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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.


October 5, 2017 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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).


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 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:


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)


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)


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


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   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

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

March 8, 2017 Posted by | Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

The 8th Annual Petaluma International Film Festival kicks off Friday, October 28th, and offers a weekend of exciting cinema

If you see just one Kazakh wife-stealing comedy this year, make it Yerlan Nurmukhambetov’s “Walnut Tree,” which screens Saturday at the 8th Petaluma International Film Festival. The 81 minute drama is a beautifully rendered portrait of Kazakh identity with breathtaking cinematography. This year’s festival showcases 40 independent features and shorts from 18 countries with a special program devoted to Sonoma Filmmakers.

If you see just one Kazakh wife-stealing comedy this year, make it Yerlan Nurmukhambetov’s “Walnut Tree,” screening Saturday at the 8th Petaluma International Film Festival. In addition to its humor, the 81 minute drama is a beautifully rendered portrait of Kazakh identity with breathtaking cinematography. PIFF8 is October 28-30, 2016 at Petaluma’s Boulevard Cinemas.

With 40 independent films from 18 countries, the 8th Annual Petaluma International Film Festival (PIFF8) offers line-up of new independent films from the remote corners of the globe to homey Petaluma.  This year’s festival is Friday through Sunday at Petaluma’s Boulevard 14 Cinemas and offers 15 full-length films and 25 shorts and the popular Sonoma Filmmakers Showcase with several filmmakers in attendance.  There’s also Running Wild, Alex Ranarivelo’s new horse drama that was co-produced by Petaluma’s Ali Afshar and was shot in 2015 all around Sonoma County.

Organized by Saeed Shafa who founded the popular annual Tiburon International Film Festival in 2002, PIFF was created to support new indie filmmakers, great storytelling and international points of view.  Since most filmmakers start our their careers by making a short film, Shafa has purposely paired all the feature films with at least one short film to demonstrate to the audience that short stories can be highly effective and so can new filmmakers.

Friday’s Opening film:

A scene from award-winning filmmaker Hilary Linder’s documentary “Indivisible” (2016) showing a meeting at the US-Mexico border between children and their parents. The parents were deported to Mexico and the children stayed behind in the US.

A scene from award-winning filmmaker Hilary Linder’s documentary “Indivisible” (2016) showing a meeting at the US-Mexico border between children and their parents. The parents were deported to Mexico and the children stayed behind in the US.

The festival kicks off Friday at noon with Hilary Linder’s compelling documentary, Indivisible (2016), which showcases real people at the heart of our country’s immigration debate and the Dreamer movement for immigrant rights. In a year in which election theatrics have supplanted substantive debate on the pressing issue of immigration reform, Linder gives us a a very relevant story that tracks three children who were been separated from their parents by deportation and became stuck in redtape which prohibited them from visiting their parents and their parents form visiting them.  Against all odds, these kids remain hopeful and are working to promote reform. Screens with shorts “The Silence” and “Between the Lines.”

Saturday and Sunday evenings—Sonoma Filmmakers Showcase:

Now in its fourth year, the festival’s popular Sonoma Filmmakers Showcase has expanded to both Saturday and Sunday evenings.  The program reflects Shafa’s commitment to our community’s talented independent filmmakers.  The evenings allow the community to gather to meet these filmmakers and to see a number of short films all at once.  This year, the program starts on Saturday with Alex Ranarivelo’s new feature length drama, Running Wild (2016), starring Oscar-nominated Sharon Stone.  The film was co-produced by Petaluma’s Ali Afshar and was shot in 2015 in Petaluma, Tomales, Santa Rosa and Glen Ellen. The story revolves around the plight of wild horses during the drought. Recently widowed Stella Davis (Dorian Brown, FX’s “Wilfred”) faces foreclosure of her Double Diamond Ranch and works with convicts to rehabilitate a herd of wild horses that has wandered onto her ranch. The film screens Saturday at 6:15 PM with director Alex Ranarivelo and actress Dorian Brown in attendance.

Sunday Afternoon: Focus on Dance and Music


A scene from Randy Valdes' "A Todo Color" (2015).

A scene from Randy Valdes’ “A Todo Color” (2015).


Randy Valdes was born in Cuba in 1986 and then relocated to Miami at age eight.  His documentary A Todo Color (2015)  tells the story of how, in the 1990’s, young Cubans turned to music as a source of inspiration and how Cuban musicians managed to disseminate their art and truths beyond Cuba.  Through intimate interviews and fabulous concert scenes, the film explores the artists’ personal and creative journeys, how their influence defines the artistic language of the Cuban cultural Diaspora, and how each incorporates the influences of their newly adopted cultural environments into the ever-evolving phenomenon of World Cuban Music.  Screens Sunday, 2PM with shorts Body & Sound (4 min) and State of Grace (5 min)


Bardroy Barretto’s musical feature Let’s Dance to the Rhythm (2015) brings some 20 legendary songs from the 60’s and 70’s to life in a spectacular tribute to Goan music that unfolds as a love story between a composer-musician, Lawtry (Vijay Maurya), and his protégé, Dona (Palomi Ghosh).  Set against the backdrop of the jazz clubs of Bombay and Goa’s vibrant 60’s generation of musicians, the film is loosely based on a true story.  Goan musicians contributed greatly to Bollywood’s melodious songs and compositions and this film gives these unsung heroes their due.  Screens Sunday at 4 PM. (In Konkani with subtitles)

PIFF Details:

The 7th Petaluma International Film Festival is Friday, October 28, through Sunday, October 30, 2016 at Petaluma’s Boulevard Cinemas, 200 C Street, Petaluma. Tickets: All screenings $12; buy tickets during the festival at Petaluma’s Boulevard Cinemas or online (click here) with a handling fee.  Passes:  All inclusive festival pass is $180 and a day pass is $60. (click here to purchase)

For full schedule and more information, click here.






October 26, 2016 Posted by | Film, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 39th Mill Valley Film Festival is October 6-16 and it’s a very good year



Ethiopian writer-director Yared Zeleke’s feature debut film, “The Lamb” (2015) will screen twice at the 39th Mill Valley Film Festival, and the filmmaker will attend both screenings and participate in an audience Q & A. “The Lamb” wasthe first Ethiopian film ever named an official Cannes selection, made a huge splash at Cannes in 2015. This drama, which unfolds in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, is the story of a young boy, Ephriam (Rediat Amare), who, after his mother’s death, is left to live with his cousins while his father heads off to Addis Abba in search of work. He becomes attached to a goat, Chuni, and when his relatives make plans to sacrifice the goat, he and Chuni go on the run. Much of the film is an exploration of family life in Ethiopia, a land of stunning landscapes and drought-stricken arid areas, where the labor-intensive electricity-free lifestyle is far removed from that in the West. The film is especially recommended for families. Image: MVFF

Ethiopian writer-director Yared Zeleke’s feature debut film, “The Lamb” (2015) screens twice at the 39th Mill Valley Film Festival, and the filmmaker will attend both screenings and participate in audience Q & A’s.  The first Ethiopian film ever named an official Cannes selection, “The Lamb” made a huge splash at Cannes. This drama, which unfolds in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia, is the story of a young boy, Ephriam (Rediat Amare), who, after his mother’s death, is left to live with his cousins while his father heads off to Addis Abba in search of work. He becomes attached to an endearing goat, Chuni, and when his relatives make plans to sacrifice the goat, he and Chuni go on the run. Much of the film is an exploration of family life in Ethiopia, a land of stunning landscapes and drought-stricken arid areas, where the labor-intensive electricity-free lifestyle is far removed from that in the West. The film is especially recommended for families. Image: MVFF


With the onset of fall, Bay Area moviegoing options start to multiply like crazy.  The Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF), October 6-16 2016, is hard to beat.  The 39th edition offers a line-up of 200 films—winners from Cannes, Berlin, and Toronto as well as an eclectic mix of features, documentaries, shorts, world cinema and films with a Bay Area stamp—all selected for our discriminating Bay Area audience by programmer Zoe Elton and her seasoned team.  The legendary festival kicks off on Thursday evening, October 6, with two of Hollywood’s hottest fall films—La La Land, Damien Chazelle’s (Whiplash MVFF 2014) love letter to dreamers, artists, and Hollywood with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone and Denis Vileneuve’s (Sicario) riveting and thoughtful drama, Arrival, starring five time Oscar-nominee Amy Adams as a linguistics professor who communicates with aliens in a bid to save the planet. Actually, in a move to satisfy everyone’s tastes, there are four films screening on Thursday evening, so add Mick Jackson’s Denial starring Rachael Weiss and Rob Nilsson’s  Love Twice  to the mix but they are not being billed as opening nighters. Special Tributes will honor Academy Award winning actress Nicole Kidman in a program that includes a screening of her new film with Dev Patel,  Lion, and acclaimed filmmaker and author Julie Dash, who will appear in conversation following a screening of her recently restored  Daughters of  the Dust (1991).  The festival closes with Jeff Nichols’ Loving, which tells the real life story of the struggle, imprisonment and 1960’s Supreme Court battle Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving experienced in one of America’s early interracial marriages.

The festival unfolds in San Rafael, Corte Madera, Larkspur and Mill Valley.  For North Bay residents, getting there and parking is considerably more time efficient and cheaper than it is in San Francisco.  If you want to go, pre-purchase your tickets now as this popular festival tends to sell out before it starts.  There is ample choice right now but not for long.  I recommend seeing films where the filmmaker or actors will be in attendance.  Also, check the new program guide for Smith Rafael Film Center.  Several of the festival films are screening there within the next two months and it doesn’t make sense to pay a premium to see them at the festival and wait in long lines unless there are special guests attending that make it worthwhile.

ARThound’s top picks:

Neruda/Spotlight Gael Garcia Bernal—Mon, Oct 10

Actor Gael García Bernal stars in director Pablo Larraíns new film, "Neruda."

Actor Gael García Bernal, the focus of a MVFF Spotlight, stars in director Pablo Larraíns new film, “Neruda.”

The foreign film line-up is especially strong this year.  Chilean Director Pablo Larrain’s Neruda, Chile’s foreign language Oscar nominee, takes center stage in a special Spotlight presentation honoring Mexican actor-director-producer Gael Garcia Bernal.  The drama is set in 1948 and Bernal plays a police inspector who is charged with finding the fugitive Communist politician and poet, Pablo Neruda, when he goes underground.  In Larrain’s capable hands, the film morphs into a soulful exploration of Chile’s historical dance with heroes and villains and Bernal as the inspector becomes a key figure, obsessed with finding Neruda who has managed to make him his pawn.  Bernal will appear in an onstage conversation covering his extensive career.


The Salesman—Fri, Oct 7 and Wed, Oct 12

Shahab Hosseini (L) and Taraneh Alidoosti in a scene from Ashgar Farhadi’s “The Salesman.”

Shahab Hosseini (L) and Taraneh Alidoosti in a scene from Ashgar Farhadi’s “The Salesman.”

I can’t remember when the festival last hosted an Iranian filmmaker but, over the year’s, we’ve reveled in their creativity, courage and unparalleled story-telling.  This year, acclaimed Academy Award and Golden Globe winning writer-director Ashgar Farhadi (A Separation) will appear in person to answer questions after the two screenings of his new Tehran-set drama The Salesman.   The film picked up Best Screenplay and Best Actor awards at Cannes and was selected as the Iranian nominee for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.  The Salesman is the suspenceful story of a young Persian couple who are part-time actors in Tehran in the Arthur Miller play Death of a Salesman. Their relationship is strained after they move into a new flat and the wife is attacked while she is taking a shower.  The flat’s previous occupant, a woman who was allegedly involved in prostitution, is never seen but her presence grows as the film progresses.  At Cannes, Shahab Hosseini, the husband, won the award for Best Actor.


Lamb—Sat, Oct 8 and Tues, Oct 11

A scene from Yared Zeleke's "Lamb."

A scene from Yared Zeleke’s “Lamb.”

A rarity for MVFF is an Ethiopian film, in Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. Writer-director Yared Zeleke’s first feature, Lamb, was the first Ethiopian film ever named an official Cannes selection. The 37 year-old director made Variety magazine’s “10 Screenwriters to Watch” list for 2015.   The story revolves around an Ethiopian boy who loses his mother and moves in with relatives and becomes attached to a pet lamb, Chuni, as a way of dealing with loss and grief.  He also takes up cooking which is unacceptable to his uncle who considers it girl’s work.  The story hits close to home for the director. When he was just 10, Zeleke’s own father was imprisoned by the Derg regme (the ruling military Communist regime that was in power in Ethiopia from 1974 to 1987) and his mother remarried and he went to live with his grandmother.  Ultimately, Zeleke was reunited with his father and they lived together in the US but the happy days he had with both loving parents together were long gone.  Filmmaker in attendance for both screenings.

Frantz—Fri, Oct 7 and Fri, Oct 14

Paula Beer and Pierre Niney in a scene from François Ozon’s “Frantz.”

Paula Beer and Pierre Niney in a scene from François Ozon’s “Frantz.”

French director François Ozon (Swimming Pool, 8 Women, Under the Sand) always stirs me with subtle demonstrations of his artistry and deep understanding of human nature.   His latest film, Frantz, a romantic drama set in the aftermath of WWI in the small German town of Quedlingburg, is a layered portrait of grief.  The story evolves from a strange graveside encounter between a young German woman (Paula Beer) grieving her fiancé and a Frenchman, Adrian (Pierre Niney), who also visits the fiancé’s grave to leave flowers.  He claims to have been friends with her fiancé and, slowly, she begins to develop feelings for him.  Shot in black and white, with brief interludes of color, the film is a loose adaptation of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1932 drama Broken Lullaby which itself was based on a play by French playwright Maurice Rostand.  Niney, whose elegant face would have inspired Michelangelo, won a Cesar award for his outstanding performance in Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent (2014).

Mom and Other Loonies in the Family—Sat, Oct 15 and Sun, Oct 16

Eszter Ónodi (seated) in a scene from Ibolya Fekete’s “Mom and Other Loonies in the Family.”

Eszter Ónodi (seated) in a scene from Ibolya Fekete’s “Mom and Other Loonies in the Family.”

Hungarian director Ibolya Fekete’s Mom and Other Loonies in the Family revolves around a 94 year-old grandmother with dementia who relates her life story to her daughter.  It’s a heartwarming recounting, told through flashbacks over four generations of crazies.  She was a mother on the run who moved twenty-seven times—and the film spans all of the 20th century, meandering through epic moments in Hungarian and world history.   Her “present” is a time that is infused with struggles, declining health and the confusing intervention of past events.  Her past was committed to keeping the family together at any cost.  The story is based on the filmmaker’s own family and stories related to her by relatives.  Characters appear in archival footage and in well-known Hungarian films as if they were actually in those films. Eszter Ónodi shines as the reliable yet somewhat whimsical woman who moved too many times and just wants to stand on her own two feet.  Her ninety four-year old demented self is played by Danuta Szaflarska who credibly plays the role by reverting to childlike responses.

Green is Gold—Sat, Oct 8 and Sun, Oct 9

Jimmy Baxter (L) and Ryan Baxter (R) in a scene from Ryan Baxter's "Green is Gold."

Jimmy Baxter (L) and Ryan Baxter (R) in a scene from Ryan Baxter’s “Green is Gold.”

I have a weakness for films that are set in Northern, California, where I grew up.  Sonoma State University graduate  Ryan Baxter’s first feature,  Green is Gold, is set in rural Sonoma County and is a family bonds over pot business story that picked up the Audience Best Fiction Film award at the Los Angeles Film Festival for its poetic filmmaking and emotional truth.  Ryan Baxter, the writer, director, editor and star, plays the older brother, Cameron, a black market potrepneur ( a real word I picked up at the Heirloom Festival) who is forced to take care of his younger brother, Jimmy (his real life brother, Jimmy Baxter) when their dad is imprisoned.  Cameron tries to put some distance between the kid and the cannabis business, which involves considerable risk but high payoffs, but, soon Jimmy is knee deep in buds and the two find themselves embarking on a dangerous pot delivery journey that will either leave them rolling in dough or six feet under.  Ryan Baxter, actor Jimmy Baxtor, and rest of cast and crew in attendance at both screenings.)

Unleashed—Wed, Oct 12 and Thurs, Oct 13

A scene from Finn Taylor's "Unleashed," with Kate Micucci (L) and Justin Chatwin (R) who was once her energetic dog, Summit, and has reentered her life as a full grown man. The film screens twice at MVFF with filmmaker, producer and Kate Miccuci in attendance.

A scene from Finn Taylor’s “Unleashed,” with Kate Micucci (L) and Justin Chatwin (R) who was once her energetic dog, Summit, and has reentered her life as a full grown man. The film screens twice at MVFF with filmmaker, producer and Kate Miccuci in attendance.

What if your pets turned into full-grown men?  I couldn’t resist the whacky 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.

Details MVFF 39:

The 39th Mill Valley Film Festival opens on Thursday, October 6 and runs through Sunday, October 16, 2016.  Buy tickets online now at  Most tickets for films are $14 and special programs starts at $25.

October 1, 2016 Posted by | Film, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview: Zita Morriña, Programming director, Cuba’s International Festival of New Latin American Cinema

Zita Morriña, Programming director, Havana’s Festival of New Latin American Cinema.

Zita Morriña, Programming director, Havana’s Festival of New Latin American Cinema. The 38th edition of this popular festival is December 8-18, 2016.

As I travelled to sunny Havana, Cuba last December for my first visit to the  International Festival of New Latin American Cinema, I had a myriad of questions about what goes on behind the scenes to bring over 650 films from 49 countries to Havana.  Virtually unknown to most Americans, this 10 day festival, which is always held in the first two weeks of December, keeps getting bigger and better each year and is one of Havana’s and Latin America’s most anticipated annual events.  I spoke with festival Programming Director, Zita Morriña, who has handled programming for the past 37 years.

The 37th edition of the festival received roughly 1500 films that were submitted from the region for consideration, the biggest year ever.  The festival also seeks out prizewinners from Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Toronto.  Morriña and her team of four energetic programmers turn all of this into a 10-day program that runs in 14 historic theaters all across Havana.  They also organize the festival’s awards program which involves 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.  I meet with Morriña mid-way through last December’s festival in a large house in the Havana suburbs, owned by the festival; it was raining cats and dogs and the place was absolutely chaotic, with a stream of very wet people coming and going.  Confident at the helm, Morriña gave me the lay of the land.

What is the philosophy of programming?  How many submissions do you get and what are your standards for what you accept?

Zita Morriña: This year, we had over 1500 submissions.  Every year, we usually get over 1000 but after the digital system of film became more popular, we started getting many more submissions from all over the world.  Our philosophy is to emphasize Latin films so the areas of competition are only open to Latin American films.  Some are submitted and some are by invitation.  We always open our submissions in January or February.  Including me, We have five programmers here and we have a budget for travel that’s not very big, but allows us to go to the big festivals—Berlin, Cannes, San Sebastian, Rotterdam—and some that are not so big but which are important for Latin film.  We go to the principal countries—Argentina, Chile Brazil Venezuela and sometimes Colombia—and then we will go to a festival in Lima, Peru, and two to three festivals in Brazil.  We’ve also attended Bogota Audiovisual Market (BAM) where they screen films. We invite the films that win the awards and get recognition.  It’s always a combination of films we want and films they send us.  This year, the majority is by submission not invitation.

How has the festival grown over the years in terms of participants?

Zita Morriña: In the beginning, the festival was more Latin American than international.  In Latin America, almost all the countries have participated and that has just solidified and broadened.  In the beginning, everything was in the contest.  That worked for awhile but then it grew so much that the jurors couldn’t watch 40 or 50 films, so we decided to have separate contests and limit the number of films.  We started with the fiction film category for the contest and, within that, created a prize for the first fiction film and the best short film.  As we grew, and first films became more important, we created the contest for first films.  This year, we have over 21 films full-length feature films, 21documentaries, 21 shorts, 21 first films, 21 animation and over 40 long and short features in fiction.  We also have a script contest and we receive more than 100 every year.

Are you free to accept films of any subject matter?

Zita Morriña: Not for the contest.  We decided that it would only for Latin American films or films with Latin American subjects.  Outside the contest, we accept everything.

How is the jury selected?

Zita Morriña: It varies but it’s always a different jury each year.  Sometimes, we select filmmakers who have received the award in the past.  We try to make each jury a composition of many countries so there is balance.

What are you most proud of about this festival?

Zita Morriña:  Our programming.  We show the very best films produced in Latin America.  This year in our “Gala” section we have a few films produced by Latin American directors that do not have a Latin American theme or subject per se, but we feel they are so relevant that they have to be shown.  Our “First Film” category keeps better each year.  These films are as good as or better than the other films we are showing.  Over the years, we have had 500,000 people attending this festival and that’s very gratifying, very good.

Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas’ “Desde Allá” (“From Afar”, 2015) picked a Coral award for best “Opera Prima” “debut film” at the 37th Festival of New Latin American Cinema. Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, this richly textured first feature explores the relationship between a lonely middle-aged man (Chilean actor Alfredo Castro) who trolls the streets of Caracas looking for young men for sex and meets his match in a young bi-sexual hustler (Luis Silva) who has a girlfriend. The young man manages to shift the balance of power between the two and the story takes unexpected twists as their emotional baggage is laid out.

Venezuelan director Lorenzo Vigas’ “Desde Allá” (“From Afar,” 2015) won a Coral award for best “Opera Prima” (debut film) at the 37th Festival of New Latin American Cinema. Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, this richly textured first feature explores the relationship between a lonely middle-aged man (Chilean actor Alfredo Castro) who trolls the streets of Caracas looking for young men for sex and a young bi-sexual hustler (Luis Silva) who becomes much more than a hook-up.  The young man manages to shift the balance of power between the two and the story takes unexpected twists as their emotional baggage is laid out.

This year, there are a lot of films addressing sexual and gender orientation.  Is this intentional, to use film as a vehicle to explore these topics in Cuban society?

Zita Morriña: For the past five years, these themes have been very present in all the films throughout the world but, in Latin American films, we’ve have about 10 to 15 films that deal with homosexuality, trans, so forth.  This is not a theme we are seeking; it comes to us.  Our criteria has always been if the film is good we take it, never mind the topic.  But, in our large panorama of subjects/categories, we do have one for diversity.  There, we show films that address all sorts of topics beyond sexual and gender orientation like albinism.

I’ve seen an uncanny number of psychologically intense and dark films at this festival.  Is this a characteristic of current Latin cinema? 

Zita Morriña: Right now, yes it is.  I think it’s a reflection of the social and political situation in Latin America right now that has given rise to this type of story.   They are moving from the militant films that we saw up until the 1990’s to films that are more socially engaged and delve into heavy psychological issues that are often the result of the environment in these countries or of events in history.

Argentina’s Oscar entry and its box office sensation “El Clan,” directed by Pablo Trapero, was the opening night film for the 37th International Festival of New Latin Cinema, December 3-13, 2015, in Havana, Cuba.

Argentina’s Oscar entry and Latin box office sensation “El Clan,” directed by Pablo Trapero, was the opening night film for the 37th International Festival of New Latin Cinema, December 3-13, 2015, in Havana, Cuba.

Has new film technology presented any special problems here in Cuba?  I attended about five screenings here where the audio did not work correctly or where they had to switch the film and show another that wasn’t scheduled due to technical issues.  How are you tackling these issues so that the people are not disappointed?

Zita Morriña: Technology is one of our greatest challenges that will be solved only by time and money.  Until about two years ago, cinemas in Cuba only screened 35mm and Blu-ray because we didn’t have any digital projectors.  Last year, 2014, we introduced this technology in two theaters—Charles Chaplin and Yara.  This year, we have fve theaters but, on the human side, we need to train our projectionists and technicians.   Also, we need to improve film transport for receiving the films.  There’s no Fed Ex here in Cuba; the films still have to come by DHL, which can take 10 to 15 days.  Right now, a week into this festival, we are missing a film from the Dominican Republic, which is just 200 miles away but I still don’t have the film.  And on the new technology side, there are problems everywhere but, here in Cuba, it’s triple.  We have a film from Mexico, Gabriel Ripstein’s 600 Miles, a very good film about the Mexican cartels, which we can’t get to open and play, so we can’t screen it.  Naturally, we always ask that films be sent ahead of time so we can work these things out but sometimes they tell us that the only copy they have is at another festival and they end up carrying the film with them when come. Also, we don’t pay any fees for films and charging a fee is very common nowadays so we have to deal with that money factor which gives us a lower priority.

Costa Rican director Esteban Ramírez Jiménez’s “Presos” (“Imprisoned,” 2014) is Costa Rica’s foreign language Oscar submission and picked up numerous awards at Latin American film festivals. The director is known for tackling on social issues and this subtle thriller is about a naïve young woman (Natalia Arias) from a traditional family who is engaged but embarks on a clandestine relationship with a prison inmate. The film was inspired by a 1973 documentary of the same name about prison conditions in Costa Rica that was filmed by his father, Victor Ramírez. This is Ramírez’s second film to become Costa Rica’s nominee for an Academy Award. In 2005, his “Caribe” was the country’s first entry.

Costa Rican director Esteban Ramírez Jiménez’s “Presos” (“Imprisoned,” 2014) is Costa Rica’s foreign language Oscar submission and picked up numerous awards at Latin American film festivals. The director is known for tackling social issues and this subtle thriller is about a naïve young woman (Natalia Arias) from a traditional family who is engaged but embarks on a clandestine relationship with a prison inmate. The film was inspired by a 1973 documentary of the same name about prison conditions in Costa Rica that was filmed by the director’s father, Victor Ramírez.  This is Esteban Ramírez’s second film to become Costa Rica’s nominee for an Academy Award. In 2005, his “Caribe” was the country’s first entry.


What are the awards─are they money or recognition?

Zita Morriña: Just recognition.  One of our awards, however, a script award, has financial support from Spanish institutions so that we can give money to the writer so to develop their idea.  There’s also a post production award we give that supports films that are already done but need to be finished, so we do give some money for that.

The Cuban cinema here has been fantastic. Does the festival, extend financial support through the Cuban Institute for Cinema, to commission any films?

Zita Morriña: No.

For the past ten years, San Francisco filmmaker Dominic Angerame has presented an important experimental and avant garde film program at the festival.  He started with a historical retrospective of experimental films from the 1920’s and, covering a decade each year, has worked his way up to contemporary experimental filmmakers. “Cuban audiences are in awe of avant garde film, “ says Angerame. “They want to understand how certain things are done and have been eager to explore cinema as an art form,” says Angerame.  Photo: Dennis Letbetter

For the past ten years, San Francisco filmmaker Dominic Angerame has presented an important experimental and avant garde film program at the festival. He started with a historical retrospective of experimental films from the 1920’s and, covering a decade each year, has worked his way up to contemporary experimental filmmakers. “Cuban audiences are in awe of avant garde film, “ says Angerame. “They want to understand how certain things are done and have been eager to explore cinema as an art form,” says Angerame. Photo: Dennis Letbetter

How does the festival survive financially?

Zita Morriña: (Outburst of laughter) We have this house, which is ours and a small full-time staff which is here year round.  We have about 20 people including four programmers, the director and we have economic and administrative staff and maintain a video-library with copies of all the films that have been in the festival.

I met the American experimental filmmaker, Dominic Angerame from San Francisco and he told me that he’s been bringing films here for the past 10 years.  How has it been collaborating with American’s over the years?

Zita Morriña:  It’s been very easy.  You know in our 7th festival, some 30 years ago, we had Jack Lemmon here and we opened our festival with Costa Gavras’ Missing (1982) about Allende and the missing or disappeared people.  We awarded Jack Lemmon the Coral of Honor, so we have always been there collaborating and communicating.  So now, let’s say, it is legal.  The Academy (Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences) has been sending delegations here for years.  Annette Bening came in 2010 with The Kids Are All Right.  We’ve had Gregory Peck, Robert DeNiro, Chris Walken, Milos Forman and Spike Lee. Harry Belafonte came many times. The former president of the Academy, Sid Ganis, was here and was very supportive.

Are you ready for the onslaught of Americans that will want to attend this festival?

Zita Morriña: We are more or less ready but I’m not so sure about the country.


To read ARThound’s previous coverage of the 37th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema (Dec 3-13, 2015), click here.

Details: The 38th Festival of New Latin American Cinema is December 8-18, 2016 in Havana.  Click here for information.  Plan on securing plane and hotel reservations at least 2 to 3 months 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, purchasing a festival pass is advised.

September 15, 2016 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Interview: Israeli director Gilad Baram talks about “Koudelka Shooting Holy Land,” his debut doc on Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka, screening at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival this week


Baram Koudelka 08

Czech-born French Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka in Israel/Palestine. Koudelka is the focus of Israeli filmmaker Gilad Baram’s documentary “Koudelka Shooting Holy Land” (2015), screening twice at the at 36th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival which runs through August 7 at venues throughout the Bay Area, including Smith Rafael Film Center. Still from “Koudelka Shooting Holy Land” @ Gilad Baram.


Czech-born French Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka’s images from Gypsies (1975) and Exiles (1988) documented the Roma and displaced populations across Europe in a way that grabbed people and pulled them right into the images. Koudelka shed light on previously unknown worlds of mysticism, delight, sadness and ways of being which pierced our souls and upon which we too could pin our own dreams.   Koudelka’s commitment to his subjects was hard earned; he lived and traveled with his subjects for decades, and the trust they gave in return is evident in these intimate images.  His arresting images from the streets of his native Prague during the Soviet-led invasion of 1968 are what catapulted him initially into the elite Magnum circle.

Recently, Koudleka, now 79, has focused on panoramic landscapes and turned his lens on the Holy Land to explore how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has left its mark on the landscape itself.  Accompanying Koudelka on this assignment was young Israeli photographer Gilad Baram, a student at Jerusalem’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, who gradually turned his own lens on Koudelka to produce a fascinating documentary portrait of a man whose images are world famous but about whom very little is known.   Baram worked as Koudelka’s assistant for four years, accompanying him on seven separate visits throughout Palestine and Israel.  His duties were to provide Koudelka’s travel arrangements, logistical support and translation.  Every day, they would worked from about 7 am until the light faded, an experience that changed Baram’s life.  His film, Koudleka Shooting Holy Land (German/Czech Republic 2015) screens twice at 36th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF 36), which kicked off Thursday at the Castro Theater and runs through August 7 in venues throughout the Bay Area, including San Rafael.

I spoke with Baram on Wednesday and he opened up about all aspects of his remarkable experience with Koudelka.   One of the challenges that any filmmaker faces in making a film about an artist of this caliber is to find a way to channel that individual’s gift without pandering to the iconization of the artist or his work.   Baram pulls this off through a series of artistic choices, producing a riveting portrait that reveals Koudelka’s way of working, his soft-spoken personality and his accumulated wisdom as well as the stunning images that result.   For those of us who are photography buffs, the chance to see the divided landscape up close, with Koudelka maneuvering, crawling, waiting and offering the rare comment as well as the goods─those precious contact sheets and the resulting prints─is a revelation.

Koudelka Shooting Holy Land screens Monday July 25th at 4 pm at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco, and at the Roda Theatre, Berkeley, on Sunday, July 31, at 1:55 pm.  Filmmaker Gilad Baram in attendance at both screenings for post-screening Q&A.

What brought Koudelka to the Holy Land and how did you come to be his assistant?

Gilad Baram:  It began in 2008, when Frédéric Brenner, a French Jewish photographer, who was famous for documenting Jewish communities world-wide, was gathering this group of 12 big names in the world of photography to come to Israel to explore different aspects of the country.  They would be given this extended and very generous period of time and resources to create their own body of work that was, afterwards, intended to become a group exhibition, a kind of huge fragmented portrait, and a book, that would travel around the world.  It came to be “This Place,” which premiered in Prague, continued to Tel Aviv and was recently exhibited in Brooklyn.

Director Gilad Baram and photographer Josef Koudelka, Qalandia Checkpoint, the main checkpoint between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem. © Frédéric Brenner

Director Gilad Baram and photographer Josef Koudelka, Qalandia Checkpoint, the main checkpoint between the northern West Bank and Jerusalem. © Frédéric Brenner

In the beginning, Koudelka declined Brenner’s offer to participate in this group project but was ultimately persuaded to come on this exploratory visit to Israel.  He accidentally bumped into the Wall in East Jerusalem and something quite profound happened in him.  Once he realized that this arouses this deep personal experience in him, he came to the conclusion that there was something he could do there.

I do know that this was his first time in Israel and Palestine and that, like he is usually, he was very suspicious of any project that was fully funded and this large in scope.  Frédéric had made a deal with my photography department to choose students who would assist these photographers.  I was the first student picked out and Josef was the first to arrive and we were put together completely by chance.  It was in February 2009.  We shook hands and had a short conversation and agreed to meet at 7 a.m. the next morning.  I had no idea what I was getting into.

Do you recall your first encounter with Koudelka’s work and your impressions?

Gilad Baram:  Yes, clearly.  It was 2005, in the library of my art school.  It was my first year there and, by accident, I opened the book Gypsies (1975) and was blown away.   I immediately connected with his photographs and his way of photographing, which I later learned is inseparable from his way of living.  Back then, I was fascinated with this and thought I too will become this nomad photographer who goes around and discovers the world, and who tends more towards the underdog.  Four years later, suddenly I’m in the lobby of a hotel in Jerusalem shaking hands with the guy who made these great photos and we set off on this incredible adventure, which neither of us anticipated.  I never imagined this would become a film.

How did your first day of work go?

Gilad Baram:  I discovered that Josef Koudleka does not need an assistant but what he does need is someone to drive him around who can communicate in the local language and a little company now and then.  He was very reserved at the beginning.  He is and has always been a lone wolf and a very wise one.  In the past 30 years or so, as his way of photographing has evolved, he uses these locals in the various places he visits to enable him with maneuvering the terrain.   In each place he goes now days, Magnum has arranged someone for this purpose who meets him.  It became quite apparent to me that we would not become friends.  He was on a mission and that was his priority.  He was, most definitely, not interested in talking too much.

Gilad Baram and Josef Koudelka in Israel/Palestine, © Gilad Baram.

Gilad Baram and Josef Koudelka in Israel/Palestine, © Gilad Baram.

How did the idea for the film come about?

Gilad Baram:  As I said, I had no intention to make a film.  At the very beginning of our journey, on the second day, when we were traveling up the West Bank, we stopped the car and he went out.  I too got out and took my camera with me.  He started photographing and then turned to me and said ‘you’re not going to hang around with this camera while I’m photographing, so please leave it in the car’.  I obeyed but I was upset.  I didn’t understand how a photographer could say that to another photographer, let alone a student.   When we arrived at the second place, I took my camera out of the car and just did it again.  This time, he turned me to and didn’t say anything but just walked away.  That’s when it started.  It was this combo of me realizing that Josef Koudelka doesn’t need an assistant and if I wished to survive this adventure, I’d have to do something for myself and by myself.  As he was walking away, I interpreted it as ‘you have a certain permission’.

Later, in the car, he made a kind of agreement with me–I would be allowed to photograph but I would not be allowed to show them to anyone, not even my colleagues at school and, if I wanted to do anything with these photos, I needed to have his permission.  He also mentioned that he should have full access to my material in case he was interested in it.  I had no option but to say OK.  It happened that my camera was the Canon 5D Mark II, which had full video mode, and, very soon, I began using that.  I’m not sure he even noticed because I wasn’t directing the camera to him at first. But it soon became very clear that he was the most interesting thing around.  I think he thought that I would not be quiet in the car, so he’d ‘let the children play’ so he could get on with his work and I would have something to do.  That was the dynamic in the beginning.  Clearly, it changed throughout time.

How did this video you were taking on the sly evolve into a film?  

Gilad Baram:   The dynamics changed.  Between each of his visits, there was more or less half a year that passed.  Between his first and second trip, I started to look at the material and after the third and fourth trips, I realized that this massive accumulation might be of interest to other people too.  That’s when I began thinking to myself that perhaps there’s a statue that is hidden in this huge chunk of marble and I need to start carving it out.  It was a very frustrating process.  In the beginning, when filming, I was restless and was running around like crazy with my camera.  I couldn’t really position myself because he was moving constantly.  Watching that footage, I knew immediately it was bullshit and that, if I’d like to attempt depicting him and his work, I would need to change my approach. It hit me that I should try adopting the way that he looks at the world.  I started slowing down and developing a visual language that was more connected to still photography and less to the moving image, establishing my camera on a tripod and allowing Koudelka to move in the compositions, which was key.  I was bridging the moving image with the still image in a way.  Once I started down that path, it was a long process of trials and errors, watching him and learning. This film is a result of this process.

Josef Koudelka, A crusader map mural, Kalya Junction, Near the Dead Sea, 2009 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka, A crusader map mural, Kalya Junction, Near the Dead Sea, 2009 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


He’s a visual storyteller who has always stood on his own and I’m curious about how he reacted to you embellishing this with a film which he probably perceived of as unnecessary.

Gilad Baram:   The first thing I showed Josef was this timeline I had made with a mass of material.  He was not impressed.  Yet, he said I should go on.   I don’t think he realized how serious I was; that only came at a later stage.  Our initial verbal contract was still binding but things evolved from him letting me distract myself by filming to keep out from under his legs, to him becoming a part of it.  We reached an extreme when, during his last visit, he actually asked me when he should be entering the frame.  That went too far and I knew something was starting to go wrong.  I realized that when he was not taking me that seriously, he was actually genuine.  Also, there was something quite crucial about me filming with the 5D Mark II that was in fact a still camera but also had a full frame video mode.  Josef didn’t feel there was an estranged object around him, which enabled him to feel more at ease as the apparatus was familiar to him.  Koudelka does not give interviews, he does not attend openings frequently and doesn’t want any distraction from his work; he is all about the photography.  He probably perceived of this film as a major disturbance while I was following him in Israel and Palestine.  His way of dealing was to put it off and to say ‘just show me the result in the end.’  It became very evident that I was going through with this film during his last visit and that was when he changed his behavior in the way I described and, subsequently, those segments do not appear in the film.

I poured over some 140 hours, with Elisa Purfürst, the dedicated editor and co-writer of the film, and there was a point when I came to Paris with a short edited version to show to him and to those close to him and that was a crucial moment.  He realized that I was going through with this.  The reaction of those around him was crucial as well.  They expressed their appreciation of what they had watched and said they never imagined that he and his work could come across so honestly.  That was a very moving and important moment.   Josef just asked me one question─ what I had learned throughout our time together and in making this film.  The first thing that came to mind was that I learned how to look, I mean on many different levels.  In the photography sense, there was looking at composition, light, locations, and so forth but also how to look at something I was taught not to turn my gaze on.  This time with Josef opened a window for me and allowed me to really take time to look and for what I saw to resonate.  That was my answer to him.  After that, it was carte blanche.   He later on was very generous and gave me access to his contact sheets and I basically went through all of them, from his early days until now.  That was incredible.


Josef Koudelka in Israel/Palestine. Still from “Koudelka: Shooting Holy Land” (2015) © Gilad Baram.

Josef Koudelka in Israel/Palestine. Still from “Koudelka Shooting Holy Land” (2015) © Gilad Baram.


You made a number of shrewd choices regarding how to weave this all together.  It was very satisfying to wait with him for all the elements to fall into place, to suffer through the various distractions, to experience him maneuvering in for the shot.  Also, hearing his voice and how and what he communicated gave me the feeling that I knew him a bit.  You also honored the time it takes to really look at a photo.  After taking us along on a shoot, you gave us a further sense of his artistry by showing his contact sheets and the images he ultimately selected.  He has this keen internal radar for the line of sight which becomes so evident when we can see the various stills that resulted from his shifting his lens just a few fractions of an inch. 

Gilad Baram:  The challenge of sculpting this mass of material was to have someone wise and observant dig into it with me, Elisa Purfürst.  Our mission was to depict his work and way of working without falling into the traps that come with the territory and to really give the photos the space and life that they need.   Also to manage with the few words that he did say to convey his way of thinking, something that you cannot decipher from just watching him. We also wanted to reveal parts of his biography where it was extremely important to understand why he does what he does and why he reacts to things in the way he does.  We went through many versions of the film and it was never right until it was right.

In the film, we see him returning to places he’s already photographed and he brings his old photos with him.  What is he striving for?

Gilad Baram:  This was a complete surprise and a certain revelation, something that when looking at his photos, before I knew him, I never thought that was part of his process.  He studies deeply his own photographs and when doing so, he also studies changes in the landscape.  He takes what he feels are his best images with him back to a location and tries to perfect them.  When he reaches the point, where he feels he can’t do it any better, or things have physically changed to prevent that, he calls it quits and goes on to the next. The kind of sensitivity you need for that, for knowing when to draw the line requires complete commitment and intuition.

Over the course of his life and career, his photos have also evolved.  The photos that he made when he was younger are, of course, different than those he makes today.  Those projects up to and including the 80’s have to do mainly with people or depicting people, while his work since has to do with landscape.  However people are still present as these landscapes he photographs are affected by man.  In a way, this is even more of a profound statement as it is a very subtle way to learn about human beings.  I think this shift has two aspects.  One is the need in an artist’s life for change, not to repeat oneself.  This, I believe, played quite a major role in his picking up this panoramic format after years of photographing in 35mm and in turning his gaze towards landscape rather than the human figure.  The other is what happens to all of us, which is aging.  Josef described the work created in the first part of his career as endlessly chasing a moment, spending all his time running after something which is all the time disappearing and will not exist anymore.  What happened in the second part, and is still happening, is waiting; he is now waiting for the moment.  These are is two sides of the same coin you know.   That’s a lovely thing to realize about him and about photography in general.

Josef Koudelka, Rachel’s Tomb, 2009 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Josef Koudelka, Rachel’s Tomb, 2009 © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Having studied his images from this series so intently, is there one single image that speaks to you, or even haunts you?

Gilad Baram:  Josef came as foreigner, as so many photographers before him and many have fallen into the traps that are present in this extremely complex and crazy place.  Somehow he managed not to.  I admired his wisdom to manage to look so widely at this place and I try to adopt this way of looking.  There is no one single image but the entire body of his work made in Israel and Palestine that I find incredible.  I believe it will have importance in the history of photography of the Holy Land because it shows this extremely well-known theme in a completely different light and from a completely different angle. When people see his work, they respond to it because it is different.

Shu’fat refugee camp © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

Shu’fat refugee camp © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos


Koudelka’s brief quips in the film about the Wall as a cage and prison are profound.  Do you too share these deep feelings? 

Gilad Baram:  I could identify with what he was saying and found that he expressed himself simply but wisely.  Yet, there’s a big difference between us, I mean beyond the age gap.  There’s this historical personal background that Josef carries with him from growing up behind the Iron Curtain.  When someone carries something like that with him for 70 years, they carry a scar and there’s also a lot of anger and frustration and that definitely manifested itself.

It was an extremely intensive time.  Each of his visits was about a month long. Every day we worked all day and we’d finish knackered physically and emotionally.  It was rather depressing walking these areas for an entire month.  Through traveling with him, I learned that I too did grow up with a wall about me.  While it’s not intended for me, it’s there and, even if people choose not to see it, it is still present in their minds.  Being Israeli, I also felt a certain sense of responsibility and I got extremely upset.  I often had this incredible urge to defend as well as to give explanations and counter arguments but, as we met more and more people and saw more, these counter arguments of mine became weaker and weaker.

I understand you saw more of the Wall than most Israeli’s see.  Had you visited before?  What did it mean for you?

Gilad Baram:  Previously, I had been to some protest demonstrations in the village of Bil’in, a few kilometers east of the Green Line, which was the first time I had really entered the West Bank.  I was participating as well as photographing but very soon realized that I don’t connect too much with this form of protest.  These demonstrations didn’t seem the best way of expressing oneself.  That was my basic knowledge of the West Bank.  It was during the long journey with Josef that I really discovered what the West Bank is, not mediated by TV or any other media.  This was something that not too many Israelis get the opportunity, or chose, to do.  It changed my life and changed my perception of what Israel is and what it is doing and what the other side looks like and is doing and how this huge monstrous wall, which is invisible to many, affects peoples’ lives on a daily basis.  We had this incredible opportunity to explore this wall-fence-de-facto border which now stretches over 800 kilometers and we really did explore all of it.

In “Koudelka Shooting the Holy Land,” filmmaker Gilad Baram captures Josef Koudelka as he composes photos related to the changing landscape of the Holy Land. © Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photographers

In “Koudelka Shooting Holy Land,” filmmaker Gilad Baram tracks Josef Koudelka as he composes photos related to the changing landscape of the Holy Land. © Josef Koudelka, Magnum Photographers


He was shooting with a film camera; did he ever ask you about your camera, or if he could try it.

Gilad Baram:  No, not at all.  Josef finds it very hard to relate to anything but his own creation.  It’s not ego; it’s that his world is so full of his photography and his concentration on his own work that there is just no space for much else. This applies to me, my camera and also to the work of others and it seems to have always been this way.  There is this story that Josef tells about Henri Cartier-Bresson and the very early stages of their friendship, soon after Josef arrived to Paris. Bresson helped him a lot, took him under his wings.  Bresson asked him for his help going through contact sheets and helping him select some photos.  Josef said he did it once but then went to Bresson and declined to do it again.  He said that he realized that it did not interest him so much and that, mainly, he did not want to be influenced in any way, so he just had to say no.  Back then, of course, you would not imagine anyone saying no to Henri Cartier-Bresson.  This is something I believe made Bresson appreciate Koudelka all the more.

What I experienced is that Koudelka knows very well what fits him and what doesn’t and when to draw the line.  He is not super interested in what others do either.  With regard to equipment, he is curious but he has the sense of what he should pick up.  He shoots in black and white and will not change that.  This is the way in which he sees the world through the view-finder.   He is trying out the formats that interest him but he doesn’t yet feel that he has completely gotten down to the very bone of the panoramic format and he is probably the foremost photographer in the world who has studied this format so deeply.  He feels he has some things yet to explore.  The minute he doesn’t feel this, he will stop and move on.  I think his biggest concern is to feel that he repeats himself.

I have to ask about his energy level…for a man approaching 80, he seems so engaged, alert and vital.

Gilad Baram:  When a person has a mission in life, a passion, and a kind of clear destiny, it seems to come with a motor.  Josef’s motor is to get up in the morning and to go photograph.  We started when he was 72.  Now he’s 79 and still he’s the most restless and alive person I know.  He does not stay in one place for more than a month.  This is in him and how he is.  We talk on the phone every few weeks and he’s this waterfall of activity.  On the other hand, he stands in sun or rain for hours, waiting for a photograph.  This is one of the beautiful contradictions that make this man who he is.  He’s restless yet so committed and dedicated.  It’s all about the next image and what it takes to get it.


Josef Koudelka photographing a mural of the late poet, Mahmoud Darwish, considered Palestine's national poet, East Jerusalem. © Gilad Baram

Josef Koudelka photographing a mural of the late poet Mahmoud Darwish, considered Palestine’s national poet, East Jerusalem. @Gilad Baram.


What is next for you?

Gilad Baram:  Film just grabbed me and I’m working on two films right now while continuing with my photographic practice, which is very different from Koudelka’s.  My photography started out as purely documentary.  It evolved into an exploration of digital environments with and through photography in an attempt to comprehend the impact of the Internet and big data on the photographic image.

As for the films, both relate somehow to my life at present.  The first continues to explore the theme of the creative process.  This time, together with the artist Adam Kaplan, I’m looking at the failure of this process through the fascinating and dramatic story of a feature-length fiction film made by the Israeli army in the late 90’s and censored just a few weeks before its release. The second project deals with my current place of residence, Germany, and with German teenagers and youth.   It is an attempt to look into the profound change of perception among the upcoming German generation in relation to the sense of guilt and remorse which dominated and shaped German society for decades after WWII.  Two very different projects yet both are very relevant for me at this point in my life.


Koudelka Shooting Holy Land screens Monday July 25th at 4 pm at the Castro Theatre, San Francisco, and at the Roda Theatre, Berkeley, on Sunday, July 31, at 1:55 pm.  Filmmaker Gilad Baram in attendance at both screenings for post-screening Q&A. General Admission tickets $13; click here to purchase.  Advance purchase is recommended.

Several other films about the arts are part of the 36th annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF 36), which kicked off Thursday evening at the Castro Theater and runs through August 7 in San Francisco, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Oakland and San Rafael.  This year’s festival offers 67 films from 15 countries and 52 premieres.  Six films come to the festival fresh from Sundance and six films have won awards at other film festivals.

For those North of the Golden Gate, the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center will offer 14 screenings beginning on Friday, August 5 through Sunday, August 7.  Click here for information and to purchase tickets for the San Rafael segment.  Advance ticket purchase is highly recommended.


July 24, 2016 Posted by | Film, Photography | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments