Opening this Thursday and running through May 3, the San Francisco International Film Festival celebrates its 55th year with over 100 feature length films, including more than 30 documentaries. The longest-running film festival in the US, the SFIFF has always been especially notable for its well curated international program, and for an enthusiastic audience that fills its theatres for over two weeks. While I haven’t been able to attend the festival in years, it holds a special significance for me as the first major festival I interned for right after college.
The combination of a great city, its senior status, fantastic programming, and a smart staff has made the festival one of the most loved and respected of US festivals. The film industry was shocked by the sudden passing of the San Francisco Film Society’s new executive director Bingham Ray during Sundance just three months ago, less than six months after the death of the accomplished previous executive director, Graham Leggat. While it’s difficult to comprehend the impact this kind of back-to-back loss has had on the organization, it’s a testament to the work both men did for the SFFS an the film industry as a whole, and to their deep love of cinema, that the staff has pulled together such an impressive slate despite the trying circumstances. I’ve already seen about half of the docs in the lineup, some of which I’ll note below together with titles I’ve not yet seen but hope to at some point.
The fest has given one doc a key Big Nights slot: Ramona Diaz’s profile of Journey’s Filipino frontman Arnel Pineda, DON’T STOP BELIEVIN’: EVERYMAN’S JOURNEY, closes the SFIFF, the film’s first stop after its world premiere back East at Tribeca. Other special non-fiction screenings include a Tribute screening of Barbara Kopple’s Academy Award-winning HARLAN COUNTY, USA, from 1976, receiving the POV Award this year (I wrote about the landmark film here); and the world premiere of Sam Green’s newest “live” documentary, THE LOVE SONG OF R BUCKMINSTER FULLER (pictured), a mix of live performed narration and musical accompaniment from Yo La Tengo with new and found footage exploring the acclaimed designer/theorist’s influence on the SF Bay Area.
A dozen films make up the Golden Gate Documentary Feature Competition, half of which I’ve already seen. I’ve previously written about Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos’ THE SOURCE, on the unusual 1970s Southern Californian cult family, which premiered at SXSW; and Ra’anan Alexandrowicz’s THE LAW IN THESE PARTS, about the Israeli administrators of military law in the occupied territories, which screened at Sundance. Audiences gripped by last year’s BETTER THIS WORLD owe it to themselves to see Jamie Meltzer’s provocative INFORMANT (pictured), a fascinating, multi-perspectival look at the complex figure of Brandon Darby. Also deserving of spots at the top of the must-see list are Peter Nicks’ THE WAITING ROOM, a compelling verité look at the strain placed on the staff and patients of an Oakland emergency room due to our country’s broken healthcare system; and Grant Gee’s PATIENCE (AFTER SEBALD), a singular appreciation of and attempt to unpack an unusual, influential novel. Manuel von Stürler’s record of a shepherd’s trek to fatten his flock, WINTER NOMADS, recalls the stronger SWEETGRASS, but does provide well-photographed, evocative winter landscapes.
Of the second half of the competition titles, I’m looking forward to catching Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s examination of the influence of unauthorized prescription drug usage on American life, OFF LABEL, next week at Tribeca. I’m drawn to Davy Chou’s GOLDEN SLUMBERS (pictured), recapturing Cambodia’s lost film culture of the pre-Khmer Rouge regime; and to Paul Lacoste’s STEP UP TO THE PLATE, about a Michelin-star chef tentatively passing the torch to his gifted son.
Screening out of competition are a number of standout titles from Sundance, including HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE, CHASING ICE, and THE INVISIBLE WAR, among others; Peter Gerdehag’s bittersweet potrait of two sisters and their bovines, WOMEN WITH COWS (I wrote about it here); as well as a number of films I’d want to check out if I were attending: Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s fashion biopic DIANA VREELAND: THE EYE HAS TO TRAVEL; John Haptas and Kristine Samuleson’s ode to Tokyo through its ubiquitous crows, TOKYO WAKA (pictured); Oscar-winner Jessica Yu’s LAST CALL AT THE OASIS, on the world’s water crisis (which I have consistently missed since its premiere at Toronto); and Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet’s paean to teenage male friendship, ONLY THE YOUNG.