Geneva Anderson digs into art

The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival is off and running─here are the best films for armchair travel

A scene from Mike Plunkett’s documentary “Salero,” that paints an extraordinary and rare portrait of one of Bolivia’s last saleros─men who harvest salt from the vast and otherworldly Slara de Uyuni plateau. Screening three times at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, with filmmaker Mike Plunkett in attendance. Image: courtesy San Francisco Film Society

A scene from Mike Plunkett’s documentary “Salero,” which paints an extraordinary portrait of one of Bolivia’s last saleros─men who harvest salt from the vast and otherworldly Salar de Uyuni plateau, one of the most secluded places on the planet. This remote region faces the future head-on when Bolivia’s leaders embark on a plan to extract lithium from beneath the salt crust and to build an infrastructure connecting the Salar to the outside world.  Screening three times at the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival, with filmmaker Mike Plunkett in attendance. Image: courtesy San Francisco Film Society

Armchair Traveler?   The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF 59) (April 23- May 5, 2016) is known for its wonderfully-curated and inspiring world cinema and for championing the work of young, talented directors.  The festival’s been on since last Thursday but most films screen three times over 15 days, so there’s ample opportunity to find a fit for your schedule.  With 173 films and live events from 46 countries, the choice can be overwhelming.  In a way that ordinary tourism rarely allows, here are seven films, with contemporary stories and characters, that will transport you right into the heart of a remote culture─Bolivia, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, the Faro Islands, rural India, Iran, North Korea.  Each film below delivers exquisitely filmed authentic sights and is joyful, sad or complex on its own special terms.

One of the joys of attending is getting to see these films the way they were meant to be seen—on a big screen with digital projection—and participating in stimulating Q&A’s with their directors and actors.  This year, a director or team member from four of these films will be present for post-screening Q&A’s which always shed light on the grueling work and special observational radar it takes to conceive of and pull off a feature-length film.

For full schedule, info, and tickets visit .

To read ARThound’s previous SFIFF59 coverage, click here.

Click on the titles of the films below to be directed to the festival webpage for that film and to purchase tickets.



A scene from Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's "Sonita, playing at SFIFF59

A scene from Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s “Sonita,” playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS


(Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami, (Germany/Switzerland/Iran, 2015, 91 min)  Robksareh Ghaem Maghami’s documentary (Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award for world cinema documentary at Sundance) takes us to a homeless shelter in Tehran as it tracks Sonita, a teen-aged Afghan refugee who fled the violence in her homeland to Iran. Sonita loves hip-hop, idolizes Rihanna and has a real knack for rap─ her sassy lyrics pack a defiant punch. In Iran, she is geographically removed from the tradition of child brides, but her Afghan family’s patriarchal practices are still in place. Her older brother wants to sell her so that he can buy his own bride and Sonita’s mother is in full agreement.  Sonita won’t go down without a fight and believes that her dream of becoming a rapper can set her free, despite the fact that in Iran it is illegal for women to perform in public without a permit or to record in a studio. She raps straight to the camera about her fears of being a child bride and the insanity of marrying her off.  What’s different about this doc is that the filmmaker, Maghami, gets directly involved in Sonita’s plight and it’s all captured on film. In the vein of Mustang, the film eloquently captures a young woman standing up for the innate human right to navigate the course of one’s own life. An important film that features immersive shots of  Tehran and Kabul. (Farsi w/subtitles) Director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami in attendance/Q&A. Wed, April 27, 6:15 p.m., Alamo; Fri, April 29, 8:45 p.m., BAMPFA


Home Care

Alena Mihulová in a scene from Slávek Horák's "Home Care," playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

Alena Mihulová in a scene from Slávek Horák’s “Home Care,” playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

(Slávek Horák, Czech Republic/Slovakia, 2015, 92 min) Up for Golden Gate Awards New Directors Prize  Over-dedicated to the point of being nearly co-dependent, home-care nurse, Vlasta (Alena Mihulová) schleps around the bucolic south Moravian countryside on bus and foot tending to patients too sick or elderly to travel to a clinic. Back at home, she cooks and cleans for her growly, self-absorbed husband whose concern for her well-being extends mainly to pouring her shots of brandy and then taking pot shots at her drinking and suggesting ways to finagle gas money from her state-run employer. When she herself is diagnosed with a serious illness, she rejects morphine and finds support from a group of women healers who embrace alternative therapies and self-love which shakes up her relationship at home. Showcasing the amazing Alena Mihulová, who won the Crystal Globe for best actress at Karlovy Vary, this film of self-awakening also showcases life in a small Czech town, taking a dip into spoon-bending, dance, and saving rare frogs in the countryside. The Czech Republic’s Foreign Language Film Oscar submission. (Czech w/subtitles)  Director Slávek Horák in attendance/Q&A. Wed, April 27, 6:45 p.m., Alamo; Thurs, April 28, 8:50 p.m., BAM/PFA; Mon, May 2, 3 p.m., Roxie



A scene from Mike Plunkett's "Salero," playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

A scene from Mike Plunkett’s “Salero,” playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

(Mike Plunkett, USA/Bolivia, 2015, 76 min) West Coast Premiere  Moises Chambri Yucra, a Quechean Indian in his thirties, is one of Bolivia’s last saleros─men who harvest salt from the vast Salar de Uyuni plateau.  Underneath this expanse lies the gargantuan lithium deposits that some speculate will turn Bolivia into a kind of Saudi Arabia based on the sale of this scarce mineral that is vital for batteries and other industrial uses. Moises lives with his wife and two young sons in the tiny Bolivian village of Colchani. His livelihood is dependent on demand for the home-grown table salt he peddles to vendors in Uyuni, a small city that has become the hub of the burgeoning lithium mining industry. Daily, he rises at dawn and labors to gather salt from the flats and load it onto his truck and drive it to be ground. Demand for table salt has been falling steadily and he can barely support his family. The shots of the Bolivian salt flats are other worldly.  Director Mike Plunkett and producer Anna Rose Holmer will both be in attendance/Q&A.   Sat, April 30, 3:15 p.m., Alamo; Sun, May 1, 1 p.m., BAMPFA; Tues, May 3, 3:30 p.m., Roxie 159



A scene from Raam Reddy's "Thithi," playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

A scene from Raam Reddy’s “Thithi,” playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

(Raam Reddy, India/USA, 2016, 123 min)  Up for Golden Gate Awards New Directors Prize    Twenty-five year old Director Raam Reddy’s debut feature, Thithi, set in rural India, is a realistic comedy exploring how three generations of sons in a family, each with different perspectives on life, react to the death of the family patriarch, the grandfather, 101-year-old Century Gowda. As village elders plan his funeral with the final celebration on the 11th day (the “thithi”), the motivations of the two younger generations (his grown grandson and his young adult great grandson) emerge. The greedy grandson wants a piece of land for himself that should pass directly to his father from Century Gowda. The hapless great grandson is driven so crazy by frustration and desire for a girl that he slacks off on responsibilities just when he is most needed. Century Gowda’s son, elderly Gadappa, on the other hand, roams the fields and is so free of the material world and its trappings that he joins the group of nomadic shepherds. Driving the plot forward is the growing chain of graft and ill-conceived machinations involving snatching the plot of land and pulling off the grand thithi feast for the entire community. Set in a small village in Karnataka India’s rural Mandya district, a place where time seems to have stood still, this is no ordinary film set─Reddy used non-professional actors; the whole community essentially became the cast and the entire village the set. The viewer is thrust into the thrall of 2,000 year old customs in this slow moving portrait of the human condition. (Kannada language w/ subtitles)  Sat, April 30, 2016, Roxie, 3:30 p.m.; Sun, May 1, 3:15 p.m., BAMPFA; Wed, May 4, 2016, Alamo, 9 p.m.


Under the Sun

A scene from Vitaly Mansky's "Under the Sun," playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

A scene from Vitaly Mansky’s “Under the Sun,” playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

(Vitaly Mansky, Russia/Latvia/Germany/Czech Republic/North Korea, 2015, 106 min)Never underestimate a motivated Russian. The standard M.O. for docs providing windows into repressive regimes is that the filmmaker somehow gets deep inside, beyond the reach of government censors, and through meticulous reporting, shows us how ordinary people live their lives and respond to authoritarian rule.   Russian documentary maker Vitaly Mansky (Bliss, SFIFF 1997) pulls off a real coup in Under the Sun, his documentary about life inside North Korea because it was shot with the full permission and supervision of Pyongyang authorities—a collaboration they would come to regret. Mansky was provided with preapproved locations in Pyongyang and suitable subjects: young Lee Zin-mi, a student at the city’s best school, and her parents, workers at two exemplary factories (or so officials claimed). This state managed propaganda effort morphs into a deep-cover documentary about life inside Pyongyang. When the joint project breaks down midway through, Mansky captures all the off-script machinations of the handlers on film and turns out a highly revealing portrait of life inside Kim Jong-Un’s totalitarian world. (Korean w/subtitles)   Sat, April 30, 6 p.m., Alamo; Wed, Mat 4, 3:15 p.m., Alamo; Thurs, May 5, 6:30 p.m., BAMPFA



A scene from Svetla Tsotsorkova's "Thirst," playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

A scene from Svetla Tsotsorkova’s “Thirst,” playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

(Svetla Tsotsorkova, Bulgaria, 2015, 90 min) Up for Golden Gate Awards New Directors Prize  When drought threatens her ability to wash, a laundress, who lives on a parched hilltop in southwest Bulgaria with her teenage son and husband, invites a dowser onto their property to search for hidden springs. The father drills the wells, guided by his spirited daughter’s eerie ability to locate water beneath the ground. Told with minimal dialogue, this story is masterfully attentive in capturing the growing attraction between two very different teens that hesitantly get together. Director Tsotsorkova immediately establishes a bewitching sense of place that immerses the viewer in the hothouse of high Bulgarian summer—a dusty road, row upon row of bed sheets pinned on a line and caught in a hot breeze, the wonderfully functional huge mangle that wrings and flattens those sheets, a sudden torrential rainstorm, and a piercing drill. (Bulgarian w/subtitles)  Sun, May 1, 3:45 p.m. and Thurs, May, 5, 3 p.m.─both at Roxie.


The Island and the Whales

A scene from Mike Day's "The Islands and the Whales," playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

A scene from Mike Day’s “The Islands and the Whales,” playing at SFIFF59. Image: courtesy SFFS

(Mike Day, Scotland/Denmark, 2015, 81 min) Both seabirds and whales are still hunted for food and eaten in the Faro Islands, an island country situated roughly halfway between Norway and Iceland that consists of an archipelago of eighteen small volcanic islands spanning some 541 square miles. Connected by a network of tunnels, bridges and ferry routes, the small and remote archipelago is very rugged, windy, wet, cloudy, and cool year round.  Director Mike May spent four years documenting the controversial fishing culture of the Faro Islands and its unique way of life, telling the story of the hunters’ daily lives and the opposition they face from outside animal rights groups.  And just like the seas that surround them, this community is also suffering from increasing levels of mercury poisoning.  A local toxicologist, wielding 30 years’ worth of data on the neurological effects—particularly on children—of ingesting a traditional diet of pilot whale and seabirds, struggles to deliver the bad news to his neighbors, among them a young father of three who’s reluctant to abandon the customs he’s inherited and his livelihood.  Day presents an unprecedented window into a community reliant on tradition and folk practices colliding with urgent contemporary concerns.  Amidst a landscape of monumental beauty, scenes of local men herding pilot whales into the shallows for the kill or rappelling down a cliff to raid a gannet nesting area are graphic and arresting. (In Faroese, Danish and English)  Director Mike Day in attendance/Q&A.  Wed, May 4, 8:45 p.m., Victoria; Thurs, May 5, 12:15 p.m., Alamo



When:  SFIFF 59 runs 14 days─ Thursday, April 21 – Thursday, May 5, 2016

Where:  Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, 2550 Mission Street (Between 21st and 22nd Streets, San Francisco (main venue)

Castro Theatre, 429 Castro Street., San Francisco (mostly big events, weekends)

Gray Area, 2665 Mission Street., San Francisco

Roxie Theater, 3117 16th Street., San Francisco

Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco

BAMPFA (Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive), 2155 Center Street, Berkeley

Tickets: $15 most films, more for Special Events and Parties which  generally start at $20 or $35.   Passes—the popular CINEVOUCHER 10-pack ($140 general public and $120 for Film Society members) and the exclusive CINEVISA early admittance to every screening, party, and program (with exception of Film Society Awards Night). ($1350 Film Society members and $1700 general public).   How to buy tickets—purchase online at or in person during the festival.   Alamo Drafthouse is open daily from 11:30 a.m. onwards; all other venues are open for SFIFF purchases one hour before the first screening of the day.

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

Arrive Early!  Ticket and pass holders must arrive 15 minutes prior to show time to guarantee admission.

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 Alamo Drafthouse New Mission 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

April 25, 2016 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment