.The SFFILM Festival’s Eastern Front

Local color and outlandish international flickers at this year’s festival.

Is the SFFILM Festival trying to colonize Oakland? Not a bad idea. The famed San Francisco-centric arts event – now in its 62nd year as the oldest continuing film festival in the Western Hemisphere — stakes a claim to Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre with a concise slate of movies beginning April 17, in the middle of the festival.

On that date, Oakland cultural commentator W. Kamau Bell appears in person at the Grand Lake for a special free showing of the Season 4 Premiere of his hit CNN cable TV series United Shades of America. In this episode he ventures down to Mississippi, just to see what’s going on in the depths of the Deep South. Showtime is 6:30 p.m., with a Q&A afterwards. That program is followed by SFFILM’s 8:30 screening of The Seer and the Unseen, filmmaker Sara Dosa’s whimsical documentary about a small but determined group of citizens in Iceland who believe rampant development in that country is disturbing the population of elves, trolls, and assorted traditional animistic spirits who live underground.

A total of eleven titles are coming to the Grand Lake in a five-day run — out of the 163 films from 52 different countries, including the work of 72 women directors, in this year’s SFFILM Festival, April 10 through April 23. The theater hosted a pair of the festival’s films for one day last year, but the 2019 expansion is a recognition that Oakland is indeed a city of film fanatics. “It brings in new customers,” enthuses Grand Lake impresario Allen Michaan.

Also among the Grand Lake offerings is We Believe in Dinosaurs, Monica Long Ross and Clayton Brown’s documentary visit to Ark Encounter, the Kentucky creationist theme park that hopes to vanquish the theory of evolution by means of a 510-foot-long replica of Noah’s Ark, complete with animatronic critters and biblical characters. Plus a few dinosaurs, because everybody knows they lived side by side with homo sapiens. It plays April 21. For the gastronomically inclined there’s Street Food, director David Gelb’s documentary tribute to Asian food stands, happening April 20.

Of course SFFILM has been presenting in the East Bay for years, at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive. But a renewed emphasis on ground-level engagement this year gives East Bay audiences a larger group of entertainments to choose from, in addition to movies at the festival’s nine San Francisco venues.

The most intriguing item in BAMPFA’s portion of the festival is Mariam Ghani’s documentary What We Left Unfinished, the previously untold story of what happened to the writers, directors, actors, and technicians in the national film industry of Afghanistan after its 1978 Communist revolution. Ordered to produce movies for the betterment of society, they came up with message-laden spy flicks, drug-smuggler actioners, and romances that ruffled the feathers of seemingly everyone in the country, notably the gun-toting mujahideen rebels. The doc highlights five films that went uncompleted in the wake of almost continuous strife — the Russian invasion, the rise of the Taliban, and increasing antagonism directed toward film people from conservative tribal warlords who considered showbiz a haven for unbelievers, charlatans, and prostitutes. And you thought doing business in Hollywood was rough. The production horror stories are hilarious, and one character is a dead ringer for John Belushi. Generous clips from the abandoned projects demonstrate the Afghan taste in cinematic entertainment: direct, unsubtle, didactic, and almost universally violent. A capsule history of a fascinating but dangerous period in a perennially divided nation. It screens at BAMPFA on April 14.

Snapshot from another world trouble spot: Ognjen Glavoni’s The Load. Toward the end of the Kosovo War in the Balkans in 1999, a disgruntled Serbian working stiff named Vlada (played by Leon Lucev) is hired, no questions asked, to drive a truck from Kosovo Province to Belgrade. The cargo doors are padlocked, and under no circumstances are they to be opened before delivery. As Vlada takes detour after detour, past flaming wrecks and numbed wanderers, we come to dread the contents of the load as much as he does. Both the countryside and the people in it are rugged and inhospitable in this suspenseful portrait of a conflict everyone would like to forget. Showing April 21 at BAMPFA.

Calling all news junkies and fans of humorous political coverage — Janice Engel’s uproarious doc Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivins may be your personal pick of the festival. The late syndicated newspaper columnist Ivins, born and raised in Houston, was a genuine Texas Twit Twister, lampooning lame-brained pols and “bubba talk” with slashing wit and infectious glee. This is her greatest hits package. Sample opinion: “Texas is a mosaic of cultures: Black, Chicano, Southern, suburban, and shitkicker. Shitkicker is dominant. Texas is not a civilized place. Texans shoot one another a lot. Different colors and types of Texans do not like one another, nor do they pretend to.” Such admirers as Dan Rather, Paul Krugman, and Rachel Maddow line up to sing Ivins’ praises in this fizzy, feisty beer-can profile of a merry gadfly. You’ll laugh out loud when it shows at BAMPFA, April 13.

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson, in common with multitudes, has a veneration thing going for jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, as evidenced by Nelson’s Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool. The latest in PBS’ American Masters series employs straightforward doc form, with copious talking heads laying it all out: Miles was a genius, one of the greatest American music figures of all time. Davis’ musical partnerships (John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Herbie Hancock, Prince, Quincy Jones, et al.) are showcased with outstanding performance footage, and we go deep into the source of the man’s personal demons. Personally, his life was one sustained protest against the treatment of Black people in the U.S. (If you don’t believe it, check out Abdul Mati Klarwein’s illustrations for Miles’ Live-Evil album cover.) Come to the April 12 screening at BAMPFA and drink it in.

The Little Comrade is a window into life in the Soviet Bloc after WWII, through the eyes of an inquisitive, mischievous, contrary, Estonian girl named Leelo (neophyte Helena Maria Reisner). When her mother is sent to Siberia for intervening in the case of six-year-old Leelo’s innocent snooping at the local communist party headquarters, the kid’s father (Tambet Tuisk, in a stirring performance) has to raise her and essentially keep her out of ideological hot water — a difficult task even though the outspoken girl yearns to join the Young Pioneers youth movement. One look at her face tells you Leelo was born to upset the dominant paradigm. Writer-director Moonika Siimets’ impressively framed debut feature has political/cultural intentions, but also the power of pure personality. See it April 18 at BAMPFA.

The late Mel Novikoff was some kind of movie lover’s saint, a theater owner who championed the same sort of adventurous, world-engaging visions to which the SFFILM Festival is devoted. That’s why they named a prize after him. This year’s winner of the Mel Novikoff Award is Arena, the long-running BBC-TV documentary series guided by British filmmaker Anthony Wall. To honor Arena and Wall, the fest is showing one of Arena‘s “discoveries,” writer-director James Marsh’s 1999 journey through the past darkly — Wisconsin Death Trip. The 1973 book by historian Michael Lesy on which the film is based is a collection of professionally posed photographs from a small Wisconsin town depicting the events of the day (the Depression of 1893) in a way that captures the stoicism and woeful expectations of Middle America with startling clarity. Pictures of grim-faced farmers in their Sunday finery, students at school, weddings, and dead infants displayed in their flower-bedecked coffins are interspersed with newspaper reports of diphtheria epidemics and madmen jumping down wells. Marsh’s film version, narrated by actor Ian Holm, embroiders on Lesy’s book with hypnotic grace. An in-person interview with Wall follows the BAMPFA screening, April 20.

The BAMPFA’s 25-title slice of the SFFILM Festival also includes: Midnight Traveler, filmmaker Hassan Fazili’s truly epic documentary account of his family’s three-year journey out of Afghanistan to the European Union — through at least seven countries and dozens of obstacles and setbacks (drug smugglers, police, human traffickers, intolerant locals) — entirely shot on two mobile phones; the eerie Argentine drama Rojo by writer-director Benjamin Naishtat, in which a provincial family is swept up in an undercurrent of suspicion and violence during the time of the desaparecidos in 1975; experimental animator Jodie Mack’s 16 mm tone poem The Grand Bizarre, the epitome of a challenging film festival study of texture and montage, starring an hour-long parade of fabrics; and, maybe this year’s most recondite fest discovery, Lapü, by César Alejandro Jaimes and Juan Pablo Polanco, the true-life story of a native woman’s efforts to unearth and rebury the corpse of her deceased cousin in order to placate the loved one’s soul. It’s presented as it happened in rural Colombia, with dialogue in the Wayuú dialect. Midnight Traveler screens at BAMPFA on April 19; Rojo on April 14; The Grand Bizarre and Lapü on April 13.

Confidential to SFFILM: Why is it that the “State of Cinema Address” by Boots Riley, the Oakland-identified creator of last year’s marvelous satire Sorry to Bother You, is taking place in San Francisco instead of his hometown? Is it because Riley received a leg up from the non-profit SFFILM Makers org and they want to promote him on their own turf? Not exactly, says SFFILM’s Director of Programming Rachel Rosen. The floor plan of the Victoria Theatre in SF’s Mission district — where Riley appears in person April 13 to talk about the current cultural scene and what it all means — is more conducive to interactive conversations such as the State of Cinema talk. And besides, Rosen said, the nationally known Riley belongs to everyone, not just folks in the East Bay. Oh.

What would a film festival be without movie stars? Actors Laura Dern, Laura Linney, and John C. Reilly all are scheduled to drop by the festival in person. Dern brings along her 2018 effort Trial by Fire (directed by Edward Zwick), on April 14 at the Castro. Linney visits SFMOMA on April 11 for a showing of her 2007 starrer, The Savages, directed by Tamara Jenkins and costarring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. As for Reilly, his April 12 on-stage conversation at the Castro coincides with a screening of last year’s eccentric western The Sisters Brothers. At SFFILM, directors are stars in their own right. Witness the April 11 appearance of filmmaker and SFFILM favorite Claire Denis, screening her new one, the alt-outer-space pic High Life, at the Victoria.

Continuing the local Bay Area impulse of this year’s festival is Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall, a U.K.-produced doc directed by Alfred George Bailey. From his home base in the city’s Cow Hollow neighborhood, photographer Marshall (1936-2010) made San Francisco and the rock-jazz-movie glory days of the Sixties and Seventies come alive for anyone who looked at his now-legendary images of such artists as Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash (Marshall snapped the infamous “finger” shot at San Quentin prison), John Coltrane, the Rolling Stones, etc. Marshall’s motto: “Seeing is a creative act.” Marshall occasionally had some trouble with cocaine and guns, but so did some of his most notorious subjects. Catch it at SFMOMA (April 18) or the Roxie (April 21).

Further recommendations: Ramen Shop, director Eric Khoo’s narrative tribute to Japanese and Singaporean food (Yerba Buena Center, April 12; and Creativity, April 14); Michael Tyburski’s The Sound of Silence, with Peter Sarsgaard as a New York “house tuner” who helps urban dwellers get into the right key of life (Dolby, April 14; Roxie, April 19); the German sci-fi oddity In My Room, in which a man wakes up to find he’s (almost) the last person on earth, directed by Ulrich Köhler (BAMPFA, April 13; SFMOMA, April 14); Mothers’ Instinct, a sophisticated Belgian thriller by director Olivier Masset-Depasse (at the Victoria, April 21 and 23); and Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Japanese love story Asako I & II, playing April 13 (Creativity), April 17 (YBCA), and April 23 (Victoria).

The SFFILM Festival opens Wednesday, April 10, 7:00 p.m., at the Castro, with a new chapter of Armistead Maupin’s beloved Tales of the City, starring Laura Linney and Ellen Page. For up-to-the-minute schedule and info: SFFILM.org.


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