The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival opens Thursday night with a captivating family drama and continues with 14 days of film from all corners of the globe
A scene from Joshua Oppenheimer’s “Act of Killing,” a documentary executive produced by Werner Herzog, that paints an extraordinary portrayal of the Indonesian genocide. In Indonesia, a land ruled by gangsters, death squad leaders are celebrated as heroes and the filmmakers challenge them to re-enact their real-life mass killings in the style of the American movies they love. Playing at SFIFF 56. Photo: courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society
The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF56) opens Thursday and runs for 15 days, featuring 158 films and live events from 51 countries—67 narrative features, 28 documentary features, 63 shorts, over a dozen juried awards, and over 100 participating filmmakers present. Organized by the San Francisco Film Society, this is THE premiere festival for film in the Bay Area and is well-known for its emphasis on experimental storytelling, its support of new filmmakers and for championing independent films that are unlikely to screen elsewhere in the Bay Area. One of the joys of attending SFIFF is getting to see these films the way they were meant to be seen–on a big screen, in digital projection—and, in many cases, getting to participate in Q&A’s with their directors and actors, most of whom reside in other countries. SFIFF also distinguishes itself with excellent live onstage special events that feature filmmakers in enthralling moderated discussions. While its parties are great, this festival is all about film. In addition to this festival overview, stay turned to ARThound for coverage of Iranian films and art-related films.
This year both opening and closing night films address relationships and family and the dirty little secrets that can drive huge wedges in supposedly sacred bonds. OPENING NIGHT (Thursday, April 24) kicks off with Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s emotional drama What Maisie Knew (USA 2012) starring Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan and Alexander Skarsgård. The film explores the collateral damage
Juliette Moore and Onata Aprile in a scene from Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s “What Maisie Knew” which opens the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 25 – May 9, 2013. Photo: courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society
of divorce through the eyes of six year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) who is silent but, like a sponge, soaks up all the toxic waste her negligent parents put out. When they do succeed in splitting, they re-partner rapidly. Maisie attaches quite readily to her mother’s new husband, Lincoln, a bartender (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no obvious child-rearing skills but rises to the occasion. Not surprisingly, this crushing portrait of affluence, indifference, self-absorption, hope and innocence shows that you can’t choose the family you are born into but you’d be better off if you could. (opens SFIFF56 on Thursday, April 25, 2013, 7 p.m. Castro Theatre, followed by a gala party at Temple Nightclub )
This year’s CENTERPIECE is Saturday, May 4, and celebrates Jacob Kornbluth and his insightful Inequality For All (USA 2013), featuring local UC Berkeley economist Robert Reich, one of the world’s leading experts on work and the economy, Clinton’s former Labor Secretary and named one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the last decade by Time magazine. This powerful documentary, winner of the Special Jury Award at this year’s Sundance festival, makes the argument that capitalism has fatally abandoned the middle classes while making the super-rich even richer. Based on Reich’s bestselling Aftershock (2011, Vintage Press) which explores the roots of American economic stagnation and blames lack of middle class prosperity and spending, the highly entertaining film is billed as An Inconvenient Truth of the economy. (Screens Saturday, May 4, 6:30 PM, Kabuki, followed by a party at Roe nightclub from 8:30 -11 PM)
A scene from Richard Linklater’s “Before Midnight,” which follows Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy), who first met on a train to Vienna (“Before Sunrise”) and reconnected in Paris nine years later (“Before Sunset”), and now another nine years have passed and they are navigating the complications of careers, kids, a long-term committed relationship and unfulfilled dreams. Closing night film at SFIFF 56. Photo: courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society
CLOSING NIGHT: The festival closes with a live on-stage discussion featuring celebrated indie director Richard Linklater (Bernie, SFIFF55 2012) and actress Julie Delpy in conversation about their latest film Before Midnight (USA 2013), the third film in Linklater’s romantic trilogy starring Delpy and Ethan Hawke. The film was raved about at Sundance. It’s now eighteen years later and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Delpy), the couple who met on that train from Budapest to Vienna in Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995), are vacationing in Greece and living in Paris as a middle-aged couple with two twin girls, and negotiating all the minefields of a committed long-term relationship. He’s got a young son living in the States with his remarried ex-wife and the pressure of holding it all together and remaining true to their own creative drives has left them exhausted. Before Midnight catches the couple in random conversation that oscillates between clever banter and passive-aggressive swipes and then, suddenly, takes the plunge to full-on below-the-belt game-changing blows. All unfolds as they are vacationing in Greece—beautiful, troubled, ancient, modern—it too becomes a character in the film. Before Midnight screens as the Closing Night film at the Castro Theatre on May 9. The screening and conversation will be followed by a celebration party.
ARThound’s top picks:
Below are capsule reviews of my top picks from this year’s line-up. Thematically, you can go in any direction your taste takes you. This festival has something for everyone. I am focusing on films that tell great and important stories that you aren’t likely to see screened anywhere else. Stayed tuned to ARThound for full reviews in the coming days.
Jem Cohen, recipient of the 2013 POV Award at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 25 – May 9, 2013. Photo: courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society
Museum Hours (Jem Cohen, (2012, USA 107 min) New York based filmmaker Jem Cohen, who over the past 30 years has made over 60 films, will be presented with this year’s POV Award (2013 Persistence of Vision Award). Cohen will appear in conversation before a screening of his latest feature film Museum Hours, a delicately-paced but psychologically vivid film where ideas and environment are as important as the actors. The story captures a random encounter between Johann (Robert Sommer) a middle-aged museum guard at Vienna’s grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, who, over the years, has nearly melded into his splendid surroundings and watches the visiting crowds looking at art works with detachment, and Anne (Canadian songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara), a woman of roughly the same age who’s visiting Vienna out of duty—she tending to her dear ill cousin and coping with grief. Sensing Anne’s isolation in the big city, a physically overwhelming sensation that reflects her inner turmoil, Johann breaks from his normal detachment and quickly bonds with her and keeps her company around Vienna. The museum itself also becomes a character, revealing itself and its rich treasures and, in turn, stimulating a rich dialogue between these two seemingly very ordinary individuals who have a remarkably palpable rapport. In much the same way that one can pass by or become completely engrossed in a painting, Johann and Anne come into sharp focus as individuals, discussing an accumulation of topics best summarized as the art of living life. (POV Award, conversation and screening Sunday, April 28, 2013, 5:30 PM Kabuki)
The Act of Killing: (Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark, Norway, England, 2012, 116 minutes) In this chilling and highly-inventive new documentary, executive produced by Errol Morris (The Fog of War) and Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man), the filmmakers give us Indonesia, like it’s never been seen before. In 1965-66, Suharto’s anti-communist purge following a failed coup attempt led to the slaughter of an estimated 500,000 people, alleged to be communists. The pretext for this mass genocide was the assassination of six army generals on the night of October 1, 1965 by The Thirtieth of September Movement made up of some disaffected junior Indonesian Armed Forces Officers. Suharto launched a counter-attack and drove the Movement from Jakarta and then accused the Communist Party of masterminding the Movement. He then went on to orchestrate a purge of all persons deemed Communists. Under Suharto’s rule, anti-communism became the state religion, complete with sacred sites, rituals and dates and a sophisticated campaign of controlling the media and planting false stories presenting the opposition as murderers collectively responsible for exaggerated crimes against the State. The mass killings were skipped over in most Indonesian history books and have received little introspection by Indonesians and comparatively little international attention. Until Now. The filmmakers brazenly invited the death squad leaders who carried out these killings, and are now celebrated heroes, to reenact the real life mass killing in the style of the movies they love best. The result—“An extraordinary portrayal of genocide. To the inevitable question: what were they thinking, Joshua Oppenheimer provides an answer. Its starts as a dreamscape, an attempt to allow the perpetrators to re-enact what they did, then something truly amazing happens. The dream dissolves into night mare and then into bitter reality.” (Errol Morris) (Screens Sat, April 27, 9:15 PM, Kabuki AND Thursday, May 2, 8:55 PM BAM/PFA)
A River Changes Course (Kalyanee Mam, Cambodia/USA 2012, 83 min, GGA Documentary Feature Contender): If you’ve been to Cambodia, chances are you landed in Phnom Penh or Siem Reap via a transfer from Hanoi or Thailand and hit the breathtaking Angkor Wat, one of the most spectacular sites on earth, and then left. No matter how little time you spent there though, it’s impossible to overlook the pace of development that is displacing traditional culture and the life and work patterns of the vast majority of Cambodians. Kalyanee Mam’s new documentary, shot in gorgeous cinéma vérité style, is a moving and intimate portrait of the rapidly vanishing world of rural rice farmers and fisherman told through three Cambodian families who are struggling in the face of rapid and uneven modernization.
A scene from Kalyanee Mam’s award-winning documentary “A River Changes Course,” playing at SFIFF 56. In a small village outside of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Khieu Mok must leave and find work in a garment factory to support her familyʼs mounting debt. But life in the city proves no better and Khieu finds herself torn between her obligations to send money home and her duty to be at home with her family. Photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society
Mam spent many months deep in the Cambodian countryside capturing the daily rhythms of life there. She built trusting relationships with and then filmed two female breadwinners and a fishing family, all challenged by the plight of diminishing yields and increasing costs of living. Her thoughtful film was the first by a Cambodian to have its premiere at Sundance, where it was won the World Cinema Grand jury Awrd. The Yale and UCLA Law School-educated cinematographer for the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, does not believe the answer to her native country’s problems lie in retaining all old traditions though. This child of refugees who escaped Pol Pot’s hellish regime and ultimately landed in the U.S.. gives the path forward thoughtful consideration. (Screens Saturday, April 27, 7 PM, Kabuki AND Monday, April 29 6:30 PM, BAM/PFA AND Sunday, May 5 1 PM, New People)
Downpour (Ragbar): (Bahram Beyzaie, Iran, 1971, 128 min) Every year SFIFF screens a recently restored classic of world cinema and this year it’s acclaimed Iranian filmmaker, playwright, stage director and producer Bahram Beyzaie’s 1971 debut feature Downpour. The film was the first Iranian feature to cast a woman in a role other than a prostitute or cabaret girl and ushered in a new filmmaking movement in Iran. The story revolves around Mr. Hekmati, an educated teacher who is transferred to a school in the south of Tehran, a poor conservative area. His pupils are unruly and he is forced to expel one of them. The next day, the boy’s sister, `Atefeh, comes to the school and, thinking that Mr. Hekmati is the headmaster, protests the expulsion. Another student sees them together and spreads rumors that Mr. Hekmati and `Atefeh are having a love affair. While trying to set the record straight, he suddenly finds he really is in love with her. Caught between the hyperactive imaginations of his students and the idle gossip of neighborhood busybodies, the idealistic Mr. Hekmati quickly finds himself at the center of controversy. Soon all eyes in the community are on him.
A scene from Bahram Beyzaie’s “Downpour” (1971), hailed as one of the great Iranian films for its poetic approach to editing, dialogue and context. Restored by World Cinema Foundation in 2011, the film screens at SFIFF 56 with Beyzaie in attendance. Photo: courtesy San Francisco Film Society
“The tone puts me in mind of what I love best in the Italian neorealist pictures,” writes Martin Scorsese, “and the story has the beauty of an ancient fable—you can feel Beyzaie’s background in Persian literature, theater and poetry.” This screening presents the film as restored in 2011 by the World Cinema Foundation at Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna/L’immagine Ritrovata laboratory. (Screens Sunday, April 28, 12:15 PM, Kabuki AND Sunday, May 5, 3:20 PM BAM/PFA) Bahram Beyzaie will attend and participate in a Q&A following the April 28th screening.
The Daughter (Alexander Kasatkin, Natalia Nazarova, Russia, 2012, 111 minutes) Life in the unforgiving provinces is a well-explored theme in Russian literature and film. Russian duo Natalia Nazarova and Alexander Kasatkin, (Listening to Silence, 2007) throw a serial killer into a provincial village to liven things up for naïve 16 year-old Inna (Maria Smolnikova) who’s strict widowed father (Oleg Tkachev) keeps her on a tight leash. Enter the rebellious and fun vixen Masha (Yana Osipova), a girl from a slightly larger town, who quickly educates Inna about alcohol, sex and how to have fun. Also new to the village is the family of an Orthodox priest, brimming with traditional Christian virtues and values, and Inna falls for the priest’s son, Il’ia (Igor’ Mazepa). Meanwhile a serial killer is on the prowl and the suspense builds as those close to Inna are killed and implicated. Filmed in Elat’ma and Kasimovo, two small villages in Russia’s Riazan’ region, the film’s evocation of the slowed rhythms of rural life, lingering traditions and modern impingements create a bleak post-Perestroika commentary, with the lingering question of what the role of the Orthodox church should be. (Screens Friday, April 26, 6:15 PM and Sunday, April 28, 1 PM both at Kabuki AND Monday, May 6, 9 PM at BAM/PFA)
SFIFF56 DETAILS: SFIFF 56 runs April 25-May 9, 2013. 5 Screening Venues: Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post Street, San Francisco; New People Cinema, 1746 Post Street, San Francisco; Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street, San Francisco; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Theatre, 2575 Bancroft Way, Berkeley. Event Venues (all San Francisco): Bimbos 365 Club, 1025 Columbus Avenue; Roe, 651 Howard Street; Rouge, 1500 Broadway; Ruby Skye, 420 Mason Street; Temple Nightclub and Ki Restaurant, 540 Howard Street
Tickets: $15 for most films with a variety of multiple screening passes. Special events generally start at $20
More info: (415) 561-5000, www.festival.sffs.org
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