seriousness, that the thing they must do is to all get pregnant and have their babies together. Alas, the rebellious epidemic of adolescent pregnancy fails to achieve the desired results, other than parental bafflement, but that’s more or less beside the point of this fascinatingly perverse little melodrama, with its camera lingering on the girls’ bodies and its ever-present threat of violent reaction. What were they thinking of? Louise Grinberg and Roxanne Duran are wonderful as Camille and Florence, respectively. The Coulin sisters evidently adapted their screenplay from true events that happened in Gloucester, Massachusetts in 2008, but, as always in the best movies, the film is far, far stranger than real life. It screens April 28 at the Kabuki, then April 30 and May 2 at the Film Society Cinema in SF’s Japantown.

At a rudimentary medical center called Vanga in the back country of Cameroon, a white European doctor named Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), part of a volunteer medical mission to aid poor villagers, prepares to move his family and himself back to Germany. The local political situation, always difficult because of funding squabbles with Cameroonian officials, has made life even tougher for the well-intentioned European visitors. But Ebbo remains behind when his family departs. Why? Some critics see Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this languid, atmospheric drama, Sleeping Sickness, by German writer-director Ulrich Köhler. But to us it suggests Douglas Sirk on quinine, with richly drawn supporting parts by Hippolyte Girardot (as a scheming would-be developer) and Jean-Christophe Folly (as Dr. Alex Nzila, a black Parisian on the outs in the jungle) behind Bokma’s gorgeously world-weary performance as Dr. Velten, who never wants to get out of Africa. A Friday, April 20 show at the PFA (6:30 p.m.) is one of three festival screenings.

For hard-edged documentary snap with the all-important local angle, it would be hard to beat The Waiting Room by Peter Nicks. Told in a fly-on-the-wall cinema-verité style, this completely absorbing doc lets us observe what takes place on a regular day inside the emergency room reception area at Oakland’s Highland Hospital: everyone from nudniks trying to cop a free Tylenol to teenage gunshot victims dying in the midst of triage. No insurance means limited access, and limited access means long, long waits, even for the hapless guy with testicular cancer or the little girl with infected tonsils, strep throat, and a very worried dad. The hospital is filled to the max, and by regulation no new patient can be admitted until someone leaves. There are enough doctors, nurses, medical assistants, and social workers to fill a dozen daytime dramas, and the star among them is the admitting nurse. Opines one doctor: “The ER is not the place to manage someone’s overall health.” Another bit of “dialogue” no screenwriter could hope to make up: “We keep people overnight, just as much for their social conditions as for their medical conditions.” Before you see any film in this year’s festival, be sure to run out and see this. Saturday, April 21, 3:50 p.m. at the PFA.

The Waiting Room Theatrical Trailer from The Waiting Room on Vimeo.

Ethel, Rory Kennedy’s documentary profile of her mother, Ethel Kennedy, widow of martyred politician Robert F. Kennedy, just may be the historical must-see of this year’s SFIFF. Made for HBO, the younger Ms. Kennedy’s tribute to her family puts the “Kennedy years” in sharp relief through the vicarious eyes of Ethel, mother of eleven children, a born competitor and human-rights crusader whose notion of a “contributory life” of public service is notably missing from the contemporary landscape. A side of “Camelot” that deserves to be better known. Baby boomers should probably pack along plenty of Kleenex when this shows at the PFA, April 28.

Iconic performance artist Marina Abramovic staged a seemingly impossible exhibition/spectacle at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010. She sat in a chair all day, for the full run of the museum’s opening hours, and allowed visitors to sit across from her. The show ran for two and a half months during which Abramovic confronted some 750,000 faces. Filmmaker Matthew Akers’ accessible documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present profiles the provocative Serbian-born artist — controversial nude pieces, obsessive fans, bewildered detractors — but spends most of its time watching other people watching her. The stamina, the endurance, the public, the faces, the unstoppable emotions. A powerhouse. At the PFA, April 29.

Trailer – Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present from Show of Force on Vimeo.

Documentary maker and showman Caveh Zahedi (I Am a Sex Addict) must have been craving a ticklish situation that he could aggravate with his distinctive, uh, personality. The Middle East fits the bill perfectly. Zahedi’s latest, The Sheik and I, begs us to believe that the ruler of the Emirate of Sharjah (UAE) commissions him to bring a film crew to Sharjah and make an original film of his own conception without any restrictions. Oh, maybe one or two restrictions. You can guess the rest. Zahedi’s uncanny ability to create awkward situations takes flight in the film within the film, a nutty spy adventure with something to offend everyone in the country. As Zahedi’s lawyer back in New York explains it, Zahedi’s provocative trampling on Sharjah’s manners and mores sets up a case of “tribal revenge mode” versus “international arts festival mode.” It is to laugh. Catch The Sheik and I April 21, April 25, or April 28, all at the Kabuki.

The Sheik and I trailer from Caveh Zahedi on Vimeo.

Anyone who has been to Tokyo can tell you that the city is infested with large, often aggressive crows. Their cawing can be heard everywhere. In Tokyo Waka, documentarians John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson dig deeper into the subject. For instance, they identify the big black birds as a species of jungle crow that migrated from Southeast Asia. But Haptas and Samuelson’s delightfully organic feature then broadens out into a tone poem (the title translates as “Tokyo poem”) in the tradition of Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, with the crows counterbalanced by such urban phenomena as flash mobs, homeless encampments, a Buddhist monk who views garbage as “the ruins of desire,” Tokyo’s grandiose architecture, and the city’s cultural setting. All travelogues should be so insightful. Tokyo Waka screens at the PFA on April 22.

Old Britt is so bent over she looks like a character in a perversely quiet horror movie as she carefully tends her herd. She broke her back and pelvis years ago in a run-in with one of her bovine charges, but that doesn’t stop her from her daily duties of milking and feeding. Neither does the fact that her little dairy farm, which sells its milk to the local cooperative, loses money every year. The farm is Britt’s love, and her sister Inger, who lives in town and visits Britt regularly to offer help, understands, even though she’s trying in vain to talk Britt into retiring. That’s the setting of Peter Gerdehag’s documentary Women with Cows (aka Kokvinnorna), one of the most charming films in this year’s fest. It’s the sort of movie we usually only get to see at an international film festival. Two elderly women bickering and eating their lunch on a broken-down farm in Sweden — who would ever buy a multiplex ticket to see that? And yet we find ourselves glued to these two sisters and vitally interested in their welfare. A better reason to hold a film festival in the first place, we’ll never find. See it April 23 at the PFA.

WOMEN WITH COWS from Gerdehag Films on Vimeo.

Playing at the PFA (April 25) and well worth seeing for anyone interested in the exciting South Korean film scene is Hong Sangsoo’s The Day He Arrives, a deliberately elliptical drama about a has-been filmmaker (played by actor Yu Junsang) trying with difficulty to pick up the threads of his career and his social life on a series of wintry days in Seoul. As he makes the rounds, chatting with colleagues over endless rounds of soju, our protagonist grows a little hazy and so does the film itself — the action begins to loop, with slight variations. Writer-director Hong is eager to challenge us as he manipulates the fragile lead character. A grown-up film for grown-ups unafraid of subtitles and subtleties.

Also at the PFA: Back to Stay, a drama of the slacker life in modern Buenos Aires by director Milagros Mumenthaler (April 28); the French foodie doc Step Up to the Plate, about famed chef Michel Bras and his rural temple of gastronomy in the South of France (April 29); Musa Syeed’s Valley of Saints, an oblique love story set on Lake Dal in Kashmir (April 22); Patience (After Sebald), a deep-dish documentary literary investigation of novelist W.G. Sebald’s book The Rings of Saturn (April 27); and Crulic: The Path to Beyond, the intriguingly animated story of a character named Claudiu Crulic and how he came to a bad end in Poland. Anca Damian’s combo of drawing, montage, stop-motion, and watercolor is something to see, April 26.

In the same comforting vein as Women with Cows is Meanwhile in Mamelodi, director Benjamin Kahlmeyer’s cozy documentary portrait of the Mtsweni family of Mamelodi township outside Pretoria, South Africa. Easy-going, easy-smiling Steven Mtsweni owns and operates a general store, and the hot topic is the 2010 World Cup Soccer competition, happening all around them and yet reachable only on TV. Again, seemingly simple lives with a gentle unifying thread of togetherness, and one of the 2012 SFIFF’s hidden treasures. May 3 at the PFA.

The festival opens Thursday, April 19, at the Castro (7 p.m.) with Benoît Jacquot’s costume drama of the French Revolution, Farewell, My Queen. For up-to-date festival info including showtimes, visit: or


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