9th Doc Stories Offerings Challenge Narrative/Non-Narrative Binary

by on October 30, 2023

Women's Football. World Cup in Mexico 1971 The championship of the Danish girls. Lis lene Nielsen with the trophy after the final match against Mexico. Kvindefodbold. VM i Mexico 1971 Mesterskabet til de danske piger. Lis lene Nielsen med pokalen efter finalekampen mod Mexico.

This year’s edition of Doc Stories, the SFFILM annual showcase of new documentary work, runs from November 2-5, 2023 at the Premier and Vogue Theaters in San Francisco.  As SFFILM’s current director of programming Jessie Fairbanks points out, the ninth iteration of the brainchild of the organization’s late former director Noah Cowan and former Director of Programming Rachel Rosen happens over a weekend whereas SFFILM’s international film festival runs twice as long.

The name of the event does throw this writer, with its seeming intimation of a tension between the fact-based nature of a documentary and the beginning-middle-end nature of a story.  But Fairbanks thinks such a tension doesn’t exist.  The works included in this year’s Doc Stories take viewers on a journey through real life propelled by the filmmaker’s curiosity and enthusiasm.  One could even say they make sophisticated challenges to the narrative/non-narrative binary.

All the films presented in Doc Stories, adds Fairbanks, are Bay Area premieres.  Some of them hail from prestigious festivals such as Telluride and Cannes.  Others may be worthy but overlooked works which played only one or two other festivals.  But all of them are worth seeing.

This year’s Doc Stories program consists of 10 feature films, 2 shorts programs, and a special memorial tribute to beloved documentary filmmaker Julia Reichert.  It includes films from such noted directors as Wim Wenders, Matthew Heineman, and Roger Ross Williams.

If there are themes to this year’s selections, it’s what Fairbanks describes as “the powerful effects of institutional erasure and the unlimited possibilities of human determination.”  Responding to this writer’s query, Fairbanks notes that this theme came together organically.  It was a combination of events in the world and the filmmakers’ own thoughts on them.

Taking Fairbanks’ themes provides a good starting point for previewing the films being shown this year.

Institutional Erasure

Lisa Cortes’ “Little Richard: I Am Everything” (3:00 PM on November 2, 2023) recounts the life and career of musician Richard Wayne Penniman, better known to the world as Little Richard.  The film shows why its central subject should be honored as the originator of rock and roll.  Far more than egoboo is at stake here because the music industry whitewashed or buried Little Richard’s creative contributions.  This is a free community screening and tickets are still available as of this writing.

Erasure of the consequences of culpability marked the case of successful comedian Louis C.K.  The comedian’s public admission of his sexually harassing women promised the possibility of his changing his behavior and doing better.  Instead, nine months later, he suffered no blowback for retreating from that mea culpa.  Caroline Suh’s “Sorry/Not Sorry” (12:30 PM on November 4, 2023 and online November 6 & 7, 2023) recounts the whole sorry story and gives voice to three women who suffered backlash for trying to hold the comedian accountable for his offensive behavior.

Venus and Serena Williams serve as two of the executive producers on Doc Stories’ rousing and entertaining Centerpiece Film.  Fairbanks speaks very highly of Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine’s “Copa 71” (6:00 PM on November 4, 2023).  The film recounts the long-hidden story of the 1971 women’s World Cup soccer series that took place in Mexico.  Teams from six nations (Argentina, Denmark, England, France, Italy, and Mexico) participated in the series.  Yet FIFA and short-sighted legislators tried to prevent the games from happening.  However, seeing actual match footage and hearing recollections from surviving representatives of each of the teams involved will soon have viewers channeling their inner Megan Rapinoe.

“Cassandro” director Roger Ross Williams’ “Stamped From The Beginning” (8:30 PM on November 4, 2023) can definitely be counted on to cause Rethuglican racists to go apoplectic.  Williams adapts Ibram X. Kendi’s National Book Award-winning look at the history of America’s racist culture. Whether it be racist imagery or damaging political myths, the effects are the same: the exclusion of non-whites’ ability to make their own contributions to the American experiment.  But this film shows an anti-racist mentality can be developed to break the current historical cycle and its negative effects.

A Tribute To Julia Reichert: A Woman’s Work” (4:00 PM on November 5, 2023) delivers a public homage to late documentary filmmaker Julia Reichert, who passed away this past December.  Not only did Reichert serve as a spiritual mentor to those who used the documentary form for social ends, but her well-known documentaries such as “Seeing Red: Stories Of American Communists” and “American Factory” gave voice to segments of American society whose presence was usually ignored at best.  Expect both in-person tributes to Reichert as well as excerpts from a work-in-progress film on Reichert’s life made by her life partner Steven Bognar.  This tribute is another free community event.

Human Determination

John Chau grew up on survival and adventure stories.  After he reads about the Sentinelese, a small Andaman Islands tribe whose territory is off limits to outside visitors, the young Christian fundamentalist figures bringing Christianity to this distant tribe fulfills the adventure he feels God has in store for him.  Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss’ film “The Mission” (8:30 PM on November 3, 2023) tells the story of Chau’s mission.  Fairbanks praises these two Bay Area filmmakers for creating a film centered on a subject whom many Bay Area audiences may disagree with.  McBaine and Moss bring in such related themes as cultural erasure and the unintended consequences of missionary work.  Fairbanks notes the individual missionaries seen in “The Mission” may have good or honorable intentions behind what they do.  But the results turn out to be far more baleful than they realize.

Troubled family relations have always been grist for documentaries.  In Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Four Daughters” (3:00 PM on November 4, 2023 and online November 6 & 7, 2023), the relationship being examined is that between the titular subjects and their horrifically strict mother.  This Tunisian family retrospective involves the now young adult siblings reflecting on their upbringing, with the more difficult recollections being reenacted by actresses.  Fairbanks highly praises the film’s ability to use its very personal story as a medium to deliver some universal truths about being a woman in a patriarchal society.  Co-winner of Cannes’ Golden Eye award for Best Documentary.


Matthew Heineman’s acclaimed new documentary “American Symphony” (6:30 PM & 9:00 PM on November 2, 2023) has the honor of being Doc Stories’ Opening Night Film.  It’s a biographical portrait of Oscar-winning polyglot musician Jon Batiste, who’s working on a new symphony for a Carnegie Hall premiere.  The new work aims to deconstruct the American musical canon while returning to the creative fold the sounds and artists previously left out of that canon’s creation.  But just as Batiste’s symphony finally starts coming together, his partner, writer and musician Suleika Jaouad, learns her leukemia has returned and she needs to go in for treatment.  Despite these challenges, Batiste and Jaouad continue to create and share reflective moments together.

Seeing Joanna Rudnick’s “Story & Pictures By” (10:00 AM on November 5, 2023, and online November 6 & 7, 2023) will show viewers the transformative power of children’s picture books.  It covers the history of the genre as well as offers a dive into the genre’s current golden age of greater diversity and broader representation in stories and protagonists.  Through visits to authors/artists Christian Robinson, Yuyi Morales, and Mac Barnett, the viewer can see how they make such subjects as immigration, LGBTQ rights, and class accessible to their young readers…and even help their readers dream of limitless futures.

Closing Night Film honors go to Wim Wenders’ amazing biographical film “Anselm” (7:30 PM on November 5, 2023).  The titular subject is artist Anselm Kiefer, the man who’s called Germany’s greatest living contemporary artist.  Wenders is one of Germany’s current greatest film directors.  This portrait captures the artist’s quiet and contemplative personality, as well as such themes in his life as wrestling with Germany’s World War II legacy.  Using 3D, the director allows Kiefer’s art to come to life.  Fairbanks describes the experience of watching Wenders’ work as the closest most of us will come to the pleasure of spending time with Kiefer in his  atelier.

Short Films And The A-Bomb’s Legacy

This year’s edition of the popular “Shorts Block: New York Times Op Docs” (6:00 PM on November 3, 2023 and online November 6 & 7, 2023) returns with five curated shorts from the New York Times’ acclaimed series of short form documentaries made by independent filmmakers.  This program includes such shorts as “Freshwater” (how climate change affects a Detroit community) and “Island In Between” (an island situated between Taiwan and China becomes a witness to the powerful nation and the wannabe nation-state’s political conflict).

The second short film program, “Shorts Block: Ideology vs. Identity” (1:30 PM on November 5, 2023, and online November 6 & 7, 2023), consists of five takes on the personal and/or national level gaps between personality and politics.  Included in the mix are such shorts as “Under G_d” (the overturning of Roe vs. Wade gets challenged by Jewish communities and interfaith leaders) and “Black Girls Play: The Story Of Hand Games” (how the rhythmic hand games played by Black girls have a broader cultural impact beyond pop music).

What happens when the consequences of nuclear bomb-making are now part of a town’s fabric?  That’s the question facing the residents of “Richland” (3:00 PM on November 3, 2023 and online November 6 & 7, 2023), Irene Lusztig’s documentary portrait of life in two small southeast Washington State towns.  Neither town could be called ordinary as many of their inhabitants worked at the Hanford nuclear plant to generate weapons-grade plutonium.  But with the plant’s decommissioning and its ongoing environmental cleanup, how will these local residents’ lives change?  From an old couple who won’t catch fish in the local waters to high school discussions on changing the school’s mushroom cloud mascot, this film offers a poignant look at the cultural legacy of the nuclear age.

(All screenings other than the November 3 screenings take place at the Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street).  All November 3 screenings take place at the Premier Theatre (1 Letterman Dr. #B, S.F.). As of this writing, “Anselm” and the 6:30 PM screening of “American Symphony” are now at Rush.

For further information on these films, and to order advance tickets, go to https://sffilm.org/year-round-programming/doc-stories/ ).

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