What’s Up? Docs!

Truth is stranger than fiction at this year's SF International Film Festival.

For a cultural institution with no real Bay Area competition aside from commercial films, other events, nice weather, and what have you, the San Francisco International Film Festival seems to be trying harder in 2003. From this vantage point it appears to be the strongest fest in several years, and not because of its dubious reliance on movie stars such as Salma Hayek and Dustin Hoffman (he’ll receive the Peter J. Owens Award) to bestow glamour on what has always been a film nerd’s heaven.

The nerds will be overwhelmed as usual, trying to keep up with some 91 narrative features — 202 films in all — from the usual smorgasbord of countries, including at least three world premieres. Star director Robert Altman gets an award for lifetime achievement, which he deserves. And the nerds’ longtime champion, intellectual tough-guy critic Manny Farber (inventor of the concepts of “termitic” and “white elephant” art) receives the Mel Novikoff Award — the right award for the right person. There’s even something called the “State of the Cinema Address,” in which a French cultural chieftain, Michel Ciment of Positif film magazine, will pronounce on “world cinema issues.” (Maybe he can explain how, when no one was looking, Gérard Depardieu turned into William Bendix.)

The most gratifying thing about this year’s fest may be its terrific lineup of documentaries. Docs have typically been one of the SF festival’s strong suits, but appropriately enough during this time when thoughtful culture consumers are eager to separate the truth from the embedded version of reality, the nonfiction form is particularly well represented at the SF festival.

One of the brightest of the lot is The Weather Underground, SF filmmaker Sam (The Rainbow Man/John 3:16) Green and Chicagoan Bill Siegel’s inside story of the notorious cabal of leftwing ’60s radicals who openly declared their intention to violently overthrow the US government in response to the Vietnam War. “Our country was murdering millions of people,” explains former Students for a Democratic Society honcho Mark Rudd, who, along with Weather comrades Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, Naomi Jaffe, and semifriendly witnesses like writer Todd Gitlin, provide contemporary talking-head commentary on those days of rage. Then, as now, there was a lot to be enraged about. The zeitgeist, artfully painted in by Green and Siegel, was one of My Lai, Altamont, the Manson Family, COINTELPRO, secret bombings of Southeast Asia, and not-so-secret ones like the infamous Greenwich Village townhouse blast, in which several Weather radicals accidentally blew themselves up with a bomb they were preparing to plant at a party of enlisted men at an Army base in New Jersey. These people played for keeps. And they’re still remarkably unrepentant today, although Rudd now admits that “violence didn’t work” — partly because the government was so much better at it than these upper-middle-class idealists who yearned to be working-class revolutionaries. The filmmakers also observe that the cops cracked down much harder on black revolutionaries than these well-connected white Weather bomb-throwers, whose parents were more likely business executives than proletarians. While many of the era’s most strident black revolutionaries are now dead or in prison, a number of the Weather people are spending their middle age as university professors. An unnerving portrait of a more innocent time, The Weather Underground plays the Pacific Film Archive on April 28.

Another must-see documentary is The Century of the Self, a four-part made-for-BBC-TV think piece on the impact of Sigmund Freud and the psychoanalysis industry on America — and therefore the world — in the 20th century. It opens the fest’s PFA schedule this Friday, April 18 (Parts 1 and 2), with Parts 3 and 4 on April 25 — a marvelously deep-dish examination of the power of ideas, in this case modern humanity’s self-absorption (as promoted by Freud) and the vast apparatus built up to accommodate and exploit it. Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays was a New Yorker who originated the profession of public relations, and in so doing almost single-handedly changed the focal point of American democracy from “citizen” to “consumer.” Bernays and Freud’s daughter, Anna, echoed Freud’s pessimism about the underlying rationality of human beings, a doubt that led their clients — the mental health industry, the ad industry, the CIA, etc. — to commit sinister acts in the name of social control, for the public good. Taken together with The Weather Underground (they’re different chapters of the same story), The Century of the Self probes behind the turbulent scenes of the past century with remarkable candor and a refreshing skepticism.

Heiner Stadler’s fascinating, kaleidoscopic doc Essen, Schlafen, keine Frauen (Eat, Sleep, No Women) attempts to show us a day in the life of the world — a worried world, we can be sure — Sunday, October 7, 2001, the day of the first US attacks on Kabul, Afghanistan. September 11 is much on the German filmmaker’s mind, of course, as he crosscuts among a slew of real-life vignettes in a variety of places (Stadler shot his footage between 1991 and 2002 to make up this “one day”). We drop in on a movie billboard painter in Rawalpindi, street kids in Hong Kong and Belfast, dancing gold miners in South Africa, street musicians in Kabul and Paris, and a housewife in Ohio, always looping back to CNN’s coverage of the Afghan campaign. The tone is wryly ironic (“the West didn’t care about the desert for 2,500 years”) when it isn’t dreamily philosophical. Stadler wonders in voice-over: “Could it be that everything that these men are doing on the 7th of October, is really done to impress the absent woman?” Find out the answer April 21 at the PFA.

Lost Boys of Sudan continues the fest’s discussion of the creeping Americanization of the world. Its documentary account of a group of refugee teenage boys, orphaned by the Sudanese civil war and brought to the United States by American church and relief groups for the chance to better themselves, is portrayed as a rude awakening arriving in slow degrees. We all know how hard it is to make a living in the States, but it comes as a shock to the Sudanese guys who land in Houston and Kansas and find jobs at the Wal-Mart or the electronics factory. John Shenk and Megan Mylan’s cinema-verité profile handles its ironies gently, with maximum respect for its dignified, religious-minded subjects (they’re all Christian), but it’s plain that many of them would rather be back in sod huts in Northeast Africa than in user-unfriendly, bottom-rung America. Lost Boys of Sudan has its world premiere April 22 at the AMC Kabuki in SF, then screens at the PFA on April 26.

Brazilian filmmaker José Padilha took TV footage of a bus hijacking — evidently a routine occurrence in São Paulo — and created a tense, dramatic documentary called Bus 174. The unfortunate star of the show is one Sandro, a throwaway youth, whose unhappy career as a homeless drug addict is backgrounded as we watch him terrorize a bus full of hostages, surrounded by police on a city street. In the new tradition of Brazilian socially conscious docs, Padilha puts Sandro’s short, sad life into context: too many poor people, very little hope, compassion fatigue, early death, official numbness. The 2002 release plays the PFA April 27.

At least one other documentary rates special mention: Anne Makepeace’s TV-produced American Masters profile of war photographer Robert Capa, Robert Capa: In Love and War. It traces the legendary combat photog’s life from his boyhood in Hungary to his coming of age in Paris and the Spanish Civil War, one of the many wars he covered with an obsessive need to be where the danger was. Henri Cartier-Bresson, cofounder with Capa of the Magnum Agency, is one of those interviewed. You’ll have to go to San Francisco to see this one; it’s at the Kabuki this Friday, April 18.

But the 2003 SF Festival is not entirely documentaries. Among the narrative features playing the PFA in the fest’s two-week run are several standouts, including Apichitpong Weerasethakul’s ultra-naturalistic drama of everyday love in the provinces of Thailand, Blissfully Yours (Friday, April 18); Carlos Sorín’s character study of loneliness among inhabitants of the wide open spaces of the Argentine South, Historias Mínimas (April 30); and the much-anticipated showing of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary, Guy Maddin’s silent-movie-style, black-and-white ballet (music by Mahler) reinterpretation of the famous vampire yarn, with its elaborate transfusions, dancing demons, and imaginative tinting — red blood, green money, gold coins pouring from Dracula’s wounds. Furthermore, Drac is Chinese — played by dancer Zhang Wei-Qiang. It screens Saturday, April 19 at the PFA. There’s also Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s arty Hong Kong gangster pic, Infernal Affairs, with Tony Leung Chu-Wai (In the Mood for Love) and actor/pop singer Andy Lau embroiled in a classic HK predicament: Two men, a gangster posing as a cop and a cop posing as a gangster, play out their conflicted, confused roles to the bitter end. Look for it Friday, April 18.

At least two of the PFA’s roster of narratives are well worth standing in the inevitable line to see. Director Pat O’Neill’s The Decay of Fiction is half fiction, half doc. It has no plot, only subplot, a series of disconnected scenes and snatches of dialogue shot in the deserted Hotel Ambassador in Los Angeles beginning in 1994, the year the hotel was slated for demolition. Sounds confusing? Think Last Year at Marienbad crossed with The Shining, the Bros. Quay, and every film noir you’ve ever seen. As the camera glides down crumbling hallways, shadowy guys and dolls primp for luncheon, ghosts in the sunshine. Making the tour even spookier is the fact that the Ambassador was where Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. We visit the scene of the shooting, with the actual radio report on the soundtrack. Everywhere we look in the old hotel, troubled spirits are rising. Filmmaker O’Neill is due to receive the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award from the festival. The Decay of Fiction screens April 22 at the PFA.

The lead character in Liu Bingjian’s Cry Woman is the sort of person you’d want to avoid — a foul-mouthed, conniving, trashily dressed young woman with a whiny voice who makes a perilous living selling CDs and DVDs on the streets of Beijing, using a borrowed baby as a prop, while her no-good husband plays mah-jongg. And yet, as the tale of Guixang (played to a fare-thee-well by Beijing Opera singer Liao Qin) unfolds, we take an odd liking to her, despite her new job as a professional mourner in cahoots (and bed) with a provincial undertaker. For a few yuan more, she can go from “Howling Like Wolves” to “Earthquake,” with operatic arias thrown in. Guixang and her friends are creepy people, and yet this chronicle of the miseries of the lower classes in China is intriguing, like watching a hornets’ nest. Just don’t get too close. Cry Woman plays at the PFA April 25.

Of course, we’ve only barely peeked into the festival’s bag of goodies — an especially full bag this year. Films are shown at the AMC Kabuki 8 and the Castro Theatre in SF and at the Cinéarts Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto in addition to the PFA on the UC Berkeley campus. Learn more by logging onto www.sffs.org

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