Geneva Anderson digs into art

BYOF—build your own festival: Pick across the many film festivals in San Francisco right now and explore a topic or country in depth

It seems like each March brings an explosion of film festivals to the Bay Area and shifting through the programming can be time-consuming.  By mixing and matching programming across festivals though, you can BYOF—build your festival…and it’s well worth it!   Right now, the 29th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) is screening 108 feature films, documentaries and videos from all points of the globe Asian and across town, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts is offering the Human Rights Watch Film Festival every Thursday evening in March and Iran Beyond Censorship from March 20-27, 2011.  By combining programming from these three festivals, you can meet very specific intersts.  Here’s a small sample of  what’s available for consumption this weekend and in March:

Let’s say you have an interest in Cambodia.   By catching “Resident Aliens” (SFIAAFF) at 7:30 pm on Saturday, March 13 you can see the shocking true story of three twenty-something Cambodian Americans whose American dream crumbled when they became young adult felons and, after serving out prison terms in the U.S., were deported back to Cambodia.  Ross Tuttle’s 2010 documentary tells how these three young adults immigrated to the United States as children during the Cambodian genocide.  All three were eligible for citizenship, but remained resident aliens.  Through visits back to the neighborhoods where they grew up,  primarily poor Cambodian communities in inner-cities, it’s easy to see how they fell into into crime.  When Tuttle meets up with them in Phnom Penh, they are virtually alone without family or the language skills to assimilate back into their native culture. Tuttle follows his subjects as they take different approaches to establishing a new life all while struggling with the fact that they can never return to the United States.

Turning to the YBCA’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival, you can then catch “Enemies of the People” on Thursday, March 17, 2011 at 7:30 PM at YBCA which takes a riveting look back at the country’s past through the eyes of a very intrepid journalist.  Winner of the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize, Enemies of the People  (2009) follows the intensely personal project of Mr. Thet Sambath, whose parents and brother were among the approximately two million people who perished during the mass killings from 1975 to 1979 at the hands of Cambodia’s Communist Khmer Rouge regime, which was responsible for the deaths of nearly a quarter of the small country’s population.  With unprecedented access achieved patiently over years, he gently coaxes groundbreaking confessions from Nuon Chea, the notorious ‘Brother Number Two,’ (Pol Pot’s second in command) and from numerous grassroots killers, now frail seniors living out their final days.  As Sambath juggles between objective reportage and his intense personal desire for healing and understanding, he uncovers terrifying personal explanations for the genocide.  Somehow, operating like a one man Cambodian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he manages to listen calmly to the perpetrators speak casually about slitting throats and extracting and eating human gall bladder.  When he finally does share his truth, the results are healing but ultimately he has lost almost everything dear in life to him.

Who doesn’t love Iranian film?  SFIAAFF29 offers three new films Amin, Dogsweat, and Gold and Copper while YBCA’s Iran Beyond Censorship offers Offside, Close-up, Crimson Gold and The White Meadows. 

Let’s say, within the genre of Iranian film, you are very interested in storytelling.  Homayoun Asaian’s Gold and Copper has garnered much acclaim from audience and critics alike for its poetic rendering of a story involving Seyed, a man studying to be a mullah, and his family who have just relocated to Tehran.  The family game plan is wildly interrupted when they learn that Sayed’s young wife has MS (multiple sclerosis) and is soon to be completely paralyzed.  Sayed has to juggle his studies and the very untraditional tasks of child-care and home management. Screens: Saturday March 12, 2011 at 12:15 PM (Sundance Kabuki) and Sunday March 13, at 7 PM at Viz Cinema.

Looking for something with more edge?  SFIAAFF29 also offers Hossein Keshavarz’s provocative Dogsweat, shot clandestinely throughout Tehran before the 2009 elections.  Using the urgency of cinéma vérité, the lives of six teenagers intertwine in contemporary Iran.  Misunderstood by their families and oppressed by conservative Islamic society, they act out their desires behind closed doors.  A feminist finds herself involved with a married man; new lovers seek out a place to be intimate; a gay man faces an arranged marriage; a female pop singer risks exposure and a grief-stricken son lashes out against fundamentalists.   Dogsweat uses the rich tapestry of storytelling to show Iran the way it truly is right now.  Screens: Saturday March 12, 2011 at 6 PM (Sundance Kabuki) and Wednesday March 16 at 6:45 PM at Viz Cinemas.

Over at YBCA’s Iran Beyond Censorship, Mohammad Rasoulof’s mesmerizing The White Meadows, set in Iran’s mysterious and remote Lake Urmia region, is an allegorical tale about a boatman who travels the salt islands collecting tears in a glass vial.  In the end, all is for not, as the tears collected so carefully are used to bathe the feet of a dying man and then tossed into the sea.  As an allegory for contemporary Iran, a society pressured to empty its very soul and aware of the sad farce imposed upon it, this film does its work.  Rasoulof, 38, from Shiraz, was recently among more than 100 prominent Iranian political figures and activists who were put on a mass trial in Tehran following the crackdown on opposition supporters claiming President Ahmadinejad fraudulently won the June 2009 election.  Rasoulof was imprisoned in March of this year and released March 18, 2010, just before the New Year holiday on March 21, 2010. Despite his and other prominent Iranian filmmakers’ tricky relationship with the post-revolutionary powers that be, the Iranian film industry manages, under extreme repression, to produce over 60 films annually and you can see three of them at the Yerba Buena Center later this month.  The White Meadows screens March 29, 2011 at 4 PM at YBCA screening room.


29th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival:  Screenings are at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Viz Cinema, Landmark Clay Theatre, Japantown Peace Plaza, Castro Theatre and VIZ Cinema in San Francisco, and in San Jose at Camera 12 Cinemas and in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive.  Tickets for most events are $10 to $12.  For details, call (415) 865-1588 or  

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Human Rights Watch Film Festival at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, (across the street from SFMOMA), San Francisco, CA 94103.  Several reasonably priced parking garages are located within one block of YBCA.   Human Rights Watch Film Festival screens Thursday evenings, March 10-31, 2011.  Tickets: $8 regular; $6 students, seniors, teachers and YBCA members.  Same day gallery admission with film ticket.  For more information visit, or call (415) 978-2787. 

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Iran Beyond Censorship:  March 20-27, 2011 at YBCA at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission Street, (across the street from SFMOMA), San Francisco, CA 94103. Several reasonably priced parking garages are located within one block of YBCA.   Iran Beyond Censorship screens March Human Rights Watch Film Festival screens March 20, 25, and 27 at various times. Tickets: $8 regular; $6 students, seniors, teachers and YBCA members.  Same day gallery admission with film ticket.  For more information visit  or call (415) 978-2787.

March 12, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: SFIAAFF 29 “Made in India” a new documentary screening this weekend shows that outsourcing your pregnancy to India is cheap but delivers a heavy bundle of issues

As “Made in India “ opens, 40 year old Lisa Switzer tells us that she, like many women, defines herself by her ability to have children.  Sadly, she and her husband, Brian, have tried all the latest technologies but she cannot carry a baby in her uterus due to polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and complex endometrial hyperplasia.  Desperate for a child, they have put up their home and are going to gamble it all on having a baby through a surrogate in India.  Infertile American couples on average pay $110,000 for a domestic surrogacy while the cost in India is roughly $25,000 including clinic charges, lawyer’s bills, travel and lodging and the surrogate’s fee.  Surrogacy outsourced to India has become such an attractive option to couples unable to have their own children that it has spawned an entire industry in procreative or reproductive tourism, valued at more than $450 million in India. And that industry has a bundle of ethical, legal, moral/human rights attached to, making it all the more attractive to filmmakers who have the mettle to really dig into it.

In "Made in India," a documentary about procreative tourism, 40 year old Liza Switzer has tried to get pregnant for 7 years run out of options and decides to outsource her pregnacy to a surrogate in India who will be implanted with embryos created from her own eggs fertilized by her husbands sperm. Photo: courtesy Rebecca Haimowitz

Enter Rebecca Haimowitz (American) and Vaishali Sinha (Indian), two accomplished and determined women, whose feature-length documentary Made in India is of the best explorations of the subject to date.  Made in India film follows the white and middle-class Switzers, who live in the suburbs in Texas on a journey that leads them to India and to Aasia, the Indian surrogate who will gestate their baby to term.  

As the editor of many articles on adoption, I wondered why the Switzers, who had exhausted practically all their options, would not consider adoption.  Lisa Switzer answers straight out that they feel they need a child that carries their own genetic imprint and will settle for nothing less. Still, after 7 years of trying to conceive and carry a child, there is nothing to show for their emotional heartache and depleted finances.  Lisa’s desperation is palpable and her husband’s desire to fulfill her non-negotiable wish has been taxing and he speaks candidly about what they have gone through.  

After searching the Internet, Lisa finds Planet Hospital, a Los Angeles-based organization that serves as a third-party facilitator, outsourcing medical practices abroad to 38 hospitals in 13 countries.  She speaks with CEO, Rudy Rupak, who operates out of what appears to be an office he rents on a daily basis and learns that she and her husband will pay about $25,000 by using an Indian surrogate.  They will not be able to choose or to meet the surrogate and will have to travel to Mumbai to the Rotunda Clinic for egg extraction which is also cheaper and expedited.  Rudy explains that in the interest of efficiency, Lisa will arrive in Mumbai when she is at the appropriate time in her cycle and she will be matched with an Indian surrogate who is ready to accept the embryo for imlantation.  Later, they will return to pick up their baby.  Listening to Rupak speak, you get the immediate sense that the Switzers, like many couples, represent a business opportunity to be seized and mined.

In "Made in India," Assia, who is married with two children of her own, becomes a surrogate for Americans Brian and Liza Switzer. They are told she will receive $7,000 and she is told she will receive $2,000. Photo: courtesy Rebecca Haimowitz

Haimowitz and Sinha act as fly-on-the wall documentarians, capturing the moment by moment complexities of organizing this from Lisa’s perspective and from the perspective of Aasia, the surrogate.  Aasia is a poor, illiterate young woman who is married and already has two young children of her own.  She and her husband live in the slums of Mumbai and his work as a mechanic has been threatened by all the new cars on the market.   Her motivation for this is purely financial.  When her sister-in-law tells her about this opportunity, she too jumps on it and speaks of what it will mean to be able to save some money to better the lives of her children, especially her daughter.  

The film unfolds in real time and does an excellent job of covering the emotional roller-coaster of surrogacy for the parents as well as for the surrogate, who must agree to relinquish the baby at birth, and her family.  Aasia must also convince her husband to sign papers that agree to the surrogacy, no easy task in a society where a women’s value is largely derived from her purity.  At first, the Indian couple is not even aware that conception can occur via embryo implantation and that intercourse is not necessary.  Aasia explains the procedure to her husband but not risking his refusal, doesn’t explain fully the papers he is signing.  As her pregnancy becomes visible, she concocts a cover story for the neighborhood—she is doing this for her sister (fabricated) who is unable to conceive and will give the baby to her.  

"Made in India" explores the cost efficiency of surrogacy in India and the booming reproductive tourism industry. Here, at the Rotunda Lab, in Mumbai, a technician is preparing Lisa Switzers freshly harvested eggs for fertilization and implantation into the Aasia, the Indian surrogate who will Lisa and Brian Switzers baby to term. Photo: courtesy Rebecca Haimowitz

While there are many opportunities for the filmmakers to insert strong bias unto this film, Haimowitz and Sinha do an excellent job of remaining as editorially neutral as possible recognizing that the Switzers are desperate for a child, Aasia is desperate for money, Planet Hospital is doing this for profit and in India every single person along the way is expecting slice of the action.  As might be expected, the “truth” about who gets paid what is muddled and it becomes apparent very early that the Switzers are being told that the surrogate will get $7,000 while Aasia is told she will get $2,000.   The filmmakers, who know what is happening to both parties, do an excellent, and what must have been ethically grueling, job of letting the story unfold.   

Made in India also explores the complex ethical issues involved in international surrogacy through brief conversations with well-versed experts.  In all, the film sensitively explores the emotional and financial desperation that is driving this industry in India and some measures that are currently under consideration in India to regulate surrogacy and offer some protection to both surrogates and foreign couples.  The most immediate and glaring risk is the medical risk to the surrogate which in this case seems responsibly minimalized through regular medical check-ups, the opportunity to live in a maternity home with other surrgoates, a hopsital delivery, and post-natal attention.  This is not always the case and all sorts of disasters have been reported in the media.   We are left to imagine what might happen if she miscarries–is she compensated at all?  or if the pregnancy or delivery results in some permanent impairment, how is she cared for long-term?  

The film also makes it very clear that the risk is not all born by the surrogate.  The parents can face hurdles with obtaining birth certificates that name them as the parents, as well when medical complications arise before, during and after birth.  In the end though, for families like the Switzers, having a baby made in India has been an unexpected but worthwhile path to parenthood.  And for the surrogate, the money earned even from a grossly unbalanced exchange, is a windfall that would not otherwise be available.   This film is a must-see for those contemplating international surrogacy.    

Made in India: (2010, 97 minutes)  Directors/ Producers: Rebecca Haimowitz and Vaishali Sinha, Cinematographers: Adri Thakur, Basia Winograd, Rebecca Haimowitz, and Vaishali Sinha, Editor: Myles Kane, Music: Amrtha Vaz. Made in India was supported in part by Chicken & Egg Pictures, Center for Asian American Media, The Fledgling Fund, Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, New York State Council on the Arts, The Playboy Foundation and other generous donors/foundations.   

Details:  Made in India is part of the 29th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) sponsored by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), San Francisco.   Screens— SUN 3.13 (6 PM, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco), WED 3.16 (6:45 PM, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, San Francisco), SAT 3.19 (6 PM, Camera 12 Cinemas, San Jose).  General Admission Tickets: $12 available online at and in person on day of show for cash at the venue before the screening.  Advance sales tickets are available in person only at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas until March 17.   A limited number of rush tickets will be available for each screening after advance sales tickets are sold out.  The line for rush tickets will form about one hour before show time outside the theatre.  No rush tickets for PFA screenings.


March 11, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival 29, a crossroads of all things Asian, opens this Thursday and runs through March 20, 2011

Opening this Thursday and running through March 20, 2011, the 29th annual San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) is screening 108 feature films, documentaries and videos from all points of the globe Asian—from Cambodia to India to Iran to Philippines to Mongolia to Vietnam and many more countries.  It also includes local films produced by or about Asian Americans in places as ordinary as San Francisco and as mysterious as North Korea.  The festival is the nation’s largest showcase for new Asian and Asian American films and whatever your interest, it has something for you—horror, drama, documentaries, action, martial arts, musicals, shorts.  Stay tuned to ARThound for reviews.

Details:  Screenings are at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, Viz Cinema, Landmark Clay Theatre, Japantown Peace Plaza, Castro Theatre and VIZ Cinema in San Francisco, and in San Jose at Camera 12 Cinemas and in Berkeley at Pacific Film Archive.  Tickets for most events are $10 to $12.  For details, call (415) 865-1588 or

March 8, 2011 Posted by | Film | , , | Leave a comment