Geneva Anderson digs into art

SFFilm Festival 2019—here are the films to see this weekend

All the way from Kenya! Emmy and Peabody winning filmmakers Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone will be at the San Francisco’s Castro Theater in conversation for Saturday’s screening of their stirring new documentary, The Elephant Queen. The film follows the impact of drought on Athena, a 50-year-old giant husker elephant matriarch and her youngsters who are forced to undertake a perilous migration across the savanna to ensure their survival. No ordinary nature film, this was four years in the making.  Deeble’s intimate cinematography shines a light on the refined intelligence and distinct personalities of these unforgettable animals as well as the interrelationships of various species they co-exist with.  Narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor with extraordinary shots of the elephants and their animal world, this film will resonate on the big screen with a huge audience and engaging conversation about the chain of survival. Photo: Deeble & Stone Productions

SFFilm Festival 2019 has been off and running since April 10.  This extraordinary showcase for cinema, now in its 62nd edition, just keeps getting better and better.  One has to wonder why it’s had such a difficult time with leadership—the latest debacle is the April 1 announcement of executive director Noah Cowan’s resignation after just five years at the helm.  Cowan rebranded the festival from the San Francisco International Film Festival to SFFilm Festival and, under his tenure, festival attendance has grown each year for the past three years according to festival sources.   This year’s festival seems to be running quite smoothly, presenting 163 films and live events from 52 countries in 36 languages with over 200 filmmakers in attendance.  As the festival enters its final weekend, there are plenty of great films to be seen.   Here are ARThound’s recommendations:


Friday/Berkeley: Walking on Water

A still from Andrey Panouov’s documentary, Walking on Water of famed installation artist, Christo, at the summer 2016 press opening of his and Jeanne-Claude’s “Floating Piers” project at Italy’s Lake Iseo.  Christo’s first large-scale project since “The Gates” in New York’s Central Park (2005).  Image: SFFilm

There’s something about Christo and his unflinching passion, brilliant wit and stubbornness that has enthralled the world for decades, making any film about this intriguing artist a must-see.   Bulgarian filmmaker Andrey Paounov’s The Floating Piers (2018) chronicles the evolution and realization of Christo and the late Jeanne Claude’s 2016 site-specific work, The Floating Piers, which created a golden path that stretched for two miles across northern Italy’s rustic Lake Iseo.  The idea: let people experience walking on water.  Designed as a gently undulating walkable surface, the artwork was an international sensation.  First conceived of in the 1970’s, the highly-engineered project ultimately consisted of 70,000 square meters of yellow fabric, supported by a modular floating dock system of 226,000 high-density polyethylene cubes.  Christo’s strong personality rises once again to do battle with bureaucracy, corruption, and nature.  Coming seven years after the death of his beloved co-creator and life partner, Jeanne-Claude, Christo, age 81 when the project was completed, has painstakingly regrouped and once again asserted his unique vision in a world of skeptics.  (Screens: 3 p.m., Friday, April 19, BAMPFA)


Friday/SF & Sunday/Oakland: Meeting Gorbachev

A still from Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’s documentary, Meeting Gorbachev (2018). Image: SFFilm.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the eight and final president of the Soviet Union, the architect of Perestroika and Glasnost, sits down with iconoclastic filmmaker Werner Herzog to discuss his life and achievements in the fascinating documentary Meeting Gorbachev, co-directed by Werner Herzog and Andre Singer.  As might be expected, it’s an engaging battle of wits as Herzog tries to pierce the Russian’s psyche and Gorbachev emerges resilient, preferring to curate his own story.  Broadening the perspective are interviews with former Polish president Lech Wałęsa, the Bay Area’s George Schultz, and Horst Teltschik, former national security adviser to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl during the reunification period.  Walesa’s shrewd assessment of Gorbachev’s critical errors seem to resonate even more when we hear then live but, most likely, you’ll come away with a sense of Gorbachev’s charisma and leadership skills.  (Screens: 9 p.m., Friday, April 19, Creativity, SF, and 5 p.m., Sunday, April 21, Grand Lake, Oakland)


Friday/SF & Saturday/Berkeley: Honeyland

A still from Macedonian co-directors Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary Honeyland, which won the grand jury award at Sundance. Photo: SFFIlm

Macedonian filmmakers Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s documentary, Honeyland focuses on Hatidze Muratova, the last of Macedonia’s nomadic beekeepers and shines a light on the fragile and deeply poetic relationship between her and her hives.  Hatidze’s harmonious way of life is interrupted when a Turkish family shows up in her remote mountainous stomping grounds and disrespects her sustainable beekeeping practices to turn a quick profit.  Shot by a six person crew who lived beside her for three years, this tender documentary delicately captures a life rarely depicted on screen and sheds light on threats to our environmental balance from an entirely different perspective.  It also features mesmerizing cinematography of rural Macedonia, a land so blessed by the gods that its name and status has been the subject of bitter dispute for centuries. (Screens: 6 p.m., Friday, April 19, Victoria, SF, and 1:30 p.m., Saturday, April 20, BAMPFA, Berkeley)


Saturday/ San Francisco: The Elephant Queen

A still from Ralph Deeble and Victoria Stone’s documentary, The Elephant Queen (2018). Image: SFFilm.

Vaguely, we know it happens—the annual migration of animals in Africa.  And we assume that as climate change continues to wreak havoc on weather patterns, the stakes are getting higher and higher for animals in the wild.  Kenya-based filmmakers’ Ralph Deeble and Victoria Stone’s documentary, The Elephant Queen is a miraculous testament to the ingenuity of animals in the face of unprecedented threats from nature and mankind.  It took four years of living alongside elephants in the African savanna to make their film, which tells the story of the life and death struggle of Athena, a 50 year-old giant tusker elephant as she makes critical decisions to help her family survive during a season drought in Kenya.  Filmmakers Ralph Deeble and Victoria Stone in attendance.  (Screens: noon, Saturday, April 20, Castro)


Sunday/Oakland:  world premiere, We Believe in Dinosaurs

A still from Clayton Brown and Monica Long’s documentary We Believe in Dinosaurs (2019), about creationism, assembling the contents of Noah’s Ark and America’s perplexing views of science.  Image: SFFilm

Shot over the course of three years, this exceptional doc recounts how the rural community of Williamston, Kentucky, planted firmly in the Bible Belt, supported the creation of a $100 million, 510 foot-long replica of Noah’s Ark, replete with the all the creatures they imagine would have been in the ark.  Their theme park venture, Ark Encounter, was meant to debunk evolution and increase tourism to their community.   Filmmakers Clayton Brown and Monica Long follow the designers and builders of the ark, from the blue prints phase to opening day and present an eye-opening glimpse into all the assumptions and decisions that are made along the way, talking with both proponents and protestors.  Inside the theme park are exhibits showing how the universe is roughly 6,000 years old and how dinosaurs walked with early man.  The assertion is made that dinosaurs were on board Noah’s Ark during the great flood.  Both state and local government got behind the project, questioning the separation of church and state.  Filmmakers Brown and Long will in attendance for what should be a riveting Q & A.  (Screens: 2 p.m., Sunday, April 21 at Grand Lake Theater, Oakland)


Sunday/Oakland: Meeting Gorbachev

A still from Werner Herzog and Andre Singer’s documentary, Meeting Gorbachev (2018). Image: SFFilm.

Mikhail Gorbachev, the eight and final president of the Soviet Union, the architect of Perestroika and Glasnost, sits down with iconoclastic filmmaker Werner Herzog to discuss his life and achievements in the fascinating documentary Meeting Gorbachev, co-directed by Werner Herzog and Andre Singer.  As might be expected, it’s an engaging battle of wits as Herzog tries to pierce the Russian’s psyche and Gorbachev emerges resilient, preferring to curate his own story.  Broadening the perspective are interviews with former Polish president Lech Wałęsa, the Bay Area’s George Schultz, and Horst Teltschik, former national security adviser to German Chancellor Helmut Kohl during the reunification period.  (Screens: 5 p.m., Sunday, April 21, Grand Lake, Oakland)


Sunday/San Francisco: Official Secrets, Closing Night Film

Keira Knightley in a still from Gavin Hood’s political thriller Official Secrets (2019), SFSFilm Festival’s 2019 Closing Night Film. Image: SFFilm

Keira Knightley stars in Gavin Hood’s exciting thriller Official Secrets (2019) as Katharine Gun, the real-life British intelligence translator-turned-whistleblower who leaked classified documents revealing how the U.S. intended to strong-arm the U.N. Security Council into backing the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.  Outraged by a confidential staff email about coercing small countries to vote for a UN Iraq War resolution, she leaks the email to the British press and, after her identity is revealed, she is charged with treason.  The cast couldn’t be better—Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans.  This promises to be an enthralling real-life thriller that will surely hit Bay Area’s theaters but there’s something extra special about SFFilm’s big nights that makes the experience memorable.  (Screens: 8 p.m., Sunday, April 21, Castro)

Details: The 2019 SFFilm Festival is April 10-23, 2019.  Most films are $16 and big nights, awards, tributes, and special events are priced higher.   Advanced ticket purchase is essential as most of the screenings and events sell out.  For full program information and online ticket purchase, visit  Plan on arriving 30 minutes before each screening to ensure that you are seated in the theater.

April 18, 2019 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: “Honey-Brown Eyes” a drama in two Bosnian kitchens explores the human side of war, at SF Playouse through November 5, 2011

In Stefanie Zadravec’s “Honey Brown Eyes” which opens SF Playhouse’s fall season, Nic Grelli (Dragan) is a young Serbian solider embroiled in the Bosnian War who interrogates Jennifer Stuckert (Alma, a Croat Muslim) in her Višegrad apartment. She recognizes him from the days when he performed in a Balkans rock band with her younger brother. Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

In 2009, Stefanie Zadravec won the Helen Hayes Award for Honey Brown Eyes, a quietly terrifying drama set in Bosnia during the war in the early 1990’s.  This remarkable play opened SF Playhouse’s fall season last Saturday and is a perfect fit for this jewel of a company that keeps delivering one riveting drama after another. Honey Brown Eyes how humans behave in war and the reverberating mess war leaves in its wake.  The Bosnian War certainly left us in West with terrifying vision of a troubled land where brutality beats out justice.   That war, which resulted from the break-up of Yugoslavia, involved Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats, all fighting over land and attempting to settle ancient scores.  It entailed intimidation, forced expulsion and/or killing of the Bosniak population by Serb forces, and the mass rape of an estimated 50,000 women.  All the drama in Honey Brown Eyes takes place against this backdrop but occurs entirely in two small kitchens representing opposite sides of the war —one in Višegrad owned by Alma (Jennifer Stuckert), a Muslim Croat and the other in Sarajevo, owned by Zovanka (Wanda McCaddon) a Serb.  The stories are connected because, before the war, Alma’s brother, Denis (Chad Deverman), and Zovanka’s grandson, Dragan (Nic Grelli), were bandmates in a popular punk rock band that imploded because its egoistic guitar players couldn’t get along.  Director Bill English’s clever staging has both kitchen dramas occurring on essentially the same Balkan kitchen set strengthening the plot connection.   Director Susi Damilano keeps the action fast-paced and emotionally-charged, presenting characters who manage to rise above their ethnicities to find courage and hope in the chaos of war.   Is it realistic?  Zadrevec would like us to think so because only in examining our very basic assumptions about human nature and behavior does the possibility for change exist.  

In Act I, Dragan, a heavily-armed young Serb soldier, shows up at Alma’s apartment in Višegrad to intimidate and evacuate her.  He’s got a complete list of residents and is also looking for her young daughter.  Jennifer Stuckert delivers a masterful Alma, physically and emotionally exhausted, but compassionate with a strong inner core.  She relates to Dragan with kindness, offering coffee and denying repeatedly that she has a daughter.  Other than to propel the drama, it is never made clear why Alma has remained in her apartment, almost courting rape and death, and not fled.  Grelli’s edgy and amped-up performance as childish, adolescent, and adult Dragan, all rolled into one, perfectly exemplify the faces of this war.  As he butts Alma with his rifle and sends her to the floor writhing in pain, he proceeds to threaten her with torture, rape and death—and then is distracted by a small battery-operated television playing an American sit-com that he gloms onto like a six-year-old.  Through nervous conversation, they discover that Denis used to be a rocker in the same band as Alma’s brother and that war-weathered Alma is actually “honey brown eyes,” the hottie who, several years ago, inspired a song by that name and was the source of Dragan’s obsessive teen love.  That revelation changes their dynamic, adding new pressures to Dragan’s in-humane assignment and giving Alma what appears to be some leverage. 

After brutalizing the young Muslim woman, Alma, a frenzied Nic Grelli (as Dragan) plays Air Guitar in her apartment while waiting for his troops to return to take her to almost certain death in a detention camp. In each of “Honey Brown Eyes’” two acts, the characters talk about their lives and hopes — and the music — they once had and loved. Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

In Act II, Denis, a bedraggled Croat resistance fighter—and Alma’s estranged brother—shows up at elderly Zovanka’s apartment in downtown Sarajevo seeking a place to hide from the Serbs who are out hunting for him.  Zovanka (Wanda McCaddon) proves to be one amazingly vital, wise and funny woman, offering a strong and compassionate counterpoint to the brut Serbs of Act I.  Once she determines she that Denis isn’t going to kill her, she whips up soup from her only onion and offers him some fresh clothing.   Over a bottle of wine, they booth loosen up and he confides that he deserted his troops because he couldn’t stomach killing.  A hauntingly real intimacy develops between these two supposed enemies and they somehow make a silent pact that speaks volumes about the humanity of individuals in the largeness of war. 

Zadravec, who is of Slovenian descent, doesn’t concern herself too much with the specifics of the Bosnian ethnic conflict.  She instead opts to explore much larger questions the nature of relationships, love and compassion, loyalty and what unequal power does to them.  Impressively, Honey Brown Eyes probes several grey areas of human behaviour without ever diminishing the harrowing experiences of war on all involved.  What stands out is the characters’ internal battles to maintain their dignity, humanity and sanity against impossible odds.  Presented and acted with compassion and honesty, the powerful play will leave its mark.

Honey Brown Eyes:  Cast in order of appearance:  Jennifer Stuckert is Alma, Nic Grelli is Dragan, Cooper Carson is Branko/Milenko, Madeleine Pauker is Zlata (rotating), Chad Deverman is Denis, Wanda McCaddon is Zovanka, Daniel Mitchell is the radio announcer.

Susi Damliano is the producing director; Bill English is the set designer/artistic director; Kurt Landisman is the lighting manager; Brenden Aanes is the sound designer; Miyuki Bierlein is the costume designer

Details:  SF Playhouse is located at 533 Sutter Street (one block off Union Square, between Powell and Mason Streets).  Performances are Tues/Wed/Thurs. 7 p.m., Friday & Saturday 8 p.m., plus Saturdays at 3 p.m. 

Information and tickets ($20 to $50): or phone SF Playhouse box office 415.677.9596. 

When Alma’s brother, Chad Deverman (Denis), a frightened resistance fighter, shows up at Wanda McCaddon’s (Jovanka’s) Sarajevo apartment during a blackout, she thinks he’s going to kill her. The two soon discover that they share a lot in common and decide to trust each other. Stefanie Zadravec’s “Honey Brown Eyes” plays through November 5, 2011 at SF Playhouse. Photo: Jessica Palopoli.

Keen for more Balkan drama?

The 34th Mill Valley Film Festival opens this Thursday, October 6, 2011, and is presenting two films with high Balkan intensity:

The Forgiveness of Blood: A powerful drama from the producer of Maria Full of Grace (2004)shot entirely on location in Albania that explores that small Balkan country’s insular clan culture through the story of a teenage boy and his sister.  When a land-rights argument between two rural Albanian families escalates to a fatality, legal justice takes a backseat to the 15th century Balkan oral code of the Kanun, or traditional Albanian law.  Its arcane customs leave Nic (Tristan Halilaj), a 17-year-old Albanian high-schooler who leads a modern life of texting, video games and flirting, a stir-crazy prisoner in his family’s home and vulnerable to revenge by the wronged clan should he step outside his home.  Nic’s resourceful 15-year-old sister, Rudina (Sindi Lacej), takes over her family’s bread delivery business but is soon knee deep in threats herself.   As Nic feels increasing pressure to find a solution to this blood feud, his actions escalate such that his entire family is jeopardized.  In Albanian with English subtitles, the film boldly contrasts the resurgence of antiquated traditions with the lives of young people in the country’s first post-totalitarian generation, whose bright future is put at risk by these practices.  Directed by Joshua Marston (2011) (109 minutes)   Screens: Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 4 p.m. and Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 12:15 p.m. at Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Street, Mill Valley.   Tickets: $13.50.

Coriolanus:  Actor Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s war tragedy “Coriolanus” set in war-torn Bosnia with chilling urban battle scenes. Fiennes will also star as the powerful general Caius Martius, or Coriolanus, a powerful general at odds with the City of Rome, a role that Fiennes played on the London stage.  Coriolanus is a rivetting drama about the relationship of authority, power, and the emotions that drive them and should play well reconfigured in the hotbed of the Balkans.  Martius meets his old enemy Tullus Aufidius (a very macho Gerard Butler) on the battlefield and returns to Rome as a hero.  Reveling in his triumph, he is elected to the governing consul but is soon opposed by the citizenry.  His anger at the public’s disfavor leads to his expulsion, and in desperation he turns to his sworn enemy Tullus, with whom he takes revenge on the city.  Vanessa Redgrave is Coriolanus’s iron-willed mother and Jessica Chastain is his trophy wife.  Directed by Ralph Fiennes (2010). (122 minutes)   Screens: Friday, October 7, 2011 at 9 p.m. at Sequoia Theatre, 25 Throckmorton Street, Mill Valley and Saturday, October 8 at 7:30 p.m. at the Smith Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth Street, San Rafael, CA.  Tickets: $13.50.

October 4, 2011 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment