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Geneva Anderson digs into art

The 40th Mill Valley Film Festival opens Thursday—¡Viva El Cine! features prize-winning Latin American and Spanish language cinema

Janis Plotkin, MVFF senior programmer, curated the festival’s ¡Viva El Cine! series—eight prizewinning Latin American and Spanish language films with stories from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, and the US.  ¡Viva El Cine! is in its 4th season and MVFF40 marks Janis’ 14th season with MVFF. MVFF40 is Oct 5-15, 2017. Image: Geneva Anderson

The fortieth edition of the Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF 40) gears up this evening with three big opening night films–Joe Wright’s, Darkest Hour, intense Churchill drama; Jason Wise’s Wait for Your Laugh, a soulful profile of comedian Rose Marie; and Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent, an astounding animated portrait of Vincent van Gogh.  Starting Friday and running for the next 10 days, MVFF40 will offer an exciting and eclectic line up of the very best in America independent and world cinema, with more than 200 filmmakers in attendance.  There are several special seminars, panels and musical performances as well.  For me, the biggest draw is the world cinema and some 50 countries are represented this year.  Experiencing the world from someone else’s point of view can be life changing and the exceptional storytelling that characterizes MVFF’s foreign lineup always tends to be full of unexpected twists.

Recently, I spoke with senior programmer Janis Plotkin who curated the festival’s ¡Viva El Cine! programming—eight prizewinning Latin American and Spanish language films with stories from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Cuba, Spain, Venezuela, and the US.  At MVFF, I often find myself in a theater with Janis and her film introductions are always packed with insight and a pure passion for cinema.  I’ve come to consider her as my MVFF person–if she’s in the room, I’m probably going to love the film.  MVFF40 marks Janis’ 14th season with MVFF.  From 1982 through 2002, she was the executive artistic director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and was renowned for showing great films and building community.  When I learned that Janis programmed this influential Latin American film series, I couldn’t wait to discuss it with her.

¡Viva El Cine! launched in 2014 and has continued to grow in scope and attendees.  In 2016,  at MVFF39, more than 4,000 patrons attended screenings, which included a series of new works from Mexico as well as seminal films from Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Spain—and a very special musical performance by the Alejandro Escovedo Trio at the Sweetwater Music Hall as part of the MVFF Music program.

Chilean director Marcela Said’s Los Perros is set in post-Pinochet era Chile and is galvanized by Antonia Zegers’ (El Club, MVFF2015) performance as Marina, a wealthy forty-something equestrian whose riding instructor is charged with human rights abuses stemming from the Pinochet era. The film thrillingly tackles issues of class, power, and historical culpability.   Los Perros is also part of the festival’s Mind the Gap Initiative which promotes female filmmakers and the portrayal of strong leading female characters in film.. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  What is special about ¡Viva El Cine! and how did it get its start?

Janis Plotkin:  Four years ago, we received a grant from the Marin Community Fund to support programming efforts to reach out to Marin’s Spanish speaking community.  At that time, Spanish speaking people were one of the largest growing groups in the county and this was our response.  We also did some community organizing by bringing together a group of community advisors to see what type of films the community was interested in and to help get the word out.  Last year, we had Mexican actor, director and producer, Gael García Bernal visiting with two of his films and that was a kind of benchmark in terms of aspiration.  We sold out all those shows and it was very satisfying for us and for the audience.

This year’s films reflect the vitality and high quality of the Latin American film world which is producing really excellent work on both the artistic and technical sides.  We have new films from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Brazil, Venezuela, Spain and Cuba.

Tension and apprehension flow like a river in the drama El Amparo, based on a 1988 incident on the Venezuela/Colombia border, where two men were accused in the disappearance of 12 of their fellow fisherman. In this debut feature, Venezuelan director Rober Calzadilla focuses his lens on tenderness and vulnerability as a weapon. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  The storytelling is amazing too. You picked some fine examples.

Janis Plotkin:  I tend to enjoy most world cinema because I feel these films aren’t under the same pressures that US films are for commercial viability.  They are made for the art of film and yet the story telling is very good, with historical or present day issues impacting all social strata.  Rober Calzadilla’s El Amparo, from Venezuela, for example, is done with non professional actors and tells a true story of what happened when 12 fisherman disappeared in 1988 and it’s from the point of view of the victims.  This a film full of dignity, truth telling and fighting for justice.   I would rather see and hear it from their point of view, the point of view of the people, rather than a sensationalized version of the government actions.  We don’t often get to hear stories like this, so this was one of the first films I looked for the series.

ARThound:  When do you start preparing for MVFF and for this series?

Janis Plotkin:  Officially, I start on May 1, but I went to the Berlin International Film Festival (Berlinale) with Zoe (Elton) in February and saw Vazante and A Fantastic Woman and that was how it began.  We also do a lot of research with interns who scour every country’s national cinema and we try to find the best films.  It’s a lot of watching and eliminating. We have weekly meetings where we present and discuss films and we’re looking to have a balance of themes as well as making sure that we have 50/50 by 2020.  In ¡Viva El Cine!,  you’ll see we have lots of talented women.

Esteban is Cuban director Jonal Cosculluela´s debut film. It is an intimate drama about a ten-year-old boy who discovers his musical talent and falls for the piano. This is a story about dreams, about not quitting, about doing something every day to achieve your goals. Much of the music in the film is by the legendary Chucho Valdés. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  Special guests really make a film come alive.  Who are you bringing in this year?

Janis Plotkin:  This year, we are expecting Jonal Cosculluela, from Havana, the director of Esteban, his first feature film.  All screenings of this film are at rush and we’ve got educational screenings planned too, so I am very excited about this. We just heard that the US embassy’s staff in Havana was being cut by 50 percent and we still don’t know how that will impact Jonal’s visa interview, which was delayed initially by hurricane Irma.  Barring these political and weather-related issues, we hope to see him here.   This is a very special story about a child who basically has no resources but he is passionate about playing the piano and he has real talent and his persistence wins over his teacher and his family.   We’ve also got Santiago Rizzo and the cast of Quest attending.

ARThound:  I saw Esteban last December in Havana at the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema and Reynaldo Guanchein, who is nine and plays the child prodigy, Esteban, gave an amazing performance.  He took on the entire project with just three month’s training in acting. There’s something so special about children who can play the part of a child in very precarious circumstances and yet what shines through is their beautiful spirit and innocence.

Janis Plotkin:  We also have some amazing child actors in Summer of 1993, Spanish director Carla Simón’s feature debut film set in Spain’s Catalan region.   This film is from the point of view of an orphaned little girl who has lost both of her parents.  We assume it’s from drug use and AID’s-related but it’s never made clear.  The story deals with how she comes to adjust to a new life while living with her aunt and uncle and her realization that her life has changed forever.  It’s also about her relationship with her three-year-old cousin.  Carla Simón is known for her ability to work with children and these three and six-year-olds are quite spontaneous and natural.  The film received the first best film award in Berlin and went on to win many awards.

ARThound:   I have discovered from Havana that there is an entire genre of Latin American films that reflect back on the atrocities of past regimes as a form of truth-telling, honoring victims and societal healing.

Janis Plotkin:  Los Perros reflects on the post-Pinochet era and how the next generation either is or is not dealing with it.  This 40ish woman (Antonia Zegers) who comes from privilege did not know that her father was involved in the anti-Pinochet actions and she has a fascination with her older riding teacher who turns out to be one of the generals who was in charge of disposing of pro-Pinochet leftists.   It’s really about her specific emptiness, a specific type of apathy and denial and what a privileged life in Chile looks like.  She’s so spoiled and without empathy for what happened.  Antonia Zegers is the actress who was in El Club who played the housekeeper and nun who stole babies and she is very icey here too.

ARThound:  The segment also introduces us to Latin stars who really aren’t on our radar like Chilean actress Paulina Garcia (Gloria, MVFF 2013) who stars in The Desert Bride.

Janis Plotkin:  The Desert Bride is Argentinean directors Cecilia Atan and Valeria Pivato’s first feature.  It was launched at Cannes to very favorable reviews and is anchored by Garcia’s performance.  She was the main character in Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria (2013), where she played a lonely and sympathetic divorcee, and she won the Berlinale’s best actress prize.  In The Desert Bride, her character— a housekeeper—is also at the center of everything and she pulls off a subtle performance.   After a rather closed and cloistered life as a housekeeper, she goes on a trip to another part of the country.  Through small moments and encounters that she has on her way, she starts to open up and her transition mirrors the dessert and mountainous landscape of rural Western Argentina that she is traveling across.

Daniela Vega plays Marina, the transgender heroine of Chilean director Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman. Marina is young, beautiful, enigmatic, and plunged into a precarious situation after her middle-aged boyfriend dies unexpectedly in her company. As she struggles with her own grief, social prejudice and ostracism, she must summon her own inner strength to survive. Image: courtesy MVFF

This year, we have another incredible performance by Daniela Vega, a Chilean transgender actress in her breakthrough role in in A Fantastic Woman.  This is Sebastián Lelio’s latest film and it is getting lots of attention.  In comparison to The Danish Girl (MVFF38), where we had Eddie Redman— a man playing a male transgender who transitions to a woman—here we actually have a transgender actress playing herself.  Her performance actually walks through the kind of walls that she faces with the family of her beloved who dies suddenly and his family who won’t let her grieve.  It’s how she finds her dignity in fighting them all the way through .  Daniela Vega gives an outstanding performance and the script itself won a prize in Berlin.

Daniela Thomas’ period drama, Vazante, is set in 1821, when Brazil was on the verge of independence from Portugal. Brazil was one of the last countries to officially abolish slavery in 1888 and Vazante relives the tale of a wealthy slaveholder who marries his young niece.  Photographed in black and white, the film was shot on rugged locations in the craggy and wild Diamantina Mountains. Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound: You have what sounds like an amazing Brazilian period drama in Vazante.

Janis Plotkin:  Vazante is a real work of art and tells a transitional story of Brazil in the death throes of colonialism and the desperate efforts of a wealthy plantation owner to sire a child after his wife and baby die in childbirth.  He marries his 12-year-old niece and the story is about what happens and it’s also a racial story of the plantation owner’s relationship to the slaves that work on his plantation.   It’s shot in black and white and very naturalistic.   Daniela Thomas, the director, was a protégée of the great Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles (Central Station (1988), Motorcycle Diaries (2004)) and has been engaged in the best of Brazilian cinema and this is her first outing as a director.  This is the kind of film that needs to be seen on a big screen.

Filmmaker Santiago Rizzo and most of the cast of Quest will attend the film’s three screenings at MVFF40. Quest is set in 1995 Berkeley and tells Rizzo’s own heart-breaking and life-affirming story of his relationship with a teacher who took such an interest him that Rizzo’s life took an completely unexpected course.  Gregory Kasyan, above, plays Rizzo, his first lead role in a feature film.  Image: courtesy MVFF

ARThound:  Quest, produced by Santiago Rizzo does not have Latin American theme; it is not in Spanish; and he is living in the US.  Why is it in this series?

Janis Plotkin:   We like to include films that are produced in the U.S. that are somehow relevant to Latinos’ experiences here.  Last year, we screened Rodrigo Reyes’ Lupe Under the Sun, which was set in Modesto and used migrant workers to tell a story about life in the fields of the Central Valley.   Quest is a new American indie film by Los Angeles-based Santiago Rizzo that is set in Berkeley in 1995.  Rizzo is Argentinean.  He was raised in Berkeley and went to Berkeley Middle School.  This film tells his own story and the story of a teacher who mentored him and basically saved his life, enabling him as a high school student who was fast on his way jail to instead becoming a such a good student that he got into Stanford.  When he graduated from Stanford, he went on to become a very successful hedge fund manager.  He made a commitment to himself and to his teacher to tell the story.  This Bay Area set film is the end result.  I was very moved by all aspects of it.   Rizzo and most of the cast will attend and that will make for a very exciting program.

ARThound:  Stepping outside of ¡Viva El Cine!, what are the highlights of MVFF40?

Janis Plotkin:  MVFF is operating on all cylinders: it has its upper crust strata of big films that are going to be presented in 2017-18 but it’s got this depth of inquiry that’s going on with its Mind the Gap program which looks at the intersection of women in film and women in tech and compares the experience of female directors to those of leaders in tech.  To me, that’s spectacular and very important.

In terms of films, Guillermo del Toro’s film, The Shape of Water, just won the Golden Lion at Venice and should be a huge winner at the Oscars.   On the big picture level, this is the one to see—the quality of his film-making and humor which is so satirical about the Cold War era, CIA operations and politics.  There’s also the whole magical aspect of a creature that a deaf woman falls in love with and their relationship, so it’s a love story.  It’s very special.

MVFF40 details:

MVFF 40 runs October 5-15, 2017.  Main venues this year include: CinéArts@Sequoia (Mill Valley), Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center (San Rafael), Lark Theatre (Larkspur), and Cinema Corte Madera.

¡Viva El Cine! programming

Full festival schedule

General Public tickets during the festival available online (with convenience fees of $3.75 per order) or in person (no fee) at Smith Rafael Film Center Box Office (1114 Fourth Street, San Rafael) or Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, 85 Throckmorton Ave.)  Tickets will be available 1 hour before the first screening of the day to 15 minutes after the last show starts.  Rush tickets:  rush line forms outside each venue roughly 1 hour before show time.  Rush tickets are sold on a first come, first sold basis roughly 15 minutes before show time.  Patrons have a 90% chance of getting into a show by using the rush line.

Lines during the festival:  CFI (California Film Institute) Passholders get first dibs in lines in order of their pass status. Premier Patron, Director’s Circle, Gold Star.  Non-pass holding CFI members and general public enter the theaters last.

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October 5, 2017 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 40th Mill Valley Film Festival, October 5-15, 2017, will honor Sean Penn with a special tribute

Actor, director, screenwriter, and political activist Sean Penn will be honored on Saturday, October 7, with a tribute and the MVFF award at the 40th Mill Valley Film Festival (October 4-14, 2017).  The afternoon will feature an onstage conversation with Penn, who won two Academy Awards for Best Actor for Mystic River (2003) and Milk (2008), and has been nominated three more times in the same category for Dead Man Walking (1995), Sweet and Lowdown (1999), and I Am Sam (2001).  As a director, Penn has crafted powerful dramas such as The Indian Runner (1991), The Pledge (2001), and Into the Wild (2007).  Penn’s most recent MVFF appearance was in 2014 to support The Human Experiment (2014), a film that he executive produced and narrated.  Image courtesy: MVFF

The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF 40), October 4-15, 2107, a favorite among film lovers, hasn’t released its full schedule to the public yet but has just announced that Sean Penn will be honored with a festival tribute on Saturday, 3 p.m., October 7, 2017 at the Smith Rafael Film Center.  The two-hour program will feature an onstage conversation with Penn, a clip reel of his work, and the presentation of the MVFF award.  There will be time for an audience Q&A afterwards too, which is always fascinating as savvy audience members ask direct and often difficult questions–familiar territory for Penn.  The complete MVFF schedule will be available online Monday, September 12, 2017.  For this milestone, plan on a star-studded extravaganza, a roll-out in the neighborhood of 150 films and several special musical offerings, all selected with the progressive, knowledgeable and fun-loving spirit of our Bay Area audience in mind.

MVFF founder and executive director Mark Fishkin said that Sean Penn was essential for their 40th: “Not only is Sean one of the greatest actors of this generation; he may be one of the greatest actors of many generations.  The integrity of his performances in unparalleled.  Very few actors can be as absorbed in a role as he can and that comes right from his core.  He has history with this festival.”

Sean Penn, whose film career spans three decades, lived in Ross for several years and has a long association with MVFF.  In fact, over the years, it was a treat to see him catching a movie at the Rafael.  In 2002, he presented and spoke about Jessie Nelson’s I Am Sam (2001), which he starred in with Michelle Pfeiffer and Dakota Fanning.  Penn, nominated for Best Actor Academy Award, played a mentally challenged single father struggling to raise a daughter who ends up with Michelle Pfeiffer as his attorney.

Sean Penn was a lead actor in Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams (2003) which had its world premiere at the 2003 Venice International Film Festival, where Penn won his second Volpi Cup (Best Actor Award).  At that time, he had been nominated for three Academy Awards but hadn’t yet won any.  The film later screened at MVFF and Penn and Iñárritu captivated the audience with a revealing post-screening Q&A.

In 2003, Penn came to MVFF as the lead actor in Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s tormenting  21 Grams.  Inarritu presented the film and Penn appeared on stage with him in an intense Q&A with festival founder and executive director, Mark Fishkin.  Reception guests included the unbeatable Tom Waits and Peter Coyote; the evening was unforgettable.

At a very special pre-festival event in 2007, Penn presented Into the Wild (2007), which he both directed and wrote the screenplay for.  The film, based on Jon Krakauer’s nonfiction bestseller, was nominated for two Academy® Awards.  Penn also presented the Mill Valley Award to Emile Hirsch for his breakout performance as the impulsive young adventurer, Christopher Johnson McCandless who lived thrillingly in the natural world for two years and then died tragically of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness.

In 2009, as part of the Smith Rafael’s 10th anniversary celebration Film of My Life series, Penn presented Elem Klimov’s film Come and See (1985), which unfolds in the Soviet republic of Byelorussia in 1943 and depicts the brutality of war.  Penn explained that the film, which he considers a masterpiece of film-making, affected him deeply.

In November of 2009, Penn was also in attendance at the Smith Rafael for a special screening of Oren Moverman’s lauded debut film, The Messenger (2009), which included an on stage conversation with Woody Harrelson, who starred in the film.

Who can forget Sean Penn’s Academy Award winning performance as Jimmy, an ex-con whose 19-year-old daughter is brutally murdered, in Clint Eastwood’s 24th film, the crime drama, Mystic River.

Penn’s most recent MVFF appearance was in 2014 to support The Human Experiment (2013), a documentary that he executive produced and narrated which explored the astonishing numbers of toxic chemicals found in everyday household products and the need for tighter regulation.

Penns’ fifth film as a director,  the drama The Last Face (2016), with Charlize Theron and Javier Bardem as African aid workers who become romantically involved in Liberian and Sudanese conflict zones, garnered a string of one star reviews and was was promptly relegated to a VOD release.  You can expect some discussion at MVFF of what prompted Penn to cast two gorgeous white actors in the lead as compassionate savior/healers and ensconce them in a bloody black war.

Penn’s latest film, The Professor and the Madman (2017), directed by Farhad Safinia and produced by Mel Gibson, is based on the Simon Winchester book about the true story of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Set in 1857, Gibson plays the obsessive professor, James Murray, who oversaw the dictionary’s creation, while Sean Penn plays the equally obsessive madman — Dr. William Chester Minor — who contributed 10,000 entries from an asylum for the criminally insane.  This is the first time Penn and Gibson have appeared together on screen but audiences may have to wait until a legal matter is resolved.  In late July, Gibson filed a lawsuit alleging that the producing company, Voltage Pictures (the company behind The Hurt Locker)  was in breach of contract because one it did not allow him to select a final cut of the film.

MVFF 40 Details:

MVFF 40 runs October 4-15, 2017.  Main venues this year include: CinéArts@Sequoia (Mill Valley), Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center (San Rafael), Lark Theatre (Larkspur), and Cinema Corte Madera.

Full schedule online Monday, September 11, 2017.

Tickets before the festival:  CFI (California Film Institute) Passholders get first dibs in order of their pass status. Premier Patron, Director’s Circle, Gold Star, and non-pass holding CFI members can begin to purchase tickets September 12-16.

General Public tickets available September 17-October 4, 2017 online (with convenience fees of $3.75 per order) or in person (no fee) at Smith Rafael Film Center Box Office (1114 Fourth Street, San Rafael, 4 to 8 pm) or Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, 85 Throckmorton Ave., 4 to 8 pm)

Tickets during the festival:  October 5-15, 2017 tickets will be available 1 hour before the first screening of the day to 15 minutes after the last show starts.  Rush tickets:  rush line forms outside each venue roughly 1 hour before show time.  Rush tickets are sold on a first come, first sold basis roughly 15 minutes before show time.  Patrons have a 90% chance of getting into a show by using the rush line.

September 6, 2017 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Jewish Film Festival 37 hits Marin this Friday: psychic sisters, Hedy Lamarr, an autism romance, historical dramas

A scene from Rachael Israel’s rom-com, “Keep the Change,” screening Saturday in Marin at the 37th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF37). This offbeat film, Israel’s first, picked up the top narrative feature award at the Tribecca Film Festival and was the opening film for SFJFF37’s San Francisco/Castro Theater segment. Israel relies entirely on non-actors, many on the autism spectrum, to tell a humorous and poignant love story that gets its kick start at a support group meeting for those with disabilities. The industry often tends to oversimplify disability and disease but this film manages to ring true while exploring the misconceptions we carry. SFJFF37’s Marin segment runs Friday-Sunday at the Smith Rafael Film Center and features 14 films, the very best selections from SFJFF37 which opened on July 20 with runs in San Francisco, the East Bay, and Palo Alto.

ARThound’s top picks for SFJFF37’s Marin weekend:

Paradise  (Friday, 3:50 PM)

Holocaust drama, innovative perspective-shifting storytelling, richly shot in black and white

Russian veteran Andrei Konchalovsky’s black and white WWII drama “Paradise” won the Venice Film Festival’s Silver Lion and was Russia’s entry for the 2017 Academy Award. The film looks back at the 1942-44 period from the perspective of three characters whose paths intertwine amidst the devastation of war— Olga (Julia Vysotskaya), a Russian aristocrat émigrée and member of the French Resistance; Jules (Philippe Duquesne) a French Nazi collaborator who is assigned to investigate her case; and Helmut (Christian Clauss), a high-ranking, quite naive German SS officer who once loved Olga and meets her again when she arrives at a concentration camp. The drama unfolds around several interviews in which the three main characters address an unknown authority and recount their stories as the film flashes back to the end of World War II and the days when their destinies crossed. Instead of focusing directly on the horrors of the Holocaust, which are well-known, Konchalovsky addresses the complex psychological trauma the characters underwent. Exceptional performances by Vysotskaya and Clauss round out this masterpiece. (2016, 130 min, Russian, German, French, Yiddish w/ English subtitles)

Planetarium (Friday, 8:35 PM)

American psychics in France on the eve of WWII

In Rebecca Zlotowski’s third feature, Planetarium, set in pre WWII France, Oscar-winning Natalie Portman and co-star Lily-Rose Depp portray American sisters who are rumored to possess the supernatural ability to connect with ghosts. When they meet a French producer (Emmanuel Salinger) who is fascinated by spiritualism and their gift and he hires them to shoot an ambitious experimental film, the experience spirals into a game of hidden agendas. The story is greatly bolstered by Emmanuel Salinger’s solid performance and by Natalie Portman’s cool demeanor and old world glamour. (2016, 106 min, English and French w/English subtitles)

1945 (Sunday, 2:15 PM)

Interesting drama set in rural Hungary in immediate postwar period with the feel of a Western

Selected as the festival’s centerpiece film, Hungarian director Ferenc Török’s chilling sixth feature, “1945,” delivers an exceptional slow-building drama that has some similarities to a Hollywood Western, except that the tension leads to more of a mental shoot out than an actual gunfight. The film exemplifies one of the trends in independent filmmaking over the past few years, approaching big subjects through small, personal stories. 1945 is an adaptation of Gábor T Szántó’s short story Homecoming which addresses WWII and Hungary’s collaboration with the Nazis through the lens of a small village where preparations are being made for a wedding. Amidst these preparations, two Orthodox Jews arrive at the train station carrying mysterious boxes. Their arrival triggers primal fears amongst some villagers who speculate that they may be forced to give back their ill-gotten gains and in others, it brings up deep feelings of remorse about their inhumane treatment of Jews who had lived amongst them as brothers. As personal stories unfold, we see how all the fates of the villagers are inextricably intertwined and how the events they participated in as perpetrator or victim have inescapable moral consequences. (2017, 91 min, Hungarian w/English subtitles)

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Sunday: 4:15 PM)

Savvy biopic revealing the brainy side of a Hollywood pinup icon

Co-produced by Susan Sarandon, Alexandra Dean’s documentary “Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story” has its West Coast Premiere at the festival and explores Hollywood pinup actress Hedy Lamarr’s big beautiful mind. Lamarr achieved international notoriety when she casually swam nude in the 1933 Czech Gustav Mahaty film “Ecstasy,” the first time nudity had been depicted in a mainstream film. She leveraged her smoldering beauty and sudden fame into a remarkable Hollywood career but her deeper passion was technology and mechanics. The doc explores her life and fascinating history as a gifted inventor. Never-before-heard audio clips include Lamar telling her story as she chose to frame it, along with first person accounts from stars who knew her, including the late Robert Osborn of TCM fame. Lamar discusses her marriages and her relationship with Howard Hughes. The enduring take away is her little-known contribution to war-time technology.  The mathematically-gifted Lamarr first learned about military technology from dinner party conversations between her first husband, Austrian arms-manufacturer Fritz Mandel and Nazi German generals.  In the early 1940’s, she co-invented an early form of frequency hopping (spread spectrum communication technology) with avant guarde composer George Antheil who happened to be her neighbor.  Their idea, patented in 1942, became the basis for a torpedo guidance system that utilized a mechanism similar to piano player rolls to synchronize the changes between 88 rapidly changing radio frequencies, drawing on the premise that a constantly changing frequency is harder to jam. Lamarr gave her patent to the Navy and received no credit for her contributions. (2017, 90 min, English)

Details:   SFJFF37 is at the Smith Rafael Film Center Friday, August 4, through Sunday, August 6, 2017.  Films start roughly at noon and run until 10 PM, with 4 to 5 films daily. The Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center is located at 1118 4th Street, San Rafael.  For detailed descriptions of the 14 films screening and to purchase tickets in advance online, click here.  Tickets ($15 general admission, $14 seniors/students) may also be purchased directly at the Festival Box Office at the Smith Rafael Film Center.

August 2, 2017 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The San Francisco International Film Festival celebrates its 60th with expanded programming, new venues and name tweaks—Wed, April 5, through Wed, April 19, 2017

A still from Bay Area artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson’s new documentary, “Tania Libre,” a portrait of the radical Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, whose work blurs the line between art and activism. The film, Leeson’s seventh, continues her ongoing exploration of groundbreaking women artists. Her influential “!Women Art Revolution” (2010) (SFIFF 54) turned the camera on women artists who are underrepresented in leading museums. Leeson will be awarded the SF International Film Festival’s Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award on Tuesday, April 11 at YBCA. “Civic Radar,” a retrospective of Leeson’s extraordinary career runs through May 21 at YBCA and an exhibition with Tania Bruguera will open in June there. The 60th SF International Film Festival runs April 5-19, 2017. Image: courtesy, SFFilm

The 2017 San Francisco International Film Festival opened Wednesday at the historic Castro Theatre with Gillian Robespierre’s sentimental indie comedy, Landline (2016), and runs for the next 14 days, offering 181 films from 51 countries, 6 world premieres, 57 women directors and upwards of 100 participating filmmaker guests.  This grand festival, the longest running film festival in the Americas, celebrates its 60th anniversary with a few changes and expanded programming that tackles urgent social issues and captures the immense talent as well as the heart of its Bay Area locale.

New this Year

This mammoth fest is now called “SF International Film Festival,” instead of SFIFF, and that’s because its sponsor, SFFILM, changed its name; it was formerly the San Francisco Film Society.  SFFILM’s mission remains to “champion the world’s finest films and filmmakers through programs anchored in and inspired by the spirit and values of the San Francisco Bay Area.”  Other changes in the festival include: a start date that is two weeks earlier than usual; closing night festivities that occur two days before the festival’s actual end date; the main Festival Box Office is now headquartered in SOMA, in the YBCA Grand Lobby; and the festival itself is spread all over in 14 San Francisco and 1 Berkeley venue, including the Castro Theatre, the Roxie, the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater, SFMOMA’s new state of the art Phyllis Wattis Theater, the new Dolby Cinema (on Market St.) and PFA (inside Berkeley’s new BAMPFA).

The sprawl presents a logistics nightmare for those driving in who require parking.  Your best bet is to buy all your tickets in advance and plan to see films within walking distance of one another.   It’s worth the hassle to get there.  Nothing beats seeing a film the way it was meant to be seen—on the big screen with state-of-the-art acoustics and an engaged audience to keep you company.   This festival delivers one of the highest ratios of face time with creative talent and flies in special guests from all over the world for nearly every film who participate in engaging post-screening Q & A’s.  These are the exchanges that build lifelong memories and a foundation for understanding cinema.

Shah Rukh Khan (SRK), the undisputed King of Bollywood, will be honored in a special tribute at the Castro on Friday, April 9.  Following an on stage conversation with the charismatic mega-star, Karan Johar’s moving drama, “My Name is Khan” (2010), will screen.  Khan stars as Rizvan Khan, an Indian Muslim Indian battling Asperger’s syndrome, who moves to San Francisco to stay with his brother after their mother dies.  In this stand-out dramatic performances, Khan is forced to navigate the post-9/11 prejudicial landscape. His lot only worsens when he falls in love with and marries a Hindu woman who demands that he tell the U.S. president directly, “My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist.” As he embarks on this epic quest, with quite showy drama, his warm personality wins hearts and becomes his saving grace. Image: courtesy SFFilm

Special programs

Be on the lookout for a series of high-profile tributes and awards: (Ethan Hawke (April 8, YBCA), Tom Luddy (Mel Novikoff Award, April 9, Castro), Eleanor Coppola (George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, April 10, SFMOMA), Lynn Hershman Leeson (Persistence of Vision Award, April 11, YBCA), John Ridley (April 12, Alamo Drafthouse), Gordon Gund (April 13, SFMOMA), James Ivory (April 14, SFMOMA), Shah Rukh Khan (April 14, Castro).

Do you love Eastern European and Russian film? Tom Luddy, the recipient of this year’s Mel Novikoff Award, is largely responsible for laying the groundwork for BAMPFA’s vast collection of Soviet-era film when he was the director of PFA, way back in the day by collecting prints that might have otherwise been lost. He then went on to co-found the Telluride Film Festival and, after that, went on to become director of special projects for Francisco Ford Coppola and Zoetrope Studios and then on to collaborate with filmmakers such Agnès Varda, Chris Marker, and Jean-Luc Goddard. The Novikoff Award is presented to an individual whose work has enhanced the film-going public’s appreciation of world cinema. For his afternoon film screening, Luddy has selected the rarely screened Gennadi Shpalikov film, “A Long Happy Life” (Russia, 1966), one of the richest and truest depictions of love in Soviet-era Russia ever created, along with Jean-Luc Goddard’s short “Une bonne à toute faire,” (1981), which was filmed at Coppola’s American Zoetrope and evokes a tableau from a Georges de La Tour painting. (Screens: Sunday, April 9, 4 pm, Castro) Image: courtesy SFFilm

There’s an enhanced music and film schedule.  This year’s Centerpiece feature  is Geremy Jasper’s Patti Cake$, about an aspiring rap star (April 12, Castro).  The Man With a Movie Camera with Devotchka (April 13, Castro) combines Dziga Vertov’s 1929 avant-garde trip through three Soviet cities with a live Devotchka performance.)

Australian actress Danielle Macdonald as aspiring rapper Patricia Dombrowski—a.k.a. Killa P, a.k.a. Patti Cake$—in a scene from Geremy Jasper’s feature debut “PattiCake$,” this year’s Centerpiece Film and the unqualified breakout hit of this year’s Sundance Festival. Cheered on by her grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and only friends, Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay) and Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), Patti somehow manages to shoulder her mother’s (Bridget Everett) heartaches and misfortunes and keep her swagger. This film was in part funded by a grant from SFFilm. Both Jasper and Macdonald will be in attendance. Screens: Wednesday, April 12, 7:30 pm, Castro. Image: courtesy SFFilm

The festival is also unveiling new programs involving the technology world.  An inaugural Creativity Summit will launch with Dr. Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Dsiney Animation Studios giving the State of Cinema address (April 8, Dolby Cinema).

Structure:

The first weekend is dedicated to parties, special events and major new films.  Following that is a week of international and Bay Area cinema mixed with cross-media explorations culminating in the festival’s 60th anniversary commission at Castro on April 16: The Green Fog–A San Francisco Fantasia, an exciting new collaboration by SFFilm and Stanford Live in which the renowned Kronos Quartet will perform a new score by composer Jacob Garchik to accompany a visual collage by filmmaker Guy Maddin.  In addition, the festival continues to tip its hat to new and global filmmakers through its awards.  Ten narrative features and ten documentary features will compete for the Golden Gate Awards (GGAs) and nearly $40,000 in total prizes.

A scene from Guy Maddin’s “The Green Fog” in which the filmmaker challenged himself to remake Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” without using any footage from Hitchcock’s classic. Assisted by Evan Johnson, his “Forbidden Room” collaborator, the duo used a variety of Bay Area-based footage from studio classics, ’50’s noir, documentary and experimental films, and 70’s prime time TV —and employed Maddin’s assemblage techniques— to create what Maddin describes as a “parallel universe” version. “The Green Fog–A San Francisco Fantasia” closes the 60th SF International Film Festival,” on April 16 at the historic Castro Theater. The special commission by SFFilm, in collaboration with Stanford Live, includes the world renowned Kronos Quartet performing a new score by composer Jacob Garchik that “collides and converses with Maddin and Johnson’s irreverent footage. Image: SFFilm

Stay-tuned, ARThound will next preview the festival’s top films.

Festival Details:

When:  The 60th SF International Film Festival runs 14 days─ Wednesday, April 5 –Wednesday, April 19, 2017.

Tickets: $15 most films, more for Special Events and Parties which generally start at $20.   Passes—the popular CINEVOUCHER 10-pack ($140 general public and $120 for SFFilm members) and the exclusive CINEVISA early admittance to every screening, party, and program (with exception of Film Society Awards Night) ($1350 SFFilm members and $1675 general public).   How to buy tickets—purchase online at http://www.sffilm.org/festival/attend/tickets or in person during the festival.  Main Festival Box Office: is YBCA Grand Lobby, open daily Thursday, April 6 – Sunday, April 16, noon to 8 pm. During the festival , other screening venues also sell tickets.

Advance ticket purchases absolutely recommended as many screenings go to Rush.  Check the festival website to see which films are currently at rush (the list is updated frequently).

Day-of Noon Release Tickets: Each day of the Festival, tickets may be released for that day’s rush screenings. Pending availability, tickets may be purchased online or in person at the main festival box,  starting at noon. Not all shows will have tickets released, and purchasing is first-come, first-served.

Rush tickets:  Last-minute or rush tickets may be available on a first served basis to those waiting in line for cash only about 10 minutes before show time.  If you want rush tickets, plan to line up at least 45 minutes prior to screening time. No rush tickets for screenings at BAMPFA

More info: For full schedule and tickets, visit: http://www.sffilm.org/festival

 

April 5, 2017 Posted by | Art, Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sonoma International Film Festival turns 20 this year: the line-up celebrates wine, food and art and so do the parties—Wednesday, March 29 through Sunday, April 2, 2017

Christian Bale and Charlotte Le Bon in a scene from the historical drama, “The Promise,” which opens the 20th Sonoma International Film Festival Wednesday at Sonoma’s Sebastiani Theater. Actress Angela Sarafyan will be in attendance opening night. The sweeping romance, co-written and directed by Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”), is set in the final days of the Ottoman Empire and follows a love triangle between Michael (Oscar Isaac), a medical student; Chris (Academy Award winner Christian Bales), a renowned American photojournalist; and Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), a sophisticated Armenian artist who both men fall for. Sarafyan plays the medical student’s wife from an arranged marriage. One of the most expensive independently financed films ever made ($100 million before tax concessions), the sumptuous drama deals directly with the Armenian genocide and is said to recall “Doctor Zhivago” and “Reds.” This year’s five-day festival features over 130 films, including independent features, docs, world cinema, shorts, student films AND parties. Image: courtesy IMDB

If you love great cinema, sampling world class food, wine and spirits from local artisan chefs, makers and vintners, it doesn’t get any better than the Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF) which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.  This beloved five-day festival has always the best parties of any film festival around, but, this year, a bottle runs through SIFF’s programming as well as its famed Backlot tent.  Eleven of the festival’s 130 films are tales of wine and gastronomy and the celebrities, criminals and unsung heroes from these universes.   The festival is dedicated to supporting independent filmmakers from around the world, and inspiring film lovers while plying them with food and wine.   There’s also Student Showcases,  the wonderful program of shorts from local high school film students which the festival supports enthusiastically.  All films are shown at seven intimate venues within walking distance of Sonoma’s historic plaza so there’s no driving, just meandering charming streets where roses, lilacs and irises are in glorious spring bloom.

ARThound’s top film and event picks:

The Turkish Way

Chef Joan Roca of the acclaimed restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca (center), in a scene from Luis González’s engrossing new food travelogue “The Turkish Way,” screening twice at SIFF 20. Image: BBVA Contenidos

On the heels of the immensely popular Cooking Up a Tribute (2015), which had last year’s SIFF attendees queuing excitedly in enormous lines,  director Luis González again teams with the Roca brothers—Joan, Josep and Jordi, owners of Catalonia’s Celler de Can Roca, Restaurant Magazine‘s Best Restaurant in the World honoree—to take a five-week tour across Turkey.   Their mission: to plunge into the diverse culinary cultures merging at this cradle of civilization.  Hot on the trail of new ideas for their own restaurant as well, the brothers engage with sommeliers, chefs and farmers from bustling Istanbul to the bucolic vineyards of Cappadocia and share a meal and chat  with the innovators of New Anatolian cuisine.  They discover an ancient nation on the cusp of a food revolution. (2016, 86 min) (Screens: Thurs, March 30, 11:45 am, Celebrity Cruises Mobile Cinema, and Fri, March 31, 9:15 am, Sonoma Veterans Hall Two)

Celebrity Cruises Mobile Cinema—the venue designation “CCMC” indicates Celebrity Cruises brand new mobile pop-up movie theater featuring a high definition projection and sound system, where guests can enjoy beverages, wine, truffle popcorn and enter to win great prizes, such as a luxurious cruise to the Caribbean for two.

The Distinguished Citizen (El ciudadano ilustre)

Oscar Martínez as author Daniel Mantovani in “The Distinguished Citizen,” Argentina’s foreign-language Oscar submission, screens twice at SIFF 20.

A favorite at last December’s International Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana, Cuba, Argentinian directing partners Gaston Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s latest comedy, El ciudadano ilustre, stars Oscar Martinez (Paulina) as a Noble Prize-winning Argentinean author who returns to the village of his birth for the first time in 40 years. Divided into five chapters, the film follows Daniel Mantovani (Martinez) from his spacious Barcelona villa to the modest hotel room booked for him in backwater Salas, Argentina, where he is to be honored with a medal and a full slate of cultural activities.  The scenes are played to maximum comedic effect with outstanding performances all around.  What makes the story work so well is that we can all relate to the long suppressed memories and emotions a visit back home can evoke.  It turns out that while Mantovani has been living a cosmopolitan life in Europe,  he’s taken all of his literary inspiration from Salas and the citizens of Salas have strong feelings about his depictions.  Mantovani shines as he explores his complex relationship with his roots and his past.  (2016, 117 min) (Screens: Thursday March 30, 1 pm, Sebastiani, and Sat, April 1, 12:30 pm, Sonoma Veterans Hall One.

Franca: Chaos and Creation

Photographer and filmmaker, Francesco Carrozzini, and his mother, Franca Sozzani, editor in chief of “Vogue Italia,” in a still from the documentary film, “Franca: Chaos and Creation” which was four years in the making. Image: Mission Media

Fashion films have become a documentary genre unto themselves.  When the subject at hand is Franca Sozzani, the fearless editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia and the director is her son, Francesco Carrozzini, expect nothing short of art and an iconic framing of fashion history.  The groundbreaking shoots and themed issues that she engineered over the last quarter century in collaboration with photographer Steven Meisel transcended fashion. Domestic violence, plastic surgery, substance abuse, racism and environmental catastrophes are just some of the issues that Sozzani tackled in her work, often leading to criticism that social commentary had no place in the pages of a publication such as Vogue.  Sozzani believed in the power of the image – some Vogue Italias featured 50-page-long fashion shoots where the clothes were barely visible and subordinate to the overall composition of the photographs.   And Franca Sozani, well, there are moments when she reveals herself to her son in this intimate portrait, that only a son could have captured.  Sozzani passed in December 2016 at the age of 66.  (2016, 80 min) (Screens: Thursday, March 30, 3 pm, Sonoma Veterans Hall One and Friday, March 31, 2:30 pm, Sonoma Veterans Hall Two)

Afterimage

Boguslaw Linda as Polish artist Wladyslaw Strzeminski in Andrzej Wajda’s biopic “After Image.” Image: courtesy TIFF

Sadly, the Polish master, Andrzej Wajda (A Generation, Kanal, Ashes and Diamonds) died at age 90, in 2016,  just after completing Afterimage.  This biopic of the Polish avant-garde painter, Wladyslaw Strzeminski, Poland’s foreign language Oscar submission for 2016, is a story from Wajda’s own past, battling passionately for artistic expression in the vice-grip of state ideology and censorship.  Set in the dark years of Soviet rule, 1948 to 1952, the film tracks the highly-principled painter and handicapped (double amputee) professor Strzeminski, played by the masterful Boguslaw Linda (Blind Chance, Pan Tadeusz), as he battles the Socialist Realism movement in an attempt to advance his progressive art and inspire his students.  His activity as a solo artist and his participation in groups that he organized in the 1920s and 1930s (together with his wife, Katarzyna Kobro, and painter Henryk Stazewski) played a fundamental role in the history of 20th-century Polish art.  A man of great integrity and energy, Strzeminski was persecuted but refused to compromise.  The film’s title is borrowed directly from the painter’s famous series of paintings from 1948–1949.  It refers to persistent images, those optical illusions that continue to appear under one’s eyelids after staring at a reflective object. (2016, 98 min) (Screens:  Thurs, March 30, 9:15 am, Celebrity Cruises Mobile Cinema and Sat, April 1, 9:30 am, Sonoma Veterans Hall One)

Unleashed

A scene from Finn Taylor’s “Unleashed,” with Kate Micucci, screening twice at SIFF 20. (Image: courtesy Braveheart Films

 I wouldn’t be ARThound if I didn’t point out the festival’s dog-related flicks. What if your pets turned into full-grown men?  I couldn’t resist the wacky premise behind Finn Taylor’s Unleashed, which has a thirty-something software app designer Emma (Kate Micucci) settling into her life in San Francisco when her cat, Ajax, and her dog, Summit, disappear only to reappear in her life as full-grown men (Steve Howet and Justin Chatwin).  All their four-legged memories are fully intact and they vie for her affection in their very specific cat and dog styles.  This delightful film picked the 39th Mill Valley Film Festival’s Audience Favorite Award /US Cinema Indie.  (2016, 93 min) (Screens: Thurs, March 30 at 12 noon, Sonoma Veterans Hall One and Sat, April 1, 12 noon, Sebastiani)

Young Filmmakers

Don’t forget the student films!:  One of the festival highlights is the annual Student Showcases, films from Peter Hansen’s Media Arts Program students at Sonoma Valley High School (SVHS), screening twice this year. Since 2002, SIFF and its members have donated nearly $500,000 to SVHS’s Media Arts Program which opens doorways to creativity in the digital arts through filmmaking classes, animation, scriptwriting, film theory, and, most of all, storytelling.  The festival also supports media programs in the Valley’s two middle schools. (Student Showcase Screenings: Thursday, March 30, 10am to 12:30 pm, Sebastiani and Sunday, April 2, 3 to 5:30 pm, Sonoma Vets Hall One

Peter Hansen has selected SVHS senior Owen Summers’ stop action 6 min claymation film Magic Beans to be accepted into the Sonoma International Film Festival. In 15 years, only three student films from SVHS have been chosen as official SIFF selections. Owen is a senior at Sonoma Valley High School.  (Screens: Thurs, March 30 in Shorts Films Program, Vintage House, and Sunday, April 2, 9 am at the Taiwan Tourism Bureau Theatre (Andrews Hall).

SIFF Emerging Artist Award: This year, 18 year-old student filmmaker Kiara Ramirez will be honored with the festival’s first SIFF Emerging Artist Award.  Her six minute short, the first she has produced and directed, is the mini-doc, Detrás del Muro (Behind the Wall), a thoughtful and sharply edited human portrait of immigration issues was inspired by the rhetoric of last year’s primaries

Parties:  

New this year: you can attend parties without a pass for $50.

Emerald Party: A big bash on Thursday, March 30 celebrates several 20th anniversaries—SIFF’s, Sondra Bernstein’s the girl & the fig, and Tito’s Vodka.  Sondra’s celebrating by creating superb food for the party. Cake by Crisp Bake Shop and other birthday surprises will be in store.  An after-party continues at The Starling for signature craft cocktails and music with Ten Foot Tone.  Purchase $50 ticket here.

Taiwanese Night: On Friday, March 31, the Back Lot Tent is transformed into a lively Taiwanese Night Market, courtesy of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau. Purchase $50 ticket here.

Festival Awards & Celebration Party: Saturday, April 1, Walk the carpet and celebrate SIFF’s finest films at the Award Ceremony.  Following the awards, toast the winners with wine, cocktails, Lagunitas, food from the girl & the fig and live music with Loosely Covered. Purchase $50 ticket here.

SIFF 20 Details:

The 20th Sonoma International Film Festival starts Wednesday, March 29 and runs through Sunday, April 2, 2016.  PASSES:  SIFF can be enjoyed at different levels and passes provide access to films, parties in SIFF Village’s Backlot Tent, after parties, receptions, and industry events and panels.  Currently, Cinema Passes are $275 for and Soiree Passes are $725.  All Cinema pass holders will have day access to the Backlot Tent in SIFF Village and all films.  Soiree pass holders will have day VIP area and evening party access and all films.  New this year:  exciting options for attending several screenings and individual parties without buying all-inclusive passes.  For information about festival passes, prices, and benefits visit sonomafilmfest.org.   SINGLE TICKETS:  A limited number of $15 tickets are available for each film screening.  These sell out rapidly, so purchase these in advance online at sonomafilmfest.org.

March 27, 2017 Posted by | Dance, Film, Food, Jazz Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Cheese Lover? Your Ultimate Cheese weekend awaits at the 11th California Artisan Cheese Festival, Friday-Sunday, in and around Petaluma

Cheese royals Sue Conley and Peggy Smith (L & R), co-founders of Cowgirl Creamery, will join sisters Jill Giacomini Basch and Lynn Giacomini Stray of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese to share their cheese stories in a “Cream of the Crop” seminar Saturday morning at the 11th California Artisan Cheese Festival.  Participants will savor artfully composed bites of cheese paired with local craft rums while learning about the unique terroir of the picturesque Point Reyes area. They will also receive a comp subscription to “Culture” magazine. This is just 1 of 6 exciting seminars offered at this year’s festival, which includes farm tours, curated wine and cheese evening tastings, gourmet competitions, cheese-centric dinners and a brunch prepared by celebrity chefs and Sunday’s legendary tasting tent and market. Photo: Books, Inc.

From newly-released small-batch artisan cheeses to those that have an international following, the focus of the 11th California Artisan Cheese Festival is on our region’s artisan cheese and the inside track on haute pairings and pours.  This wonderful event, which kicks off Friday, is held in and around Petaluma’s Sheraton Sonoma County and is considered one of the country’s top, if not the best, artisan cheese festivals.  Friday is always devoted to day-long farm tours which get more creative every year.  These are so popular they sell out within days of being announced in January.  The opportunity to meet the farm animals and to get the low-down on what makes our area’s cheese so special straight from the farmers who produce it always proves too good to pass up.  Each tour also includes a gourmet lunch with wine in a bucolic setting and an informative talk by a leading cheese educator.  Don’t despair, there are still two full days (Sat and Sun) of fascinating activities that are not yet sold out.

Saturday’s Seminars and Pairings Demos

A good number of spaces are still available in the seminars listed below, all which are held in or within a few steps of the hotel (click here for full descriptions and pricing).  Show up early to purchase your tickets in person at festival headquarters in the lobby of the Sheraton.

Saturday morning: 10 to 11:30 AM:

Cheese & Charcuterie (Vanessa Chang and author, educator Laura Werlin) Foolproof pairings of artisan cheese, old world meats and rosé.

Mighty Morphing Milk (author, educator Janet Fletcher, Liam Callahan (Bellwether Farms), Jennifer Bice (Redwood Hill Farm & Creamery) Explore the magical transformation of exceptional goat, sheep and cow milk into yogurt, fresh cheese and aged cheese with an emphasis on cultures, techniques and timing decisions.  Plentiful tastings.

Cream of the Crop (Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, co-founders Cowgirl Creamery and Jill Giacomini Stray and Lynn Giacomini Stray, co-founders of Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese) A lively conversation about cheese, politics and preserving family farms with tastings and cheese pairings with local craft rums.

Petaluma’s Achadinha Cheese Company (Osh-a-deen-a), renowned for its blended goat and cow milk cheese, participates regularly in the festival’s popular farm tours.  The Pachecho family’s third generation run both Achadinha Cheese Company and the Pacheco Family Dairy but will swear that it’s the animals that run everything.   Their 250 goats and 60 cows are pastured on 230 sprawling acres on Chileno Valley Road.  Achadinha is the creator of the famous mold-ripened aged goat’s milk cheese, “Capricious,” whose memorable sweetness is directly related to the farm’s terroir.  The family also produces a mean feta.  Photo: Achadinha

Saturday Afternoon: 1:30 to 3 PM:

Cheese and Chocolate (Vanessa Chang and author, educator Laura Werlin)  An indulgent exploration of two of life’s pleasures: cheese and chocolate with an emphasis on great pairings and how to heighten the pleasure even more with beer and port.

California Cheese: Past, Present, and Future (Kiri Fisher, The Cheese School) Taste your way through the history of cheese as you learn more about the special roots of our local dairy industry, the cheese-making renaissance of the 1980’s and 1990’s, the challenges the industry currently faces and what cheeses are on the horizon.

Saturday evening Cheese & Cocktails, 5 to 7 PM:

A new two hour event, event under the Big Top at the Sheraton featuring cheesemakers showcasing their favorite cheeses while local craft distilleries sample their best spirits both as straight pours and mixed cocktails.  The mood is celebratory and this is great place to meet friends for drinks.

Sunday Artisan Cheese Tasting & Marketplace, 12 to 4 PM:

Say “hello” to the makers as you gather under the big top Sunday for a final cheesy soirée with over 90 artisan producers of local cheeses, wines, beers, ciders and other specialty foods.  Discover the next wave of interesting cheese accompaniments, cheesemaking products, books and the new innovative cheese vaults that let you preserve your expensive cheeses.

Sunday’s Artisan Cheese Tasting and Marketplace is the festival’s bustling grand finale. New this year is Volo Chocolate of Healdsburg—small-batch handmade chocolates with beans sourced from Mexico’s Chiapas and Oaxaca regions and stone ground and fire-roasted in traditional Mexican style. Each bar comes in an earthy expressionist wrapper, just as artful as the contents. Photo: Volo

Don’t miss the demos!  Pick up new recipes, tips and tricks from cheese twins, Charlie and Michael Kalish, winners of Season 7 of “The Great Food Truck Race” and hosts of their own Food network Show “Big Cheese,” who will give a “Grilled Cheese Two Ways” demo at 12:30 PM.

Award winning local food writer and author, Michele Anna Jordan will demonstrate Butter Making at 1:45 PM, teaching everyone how they can churn their own butter at home in just minutes. There will ample samples of organic goat, sheep and cow milk butters and attendees can take a hand at the churn.

Aside from eating well and to your heart’s content, the tasting tent is an exciting launch pad for gourmet products which are just getting their start.  This year’s “gotta have it” find is Volo Chocolate, the love child of Healdsburg chefs, Jeff and Susan Mall.  In 2015, the couple sold their beloved Zin restaurant and moved to Baja to embark on a quiet life as resort chefs.  Soon, they found themselves enamored with Mexican cacao and they embraced the traditional Mexican method of fire-roasting the cacao beans to create their own chocolate.  Now, they are back in Healdsburg creating small-batch handmade bean-to-bar chocolates with beans sourced from Mexico’s Chiapas and Oaxaca regions.  These delectable bars are available mainly through their website, so this is your chance to sample and pounce.

Other newcomers to this year’s tent include:  Chico Honey Co., Dick Taylor Chocolates, Firebrand Artisan Breads, Hensley Hard Goods, Joseph Jewel Winery, Lemonbird Preserves, Moonside Creamery, and Seismic Brewing.

Details:  California’s 11th Artisan Cheese Festival is March 24-26, 2017 at the Sheraton Sonoma County in Petaluma and various cheese country locations.  Tickets for all festival events are sold separately online until March 23 (Thursday) and then will be available at the event itself.  All events take place, rain or shine.

Click here for full information. Chick here to go to Eventbrite to purchase tickets.

March 23, 2017 Posted by | Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CAAMFest 2017 review: In Jon Maxwell’s documentary “AKA Seoul,” five Korean adult adoptees journey to Seoul to meet their birth families and to explore the intersection of adoption with their identities

Alt rapper and Korean adoptee Dan Mathews (Dan aka Dan) visits Korea with four other Korean adoptees in the summer of 2016 in Jon Maxwell’s documentary “AKA Seoul” (2016), screening twice at CAAMFest 35, March 9-19, 2017. Mathews reconnects with his biological family, including his identical twin brother who remained with his birth family in Korea, while Mathews was relinquished and adopted by an American family. Mathews will be in attendance at both screenings as will Min Matson, of San Francisco, who also appears in the film. Image: courtesy CAAM

Exploration of identity has always been a complex challenge for adoptees and it’s particularly true for those raised in adoptive families of a different race and culture. Jon Maxwell’s new documentary AKA Seoul (70 min, 2016), screening twice at the upcoming CAAMFest, impressively encapsulates a range of experiences shared by five Korean twenty-something adoptees who journey to Korea in the summer of 2016 to find themselves as they connect with their birth families and their native Korea.

The film is a sequel to the documentary series AKA DAN, which chronicled the 2013 journey of alternative rapper and Korean adoptee Dan Matthews as he met his biological Korean family, including an identical twin brother he never knew about. AKA Seoul picks up three years later as Matthews and four other Korean adoptees—Chelsea Katsaros, Siri Szemenkar, Min Matson, and Peter Boskey—get together in Seoul in various restaurants, bars and tattoo parlors to unpack various aspects of their identity as Koreans, as adoptees and as adults.  Since they are all in the immediate throws of searching and reuniting and each experience is unique, what results is a very fluid and candid snapshot of adoption.

Siri Szemenkar, a Korean adoptee raised in Sweden visits Korea, meets her birthmother, and reflects on experiencing Korean culture for the first time in Jon Maxwell’s documentary “AKA Seoul” (2016), screening twice at CAAMFest 35, March 9-19, 2017. Image: courtesy CAAM

  • Dan Mathews introduces his adoptive mom, Lynn Mathews, from Camarillo CA, to his Korean birthmother while continuing to process that he has an identical twin brother who remained in Korea with his birth family while he was adopted out.  His brother is learning English to strengthen their bond and to facilitate communication for the entire birth family while Mathews is trying to figure out how much interaction he actually wants.
  • Siri Szemenkar, who was raised in Sweden with virtually no contact with Asians, meets with adoption agency officials in Seoul to get information about her birthmother.  After being stonewalled, she is told that her birthmother wants to meet her. Her hopes are dashed when the birthmother cancels and then elevated when she changes her mind.
  • Min Matson shares his story as a transgender Korean adoptee and what it’s like to experience Seoul and Korean LGBT culture for the first time as a male. Min’s adoptive mother was Dutch and his adoptive dad was Norwegian and, while he felt really loved by his parents, he had strong feelings that he was boy in a girl’s body even before he started elementary school. He shares his isolation and his adoptive family’s struggle with his search to find his identity, which included a suicide attempt. When he first went to Korean as a masculine looking woman, it was hard for him to fit in with Korean women and to identify with the culture. When he returns, on this trip, to embrace Seoul as a Korean male, with a sense of body security, he feels different, as if he really fits in.
  • Chelsea Katsaros, a 28 year old genetics student at University of Minnesota, was raised by adoptive parents of Norwegian and Greek ancestry in Minnesota and grew up around surrounded by people who didn’t look like her. She admits that pressure of being Asian in a white family and culture, was stressful. When she realized as a teenager that she was gay, and came out at age 19, she felt even more pressure because her adoptive family was deeply religious and would not accept her, ultimately leading her to sever communication with them altogether.  Holding an orphan in her arms on a visit to Seoul’s Eastern Social Welfare Society, she laments that she will never be able to adopt a Korean baby herself because she is gay and Korean policy only allows for heterosexual adoptions.
  • As free-spirited poet and textile artist, Peter Boskey, meanders through the back alleys and shops of Seoul collecting fabric and mementos for his art, he discusses his creative life and the influence of adoption on his artwork. Not only is his artwork a deep expression of who he is, it has been profoundly healing.

What makes AKA Seoul so relevant is the lens feels very fresh.  The five adoptees, aside from being very creatively inclined, represent a broad spectrum in terms of their life interests, sexual orientation (two are gay, one is transsexual), and levels of self-awareness.  The common thread is that many of them were raised by white adoptive parents and grew up in communities where they had little contact with other Asians, much less Koreans.  As a result, they often ended up feeling isolated within their families and communities, despite feeling that they very loved. The mere sensation of seeing people who look like them and feeling a kind of completeness within themselves is one of their most special take-aways from Korea.

Peter Boskey is a textile artist and poet who was raised in the suburbs of Boston with two adopted siblings. He first visited Seoul in 2009. On this 2016 visit, he mines the vibrant shops and stalls of Korea, the country of his birth, for artifacts that he can incorporate into his artworks that will express aspects of his experience as a Korean American adoptee. Image: courtesy CAAM

Another is the natural comradery, empathy, and bonding that develops between the five as they eat and drink together, get special tattoos, and unpack their adoptee experiences.  They form a pack and we sense that they will be there to support each other long after they leave Korea.  As many of these adoptees confide, they’ve walked a tight rope all their lives trying to please their adoptive parents and to fit in.  This became increasingly difficult as they went through adolescence and into adulthood.  In AKA Seoul, we experience their personal healing and see their complex identities emerge out of their interactions with each other and with their native culture.  Albeit, they are all at various stages of processing their experiences and this impacts their coherency but this makes it feel real.  Seeing this documentary at CAAMFest, where it will be followed up with a live discussion with at least two of the adoptees from the film, Dan Mathews and Min Matson, should be a very enriching experience.

More about CAAMFest 35:

CAAMFest celebrates its 35th year in 2017 with a ten day festival—March 9-19— in San Francisco and Oakland that explores the shifting tides of Asian American culture. Formerly the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF), CAAMFest expanded in 2013 beyond film to also include music and food from locales touched by Asian culture.  A presentation of the non-profit media organization, CAAM (Center for Asian American Media), CAAMFest’s film offerings include cutting-edge dramas, unflinching documentaries and innovative short films. Throughout CAAM’s history, the organization has supported documentary films and filmmakers by both funding and co-producing films.

This year’s festival will include 113 films and video— 22 feature narratives, 26 documentaries, 65 short films and videos. There will be 10 world premieres, 4 North American premieres, 3 US premieres, 14 West Coast premieres, 36 Bay Area premieres, and 1 special sneak preview.

Celebrating CAAMFest’s 35th anniversary, this year’s Special Presentations will include a diverse lineup of local and international spotlights, interactive works, anniversary screenings that revisit films from the 1980’s and 90’s, a Pacific Islander showcase, community screenings and touching documentaries on the legacy of Japanese American Internment.

Details: AKA Seoul screens at CAAMFest 35—Friday, March 10 (6:30 PM, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema) and Saturday, March 18 (8:20PM, New Parkway Theater, Oakland).  Purchase $14 tickets in advance online here.   The Alamo Drafthouse at New Mission is located at 2550 Mission Street, San Francisco (There will be a special food and drink menu exclusive to CAAMFest festival screenings.) The New Parkway Theater is located at 474 24th Street, Oakland)

To buy $20 tickets to Directions in Sound Friday, March 10, 9:30 PM at Gray Area (5 min walk from Alamo Drafthouse), featuring Dan Mathews (Dan AKA dan) and 4 other performers, click here.

For information about CAAMFest 35, visit http://caamfest.com/2017/.

March 8, 2017 Posted by | Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Otherworldly tomb treasures—new Han Dynasty Discoveries from Ancient China at the Asian Art Museum

Gilded bronze lamp in the shape of a deer unearthed from Tomb 1, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu, Western Han period, 2nd century, BCE. On loan from the Nanjing Museum and on display in "Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China's Han Dynasty," at the Asian Art Museum. The exhibition features over 160 rare selections from recent excavations in China's Jiangsu province and runs through May 28, 2017.

Gilded bronze lamp in the shape of a deer unearthed from Tomb 1, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu, Western Han period, 2nd century, BCE. On loan from the Nanjing Museum and on display in “Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty,” at the Asian Art Museum. The exhibition features over 160 rare selections from recent excavations in China’s Jiangsu province and runs through May 28, 2017.

Among the 160 Han artifacts on display at the Asian Art Museum’s dazzling new exhibit “Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty,”  many of objects in wood, bronze, and jade representing animals and mythical beings tap into powerful primal impulses and mythological associations we carry from many cultures, not just Chinese.  In the Asian’s Osher Gallery, a bronze oil lamp in the naturalistic form of a crouching deer with its head raised to the heavens (2nd century BCE) seems deeply familiar.  With its front mane extending almost all the way to ground and curved tail, this splendid creature evokes earlier heavily stylized Scythian deer except for the absence of looped antlers.  We are left to ponder the influences of art created by early Eastern Eurasian nomadic tribes on Chinese art and what exactly is uniquely Chinese in this creature.  The deer is an important motif for the Chinese, symbolizing longevity and wealth and this lamp is one of many examples of oil lamps with animal-like motifs from the Han era found in Han tombs.  These exquisite lamps also played an important role in court life.  Aside from their decorative allure, they provided illumination and, with better light in the evenings, people were able to extend their period of activity and entertainment began to thrive.

A Western Han period, 1st century BCE, carved wooden Cavalry figurine unearthed from Yandai Mountain (Yizheng, Jiangsu) represents the perfect marriage of material and subject. Both the form of horse and rider are carved exquisitely in an abstract manner allowing the natural grain of the wood to complete the idea. The end result is anything but simplified—highly stylized figuration. Many such figurines were finely carved and then painted to take on the attributes of their real-life counterparts; this one is more roughly carved. This work was excavated from a large tomb possibly belonging to a high ranking royal member of the Guangling kingdom. Among some 400 burial objects unearthed were 126 wooden figurines of warriors and attendants that formed a long procession. Just ten cavalry figurines were mounted on horses making this piece exceptionally rare. On loan from the Yizheng Museum.

A Western Han period, 1st century BCE, carved wooden Cavalry figurine unearthed from Yandai Mountain (Yizheng, Jiangsu) represents the perfect marriage of material and subject. Both the form of horse and rider are carved exquisitely in an abstract manner allowing the natural grain of the wood to complete the idea. The end result is anything but simplified—highly stylized figuration. Many such figurines were finely carved and then painted to take on the attributes of their real-life counterparts; this one is more roughly carved. This work was excavated from a large tomb possibly belonging to a high ranking royal member of the Guangling kingdom. Among some 400 burial objects unearthed were 126 wooden figurines of warriors and attendants that formed a long procession. Just ten cavalry figurines were mounted on horses making this piece exceptionally rare. On loan from the Yizheng Museum.

China’s Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), like the Roman Empire, forged one of the most powerful, advanced civilizations of the ancient world.  Ruled by 29 emperors for over 400 years, the Han dynasty represents the first “golden era” of development in Chinese history, a time when China’s diverse ethnic groups experienced relative stability, social development and harmony.   Tomb excavations are ongoing in China and, every so often, they unearth a major find.  In 2014, Chinese archaeologists in Jiangsu province, Eastern China (somewhat near Shanghai), unearthed more than 10,000 objects from a cluster of more than 100 Han tombs, untouched for some 2,000 years.  Jiangsu was the birthplace of Liu Bang (Emperor Gaozu, reigned 202-195 BCE), the founding emperor of the Han dynasty and Jiangsu was a center of concentrated wealth and culture.  There, Han royalty lived extravagantly.  They perceived of the afterlife as a form of existence much like their earthly one, requiring that basic subsistence needs be fulfilled as well those for spiritual enlightenment and entertainment.   Many of the most fascinating possessions from this rich find and earlier Han excavations are on display at the AAM.

Co-curated by Jay Xu, director and CEO of the AAM, and Fan Jeremy Zhang, the museum’s senior associate curator of Chinese art, the Asian has outdone itself again offering three galleries of tomb treasures, many of which have never traveled outside of China.  The show’s opulent lay-out, though, has people buzzing about its sheer design beauty.  Marco Centin, Director of Exhibition Design, has placed these many of these precious objects in cases which afford 360 degree viewing and against rich Chinese red backdrops, symbolizing prosperity and good fortune.

The exhibition is organized into three areas themed according to popular Han-era adages found on various artifacts:

  • Everlasting happiness without end (長樂未央): Luxurious life and palatial entertainment. Daily life, banquets and pastimes of the Han elites are accompanied by the music and dance of the court.
  • Eternal life without limit (長生無極): Worship of jade and search for immortality. A tomb-like atmosphere allows visitors to explore ancient ideas about the afterlife.
  • Enduring remembrance without fail (長毋相忘): Private life and intimacy at the court. Affairs of the heart expose secrets from the innermost chambers of men and women fascinated by pleasure.
  • Jade suit on view in the Asian Art Museum’s Hambrecht Gallery, unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu, Western Han period (206 BCE-9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum. Photo: courtesy AAM.

    Jade suit on view in the Asian Art Museum’s Hambrecht Gallery, unearthed from Tomb 2, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu, Western Han period (206 BCE-9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Jade and gold. Nanjing Museum. Photo: courtesy AAM.

There seems no limit to the Chinese mastery of jade and Han royalty took ancient China’s fascination to extreme belief that jade, a kind of amour for the afterlife, could protect human flesh from decomposition.  The Hambrecht Gallery has transformed into a tutorial on Chinese Han burial culture and front and center is an  an extremely rare jade burial suit fashioned for a ruler from over 2,000 linked rectangular jade tiles joined together with gold thread and affixed to a silk backing, a project that would have taken the most skilled jade smith over a decade to create. The suits are so rare because tomb looters would burn the suits to retrieve the gold.

Also on display is a huge coffin, thought to be the largest jade coffin the world, that was excavated recently at Dayun Mountain and reconstructed.  This coffin has a patterned jade lining on its inside to protect the deceased.  This stands in contrast to a similar coffin that was discovered some 20 years ago in the Jiangsu region’s Chu mausoleums which had elaborate patterned jade on its exterior.  An “inside or outside” debate has raged among scholars as to whether the use of jade was consistent or different due to regional variations in coffin construction.  In the same gallery, there are also evocative smaller jade dragon pendants which would have adorned the coffins of elite rulers.

In the Lee Gallery, the exhibit explores the interior spaces of the Han court and its plush amenities for personal hygiene including a toilet found in the Tuolan Mountain mausoleum and intriguing strap on bronze phalluses.

Free Performances:  Music for the Afterlife

In celebration of  Tomb Treasures, local instrument inventor group Pet the Tiger will team up with Gamelan Encinal, a musical ensemble, for a presentation featuring three centuries of instrument building. Custom-built instruments by musician Bart Hopkin, designed with the same tuning as the Han dynasty Bianzhong bronze bells, create a contemporary “orchestra” (or “gamelan”).

Each performance features percussion and wind instruments in rearrangements of traditional gamelan melodies, the graphic score of “Yantra Meditation” by local composer David Samas, and new compositions for special guest artists.

On March 19, at 12 noon and 2 PM, in the North Court, local instrument inventor Peter Whitehead performs haunting melodies for voice and overtone flute.

On April 16, Pet the Tiger and Gamelan Encinal perform new works for pipa (Chinese flute) and the Han bronze bells by Sophia Shen and Stephen Parris, with Ms. Shen as pipa soloist.

On May 7, the two ensembles will join forces with the Cornelius Cardew Choir to perform composer Brenda Hutchinson’s work “Last Words,” an inquiry and meditation that asks what we want to take with us to the afterlife — and what we want to leave behind.  Guests of all ages are invited come early to so that they can join the orchestra by building their own instruments from everyday objects in the Education Studios: You can construct a soda straw oboe or boba straw pan pipes that can be tuned to the ancient scales of the bronze bells.

青銅編鐘 盱眙大雲山1號墓出土 西漢早期。南京博物院版權所有。 Bell set, unearthed from Tomb 1, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Bells: bronze; stands: lacquer and silver. On loan from Nanjing Museum. Photograph © Nanjing Museum.

Bell set, unearthed from Tomb 1, Dayun Mountain, Xuyi, Jiangsu. Western Han period (206 BCE–9 CE), 2nd century BCE. Bells: bronze; stands: lacquer and silver. On loan from Nanjing Museum. Photo: Nanjing Museum.

Details: Tomb Treasures: New Discoveries from China’s Han Dynasty closes May 28, 2017. The AAM is located at 200 Larkin Street near Civic Center.  Parking is easy at Civic Center Plaza garage which offers a discount with your validated AAM ticket. (Get it stamped upon entry to the museum.) Hours: Tues-Sun: 10-5; Thursdays until 9 (end Oct 8); closed Mondays. Admission: General admission $20 weekday, $25weekend; Seniors, students, youth (13-17) $15 weekday, $20 weekend; 12 & under are free. 1st Sundays are free thanks to Target.  You can pre-purchase your tickets, with no processing fee, online here.

February 22, 2017 Posted by | Art, Asian Art Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Havana’s 38th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, so much to see!

Argentinean directing partners Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn’s comedy, “El ciudadano ilustre” (The Distinguished Citizen), opened the 38th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema at Havana’s Karl Marx Cinema on December 8, 2016. The film stars Oscar Martinez as Daniel Mantovani, a cosmopolitan Noble Prize-winning Argentinean author who returns to the village of his birth for the first time in 40 years. The film picked up a Coral award for best screenplay at the close of the ten day festival and was Argentina’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film.

Havana’s renowned International Festival of New Latin American Cinema—December 8-18, 2016—is a ten day extravaganza that gives attendees a chance to roam widely through an immense selection of cinema and spend time in fascinating Havana.  My second experience of this wonderful festival, the 38th edition, was even more rewarding than the first, which was in 2015.  The festival is one of the Havana’s and Latin America’s most anticipated annual events, offering the best and latest in Cuban, Latin American and world film—roughly 440 features, documentaries, fiction, animation, and archival gems from roughly 50 countries.

Due to bad weather in Miami and delayed flights stateside, I arrived two days late and missed opening night, which drew hundreds to  Teatro Karl Marx in Havana’s Miramar district.  Festival director Iván Giroud dedicated the evening to Fidel Castro and to Julio García Espinoza, whose his acclaimed film school, EICTV, was celebrating its 30th anniversary.  The Argentinean drama, The illustrious citizen, directed by Gastón Duprat and Mariano Cohn, was the opening night film.

Last December, the 30 minute (9 mile) cab ride from the José Marti International Airport in Boyeros to downtown Havana was marked by banners and billboards commemorating Fidel Castro’s life and influence, some had been there for years and others put up in response to his recent death. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Overshadowing the 38th festival was Fidel Castro’s recent death, of natural causes, on the evening of November 25, 2016.  Castro, whose health had been failing for years, had held onto power from 1959-2008.  Gradually, he had turned things over to his brother, Raúl Castro, who is now nearing the end of his second five-year term and will step down from the presidency in 2018 when a new ruler will elected by the National Assembly.  A large part of Cuba’s attraction, festival aside, is exploring Castro’s complex legacy.  His death took place amidst an undeniably cinematic moment—Cuba’s rebirth.  Everywhere you go in Havana these days, architecture and attitudes are in flux and Capitalist consumption is perched to spread like wildfire.  In a society that has long touted the ideals of social equality, there’s a feeling both of hopefulness and of anxiety over being left behind.  Not surprisingly, the motif of nostalgia and change permeated the Cuban films I saw as well.

My goal for my 8 day stay was to see as many films as I could and to hit Havana’s rustic streets and start exploring the changes firsthand.  Using my hotel, the Hotel Nacional, as a base, I walked to as many of the 14 screening venues as possible and to tried to take different routes each time.  In all, I saw 48 films during my 8 day stay, usually 5 to six films daily, from 10 AM to midnight, and I covered a lot of downtown Havana.

The Hotel Nacional de Cuba is the festival’s hub and main host hotel. Built in 1930, the beloved five-star hotel is situated on a hill in Vedado just a few meters from the sea; it has a fabulous outdoor bar facing the water that is the perfect spot for an interview and a cocktail.  Guests have included Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner. Photo: Geneva Anderson

A ride in a taxi colectivo (shared taxi) is a cliche waiting to to be exploited: it’s cheap, about 30 cents in Cuban “CUP” (the national coin used by Cubans), and fun.  Most tourists use Convertible pesos or “CUC” and pay the equivalent of US $5 to $10 dollars to go from venue to venue in some form of private taxi.  The locals all use buses or taxi colectivos—big classic cars from the 1950’s—which serve as shared taxi’s and go just one way, up or down Havana’s long boulevards. People cram in like sardines and hop in and out. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

 

The festival catalogue, mi rollo, my película (mi role my film) offered 231 pages of films, with all program information in Spanish.  About a third of the films were subtitled, mainly in English, but also in German or French.   Immediately evident is the depth of the programming, a challenge that Programming Director, Zita Morriña and her small staff revel in. (Read my 2015 interview with her here.)  The festival receives well over a 1,000 film submissions directly and seeks out prizewinners from Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto.  It acknowledges talent across the board, offering juried competitions in eight areas and numerous awards, including best unrealized screenplay and even one for the best artistic design of the festival’s poster.

Every morning at 9 a.m., the 8-page daily festival newspaper,  Diario del Festival, arrived hot off the press, listing screening times and venues for the current day and the next day, and whether a film was subtitled.  The Nacional’s lobby and breakfast room came alive with discussions of what to see, how to get there.

The “Diario del Festival,” the festival’s daily newspaper (entirely in Spanish), is indispensable for scheduling and the latest festival news. Photo: Geneva Anderson

One can’t help but be swept up in the moment—the excitement of the crowd, the lines, the impassioned conversations, the glory of stepping into these historic cinema houses— Infanta, La Rampa, America, Yara, Charles Chaplin and 23Y12.  Most Cubans have not traveled or been able to surf the web much but they are voracious cinephiles and will wait in lines that stretch on for blocks to see a film that generated a buzz abroad.  Seeing Latin American and Cuban films on native soil with such an energetic audience added tremendously to my experience.

This year, the festival flew in Sonia Braga, Oliver Stone and Brian De Palma.  Over the years, a good number of Hollywood stars have attended—Jack Lemmon, Gregory Peck, Robert DeNiro, Chris Walken, Annette Bening, Spike Lee, and others.   I was equally delighted to see the many Cuban and Latin American directors and actors and full productions team that participate, taking the stage for brief conversations and rounds of applause.

Cine Yara, on Calle 23 in Havana’s Vedado district, is one of the main venues for Havana’s International Festival of New Latin American Cinema. A key example of Cuba’s “Modern Movement” in architecture, it opened in 1947 as “Teatro Warner Radiocentro” with 1,650 seats, and was operated by Warner Bros. In 2015, it became one of Havana’s first cinemas to embrace digital projection but retained a 35 mm projector to allow screening of classic films. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cine Yara is huge inside but its narrow spacing of rows makes for slow entry and exit. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cine Riviera in Havana’s Vedado district is immediately recognizable by its blue and white motif. Built in the early ’50s on the site of the previous 1927 Rivieria Theatre, it became the first “atmospheric” cinema in Cuba—its walls were once painted with imitation Spanish facades creating the illusion of being outdoors. Currently, it seats 1,200 and also functions as venue for contemporary music. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Contemporary Cuban movie posters, with their bold and saturated colors, are masterpieces of graphic design which tend to focus on concepts in the film, not on the actors. They are sold at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, and displayed and sold at most of the festival’s screening venues.

 

If you’re looking for perfect screening conditions, creature comforts, or envision sipping a mojito during a screening, Havana is not for you, at least not yet.  There were some technical issues, primarily with sound or films that would not play, and, a few times, there were no subtitles.  Substitutions were made on the spot.  As for fuel, there is no “to-go” coffee but basic inexpensive snacks—chips, cups of popcorn, nuts, candies and fruits—are sold outside the theaters in huge shopping carts. One mitigating delight is that each theater displays and sells wonderful movie posters, very artfully designed, and t-shirts for a song and you’ll be tempted to stock up.

38th edition highlights:

exploring depths of the Latin American psyche:

Mexican actor Gael García Bernal appeared in two big films in Havana, Pablo Larraín’s “Neruda” and Jonas Cuarón’s border drama, “Desierto.”

For those intrigued by the lyrical, the sinister and the outrageous factors that have come to shape Latin American identity, they need look no further than Chilean director Pablo Larraín, whose work is deeply appreciated in Cuba.  In 2012, his No won the top award for fiction film.  In 2015, his The Club won the Coral Prize, the festival’s top prize.  For the 38th festival, Larraín screened his new films Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in aftermath of her husband’s assassination, and his semi-fictional Neruda, starring Mexican actor Gael García Bernal and Chilean actor, Luis Gnecco, who first appeared together in Larrain’s No.

Neruda lays out the struggle between political authority and the creative impulse in a detective story about the 1948 political exile of the Nobel-Prize winning poet and Chilean Communist Party Senator, Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco), who lived in hiding in Chile before fleeing to Argentina and then on to France.  Bernal plays the obsessive detective, Peluchonneau, who is hot on Neruda’s trail but instead is undone by the chase.  Neruda, embodied brilliantly by Gnecco, is a complex, hedonistic larger-than-life figure whose identity is fueled by his own mythology.  Everything about this philosophical drama played well in Havana.  The audience was familiar with both Neruda’s poetry and his January 6, 1948 denouncement of Chilean President Gabriel González Videla which made Neruda a target of the same anti-repressive policies he was fighting as a senator.

A scene from Colombian director Víctor Gaviria’s “La Mujer de Animal” which uses graphic violence to denounce violence.

Looking beyond those films that had big splashes at European festivals was eye-opening. The violence in several films that came highly recommended was hard to stomach. Columbian director Víctor Gaviria’s La Mujer de Animal (The Animal’s Wife, 2016) was most extreme in depicting the utter terror of living with unrelenting  domestic violence.  The abuser is Animal (Tito Alexander Gómez), a revolting, rage-filled criminal who dominates the shantytown he lives in and abuses everyone he comes in contact with. When he becomes obsessed with innocent 18 year-old Amparo (Natalia Polo), he kidnaps her, rapes her, forces her to marry him, and soon impregnates her.  Powerless, she becomes his whipping post and the entire community, out of fear, turns a blind eye to his horrific abuse which escalates after their daughter is born.  Had I seen this in the States, I would have had my fill and walked out.  In Havana, despite being numbed out, I opted to stayed for some insight into the context—the dire and marginalizing poverty—that had bred such evil and complicity.  Cringing in my seat, I waited to see if she would muster the strength to retaliate and kill this monster.  To my surprise, Gaviria walked away with the festival’s award for best director.  After a chat with a Colombian sociology student about the aesthetics and complex role of violence in Latin American cinema, I saw the film differently but would hesitate to recommend it.

Another soul-crushing domestic violence drama was Brazilian director Marco Dutra’s Era El Cielo (The Silence of the Sky, 2016).  The violence in this one was easier to stomach but its psychological chill lasted for days.  Set in an entirely different economic strata—a gorgeous middle class home in Montevideo, Uruguay—the story presents a husband’s unexpected response to his wife’s brutal rape.  The film takes a captivating twist into his obsession and the rape becomes more about him than her.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan (L) and Gael García Bernal (R) in a scene from Mexican director Jonas Cuarón’s border drama “Desierto” (2016), awarded the festival’s top prize.

The premiere of Mexican director Jonas Cuarón’s border thriller, Desierto, earlier in the year had coincided with Donald Trump’s anti-immigration campaign rhetoric and it became a film of note at several festivals.   The plot is conventional and straightforward: it takes a truck full of Mexican migrants attempting to cross the US border illegally and introduces a crazed racist vigilante sniper, Sam (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who along with his vicious dog, is ready for a slaughter.  Most of the people are killed off early in the film but Moises (Gael García Bernal) becomes Sam’s primary target and a chilling game of cat and mouse ensues in the desert.  This was Mexico’s Foreign Language submission to the 89th Academy Awards and it won the festival’s top prize, the Coral for best film.  Seeing it in Cuba with a very sympathetic audience still didn’t convince me that it was anything more than an excuse to make a chase film with excessive gore.

Docs from far-flung corners:

A scene from Czech director Helena Třeštíková’s documentary “Marcella” (2007), a quiet masterpiece that feels like stepping into a memory of a family and a specific culture.

Exploring this festival’s broad selection of documentaries is always a pleasure.  I had never heard of Czech director, Helena Třeštíková, who was a special honoree this year.  She is legendary for Marriage Stories, her series of documentary films which explored 25 years of Czech society through the lives of six married Czech couples.  The series screened on Czech television and elicited rave reviews.  How wonderful to meet her in person in Havana and watch two of her insightful films.

Marcella (2007) begins with commonplace Marcella marrying Juri and it follows her for the next 26 years as she navigates her crumbling marriage and the agony and joy of raising a daughter who is developmentally challenged in a society that is churning in all directions as it emerges from an era of communist rule. Shot incrementally, Třeštíková gives us everyday occurrences as well as milestones (the birth and then tragic death of Ivanka, Marcella’s daughter, moving to another apartment) and weaves it all together with an incredible fluidity and empathy.  By the end of the film, we see Marcella as anything but commonplace, because we have witnessed the molding and emergence of her true self.  As for marriage, we witness that in the Czech Republic, in those pre-Velvet Revolution days, it required a team to function and going it alone was next to impossible. The decision to choose a mate was also pragmatic.  When you consider that Třeštíková was creating six of these marriage portraits simultaneously, you get a real sense of her artistry as well as her powers of organization, collaboration and patience.

The processing of historical memory and documentation of atrocities is an essential role of Latin American film and the festival always honors this with outstanding examples.  El Salvadorian journalist and director Marcela Zamora Chamorro’s sensitive documentary, The Offended (Los Offendios, 2016), offers poignant insight on the 12 year-long Salvadorian civil war in which 75,000 civilians died at the hands of government forces.  Through interviews with several victims of torture and imprisonment who tell their stories in their own words, some for the first time, a pressing narrative of El Salvador’s ongoing struggle for truth and justice emerges. Chamorro’s father, Rubén Zamora, led the Revolutionary Democratic Front during the war, went into exile, and was tortured by the Salvadorian National Police and his articulate and detailed re-telling of these events is the focal point of the film.

Andreia Horta is Brazilian legend Elis Regina in Hugo Parto’s bio-pic “Elis” (2106).

It’s not all heavy.  The festival introduces talented Latin celebrities who are not well known in the States, both as subjects of films and as actors.  Brazilian director Hugo Prata’s musical bio-pic, Elis (2016), introduced me to Elis Regina (1945-82) one of the biggest Brazilian singers of all times.  The film balances her singing career with her tumultuous personal life.  Brazilian actress Andreia Horta’s dynamic performance as this velvet voiced bossa nova and suadade powerhouse could not have been more captivating.

Special Guests

Brazilian actress Sônia Braga at a press conference for “Aquarius” at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba. In “Aquarius,” Braga plays Clara, a retired music critic, and widow, who is striving to hold on to her beachside apartment in upscale Recife, Brazil. When developers buy up all the apartments in the 1940’s-built complex with the intent of bashing it down, Clara holds her ground. A stand-off ensues with the developers and her children both pressuring her to sell. The film is a metaphor for present day Brazil with Braga as its inspirational and unshakable heroine. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Afternoon press conferences with Oliver Stone and Sônia Braga at the Hotel Nacional were packed and included lengthy and enjoyable Q & A’s with the celebrities.  Oliver Stone spoke passionately about his bio-pic, Snowden (2016), pointing to the villainy of the US intelligence community and Snowden’s heroic outing of our appalling post-9/11 lack of privacy.  Experiencing Stone slickly field questions from the impassioned journalists in attendance, many from countries who had been the puppets of US policy, was an unforgettable experience.

Snowden’s gala screening at Cine Yara was packed with an audience eager for a hefty exposé.  Sorely missing in the evening was an in-depth on-stage conversation with the multi Oscar-winning Stone, who had also had extensive interaction with Fidel Castro, the subject of two of his films.

Brazilian actress Sônia Braga captivated journalists at her press conference for Aquarius, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s new film that has garnered numerous festival awards the world over.  She told journalists that she identified deeply with her character, Clara, because “she expresses much of what I need to say as a citizen” and the film “is a metaphor for both Brazilian and international resistance against global dynamics which bolster the wealthy.”   At the festival awards ceremony, Braga was honored with the Award for Best Female Performance and Aquarius went on to receive the Signis Award, granted by the World Catholic Association for Communication, and the Fripresci Award, of the International Federation of Movie Critics.

Cuban Film

The festival’s vast selection of  Cuban cinema was enticing—85 films!  I got my list of must-sees from Cuban editor Nelson Rodríguez who, since the 1960’s, had worked with all the leading Cuban directors and several prominent Latin American directors.  He steered me first towards the four classics in the festival’s new “Restored Classics” programming.  Three of these were directed by Tomás Gutierrez Alea (1928-1996), Cuba’s most influential director who was largely responsible for catapulting Cuban cinema into the international limelight.  Rodríguez explained that, even 20 years after his death, Alea still permeates Cuban film culture.  He walked the line with his witty, allegorical portraits of Cuba and his gaze reflected both a dedication to the revolution and a critique of how contemporary society measured up.  I attended all the screenings in this category.  The theaters were packed and the audience enthusiastically cheered the cast and creative teams who came on stage and spoke about their experiences.

Memories of Underdevelopment  (Memorias del Subdesarrollo, Tomás Gutierrez Alea, 1968)   

Sergio Corrieri as Sergio in a scene from Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s fifth film ” “Memories of Underdevelopment” (1968), one of Cuba’s most important and beloved films. Recently restored via the collaboration of several global film foundations.  Sergio’s family flees to Miami shortly after the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion but he chooses to stay in Havana.  The plot follows Sergio’s thoughts and experiences as he is confronted by the new reality.  He lives as an alienated outsider, disdainful of his bourgeois family and friends and highly skeptical of those who believe naively that everything in Cuba can be transformed suddenly.  He sustains himself as a rent-collecting property owner and chases women until he is accused of rape.

The Survivors (Los Sobrevivientes, Tomás Gutierrez Alea, 1979)

A scene from Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s “The Survivors” (1979), a biting portrait of a clan of Cuba’s pampered and childish aristocrats, set in post-revolutionary 1960’s Cuba. In order to evade the contamination that has befallen society, an extended family decides to hole up from the outside world (with their servants) in total isolation in their large villa and live the good life.  Over time, the family experiences a total reversal of fortune corresponding to the phases of capitalism. They begin their exile in capitalism which degenerates to feudalism, then to slavery, and in the end, all out barbarism.

The Cuban classic films were restored in collaboration with Cinema House of Cuba and the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) and with the financial and technical assistance of several international film foundations and dedicated individuals.  Representatives from these organizations participated in the festival’s well-attended informative public symposium on restoration, an issue of importance throughout Latin America. Cuba’s problem: the island’s humidity is hell on celluloid and many important Cuban films have deteriorated entirely and many more are in jeopardy, each a vital chunk of Cuba’s cultural heritage.  Cuba needs both money and technical experience to preserve these films.  Using Memories of Underdevelopment as the main example, but drawing on other films too,  panel members spoke of their painstaking involvement with the film’s restoration and issues associated with digitization and audiovisual patrimony.

contemporary Cuban film:  It’s Not Like Before (Ya no es antes, Lester Hamlet, 2016)

In Lester Hamlet’s “Ya no es antes,” seasoned Cuban actors Isabel Santos and Luis Alberto García play former lovers Mayra and Esteban who are in the second halves of their lives and are grappling, very awkwardly, with how to let down their guards and explore their feelings for each other.  Separated since their teen-age years by immigration, they meet again in Cuba four decades later when Mayra comes back from the States and meets Esteban, who remained in Cuba.  The tender drama is an adaptation of Cuban writer Alberto Pedro Torriente’s’ beloved play from the 1980’s, “Weekend in Bahia.”  It explores a question very relevant in today’s Cuba—is it possible for people with different world views and life experiences to put all that aside and take a chance on love?  The wonderful chemistry of this Cuban duo, especially in their neurotic freak-outs, evoked belly laughs and tears.  The film won the festival’s Popularity (People’s Choice) Prize and Luis Alberto García was awarded festival’s Best Actor prize.

For the past ten years, the festival’s experimental film section, “Cine Experimental” has been in the hands of San Francisco experimental filmmaker, Dominic Angerame,  who has rigorously taken his enthusiastic audiences through the history of experimental cinema, showing them important gems they would have never encountered in Cuba were it not for his dedication. This year, celebrating his decade of Havana programming, he outdid himself with eight separate programs featuring dozens of important experimental and avant-garde films.  I spent an afternoon catching the lyrical “Programa No.5” that featured 15 films, six of which were by Guggenheim Film Fellowship winner Lynne Sachs, working solo or in collaboration with Mark Street, or Noa Street.  The high-point of the afternoon was seeing one of Angerame’s vintage experimental films shot in Havana some 20 years ago.

Details: The 39th Festival of New Latin American Cinema is December 8-17, 2017 in Havana.  Click here for information.  Plan on securing plane and hotel reservations well in advance of the festival.  Once in Havana, festival passes can be purchased at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, where the festival is headquartered, or, individual tickets can be purchased at various screening venues.  Due to the immense popularity of the festival, and to avoid long lines, purchasing a festival pass is advised.

 

February 12, 2017 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Free Russian Holiday Bell Concert with SFS percussionist Victor Advienko, Saturday, December 24, at Koret Auditorium, San Francisco Public Library

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December 21, 2016 Posted by | Classical Music, Uncategorized | , , , , , , | Leave a comment