Reviews From S.F. DocFest 22

by on June 5, 2023

Ellie Vanderlip’s short film “Forgotten Fountains” demonstrates that experimental filmmaking techniques can be successfully married to discussing a matter of public concern.  Selected stock footage, pop culture ephemera ranging from old educational films to Kate Smith’s performance of “God Bless America,” and even a scandalous incident from Florida gets put together by Vanderlip to nicely acerbic effect.

Discussing the history and use of public water fountains may seem a trivial subject not worthy of the filmmaker’s efforts.  Yet she shows how the current sorry condition of public water fountains reflects shortsighted long-term neglect of America’s public infrastructure as well as the unhealthy influence of the bottled water industry.  Rather than info-dumping, her points prove wonderfully memorable.  Who knew public water fountains were built to reduce public intoxication?  Or that talking about the taste of water from a public water fountain in language usually deployed to describe a fine wine could disrupt the learned prejudice that bottled water inherently tastes better?

Here’s to the guerilla public water fountain installers who are doing more to maintain the New Deal legacy of public infrastructure than some of America’s supposed public servants.


“The Week” recently summarized a piece chirruping about the tourist possibilities for the Colombian city of Medellin.  The city’s association with the legacy of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar as well as the long history of the civil war between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels got rhetorically swept under the rug.   Theo Montoya’s semi-experimental “ANHELL 69” could be said to share that tourist bait piece’s “put the past behind us” vibe.  But Montoya’s film is more clear-eyed about living and thriving in a city (and country) with such a blood-soaked history.

No on screen depictions of violence will be found in Montoya’s film.  There are references to interview subjects who are no longer with us as well as a visit to a crematorium display.  Instead, that sense of past violence is suggested by the visual metaphor of a hearse with an open casket in the back winding through the streets of this Colombian city.  Driven by famed Colombian director Victor Gaviria and with the corpse played by Montoya himself, the hearse in its apparently random travels conveys the sense of death still haunting the streets of Medellin.

The on-camera casting interviews Montoya does with his friends for his proposed horror film takes Colombia’s violent history a step further.  They, like the director, were part of the generation born after Pablo Escobar’s death.  Yet the drug lord’s passing didn’t mean a bright day of freedom had dawned for Montoya’s potential cast.  Social acceptance of their queerdom still isn’t a given in the country.

The plot of Montoya’s never-made movie ties together both social intolerance of sexual minorities and Colombia’s recent violent history.  Thanks to the large number of deaths caused by civil war and other sources, the cemeteries have run out of capacity to hold new denizens.  Now the ghosts of the dead mingle among the living.  While more respectable sorts regard these ghosts as nuisances, there are underground parties where the living and the dead co-exist and party on.  Anhell69, one such partygoer, takes living/dead relations a step further when he becomes the first living person to have unprotected sex with a ghost.  That sex act sparks a craze for human-ghost coupling known as spectrophilia.  Unfortunately, the Colombian government and the church object to the spectrophilia craze and create a band of spectrophiliac hunters to wipe out these practitioners (and ironically create more ghosts).

Montoya did not come up with the name “Anhell69” out of whole cloth.  It’s the Instagram handle of Camilo, a gay friend that the director wanted to cast in the lead role.  Camilo’s curly brown Afro added to the physical attractiveness that caught Montoya’s eye.

The man who was Anhell69 would never perform in Montoya’s film as he died a week after casting was completed.  But he would not be the only one of Montoya’s circle to pass away at a relatively young age.  It’s repeatedly disconcerting to watch the film and learn that a vivacious or even unique interview subject had died by either drug overdose or suicide.  The viewer’s heart will get broken by scenes of the surviving friends visiting the crematorium storing their dead friends’ remains.

Yet it can’t be said that Montoya’s film is an exercise in queer despair.  One interviewee makes the case for taking the stigma out of death.  Medellin, even with its history of violence, still gets referred to as a gay mecca.  But the impression that truly remains with the viewer is the sense of the LGBTQ+ community of Medellin as filled with survivors determined to thrive even in the face of social condemnation.


When viewers caught Brian J. Favorite’s short “Tony&Denise: Cinematic Memoir Of Denise D’Anne” at the Roxie Theatre, they cheered for the film’s subject.  For late local transgender political activist Denise D’Anne helped in the struggle to keep the Roxie Theatre running.

D’Anne’s keeping this local cinematic treasure open was just one of her achievements over a career marked by political and environmental activism.  Other achievements included establishing what became the Resource Conservation Project at San Francisco’s Health Department and helping lay the roots for what became the queer labor organization Pride At Work.  (Editorial note:  this writer personally knew Denise D’Anne from the Harvey Milk club and other local Democratic Party events. So the rest of this review will refer to her by her first name.)

Favorite draws from Denise’s autobiography “Going The Distance: The Life Of Denise D’Anne” to use her own words to narrate this film.  A plethora of photographs from Denise’s days both pre- and post-transition provide the majority of visual imagery for the film.  Enough visual flare is added so the experience of watching the film is something other than flipping through an old photo album.

Those who knew Denise only from her Harvey Milk Club days will be surprised by what they learn about her earlier life.  The younger days of Anthony Albanese (Denise’s pre-transition name) were incredibly hardscrabble.  His mother abandoned him at an orphanage.  A particularly nasty foster family named the La Rosas belittled him and their referring to young Tony as the Snow White dwarf Dopey wasn’t a compliment.

Tony’s balm in his pre-transition days was his fascination with women.  Whether it was pretending a sheet served as a dress or wearing pink panties under his Army uniform, young Tony never showed any interest in the period’s male cultural signifiers.  (He was bummed, though, about not being trained for combat.)  In fact, wearing women’s nightclothes became a sort of security blanket for Tony.  The only trouble was the continued exhaustion of maintaining both a public identity and a privately fulfilling identity.

Tony’s taking the plunge to transition into Denise and resolve the public/private identity split gets shown by Favorite’s film to be a decision that took a long time to make.  That fact is not a knock on Denise’s character.  Instead, it’s a living rebuke to the transphobic canard that physically changing one’s gender is an impulsive spur of the moment decision.  Living in one’s truth can be a more difficult goal to achieve when there is immense social pressure to live a lie that will not rock society.  But the cost of slowly poisoning one’s soul makes that compliance a dear one.  Tony had to deal with pressures from his conservative upbringing, his adherence to Catholicism, and even a marriage proposal to a good friend before he was ready to become Denise.

Denise epitomized the San Francisco spirit of reinvention when she made her move to California in 1960.  This was a place absent of people who knew her deadname persona.  But she also reinvented her political stance to embrace unionism and environmentalism.  For those who knew Denise from the political activism part of her life, they may wish the film went into more detail than what Favorite gives here.

“Tony&Denise: Cinematic Memoir Of Denise D’Anne” may not be the definitive cinematic portrait of this beloved late activist.  But it does offer enough of her life to make the ache of her passing hurt once again.


It was the cost-cutting measure that nearly toppled modern day industrial society.  Back when computer data storage was prohibitively expensive, it seemed to make sense to business decision makers to store year information only by referencing just the last two digits of a year.  Despite computer programmers’ prescient earlier warnings, only after computer engineer Peter de Jager publicly pointed out the big flaw in relying on the 2-digit shortcut did other people start to pay attention.  The year 2000 was coming up in a decade or so.  Thanks to this “cost-saving” shortcut, the changeover from the year 1999 to the year 2000 would instead be read by such computers as a reversion to the year 1900…which would cause the computer to grind to a halt.  If this flaw and the grinding to a halt spread across an interconnected computer network, it would result in a cyber version of the notorious 1965 New York City blackout.  Even with de Jager’s activism, official action to remedy this problem didn’t start until 1996.

As these words are written on a Chromebook that’s still quite operational in the year 2023, it’s obvious that the disaster de Jager warned about was fortunately averted.  However, that historical truth isn’t the real focus of Brian Becker and Marley McDonald’s film “Time Bomb Y2K.”  This feature, produced in part by 2018 S.F. DocFest Non-Fiction Vanguard Award recipient Penny Lane, uses American pop culture footage ranging from news broadcasts to personally made video to capture the spectacle of ordinary non-technical humans’ responses to the challenge posed by the Y2K bug.

The efforts of computer engineers around the world to render their countries’ computers Y2K compliant as well as the countdown to the switchover from 1999’s last day to the first day of the new Millennium provide the organizing spine for Becker and McDonald’s film.  The US federal government to its credit assigns one John Koskinen to head up national transition efforts to make computers Y2K compliant.

But where the official Y2K compliance efforts fell down was in offering ways for the mundane non-technical types to prepare for the compliance efforts’ failure.  This neglect was on one level understandable as remedying a large man-made problem was something the computer engineers were still working out.  But on another level, this neglect proved to be a mistake as other people stepped into the information vacuum with their own agendas.

The Christian fundamentalists and the right-wing militia types saw the Y2K problem as an opportunity to acquire new adherents.  The likes of Jerry Falwell claimed this technical problem tied into massively reviving public interest in Christ.  The heathens in the viewing audience will find these religious folks’ combination of overconfidence and pig-ignorant wrongheadedness stomach-churning.  Militia member John Trochmann, by contrast, indulged his paranoia by seeing problems resulting from the Y2K bug as an excuse for the federal government to seize more power.  What, did Trochmann prefer that the federal government sit back and let the masses survive or not on their own?

Any self-satisfied eyeroll over the extremity of Falwell’s and Trochmann’s positions feel less smug once the viewer realizes just how much fear of social breakdown got sparked by the Y2K bug and its seeming short-circuit of the bright future promised by computers.  Hoarding emergency supplies, buying a gun for “self-protection,” or learning old handcrafts again were manifestations of this fear.  But computer programmer Scott Olmstead surely wins the prize for most extreme preparation for Y2K.  He moved his family to a fenced-off desert compound because he expected to see a repeat of the 1992 Los Angeles riots multiplied by ten.

“Time Bomb Y2K” includes a clip of MSNBC host Brian Williams claiming he’s trying to avoid stoking mass panic around the Y2K bug.  But by the time the Williams pronouncement appears, others have already exploited the panic for the quick buck.  There are so-called Y2K bug supply fairs and a bookstore section devoted to fly-by-night Y2K bug preparation manuals.  A teaser for an NBC movie turns the Y2K bug problem into a disaster movie filled with spectacular explosions and panicked people.  De Jager may have had an online store with Y2K-branded merchandise, but at least what he sold didn’t involve exploiting people’s fears.

The man who first warned the world about the problems posed by the Y2K bug is not optimistic about mass panic being avoided in the next major emergency.  De Jager is probably right on this point.  Still, there’s something to be said for the computer engineers who chose not to look out for themselves, but worked to the last minute to ensure the transition to the new millennium wasn’t accompanied by mass computer failure.


S.F. DocFest Closing Night Film “Satan Wants You” recounts the unfortunately forgotten roots of what was known as the Satanic Panic hysteria of the 1980s and early 1990s.  Director Steve J. Adams and Sean Horlor aren’t delivering a nostalgia trip as much as an object lesson for the present time.

The seed of the panic was a book entitled “Michelle Remembers” by psychiatrist Dr. Lawrence Pazder and his patient Michelle Smith.  The book drew from Michelle’s recovered memory therapy sessions to recount how at age 5 she purportedly endured a 14-month ordeal of torture while in the clutches of a group of Satanic cultists.  Her traumatic experiences supposedly included being locked in a cage, witnessing animal torture, and being forced to eat poo.

Perhaps it was the luridness of the claims in the book that made it a bestseller.  The media spotlight of daytime talk shows such as Oprah Winfrey’s show would make Dr. Pazder and Smith celebrities.  The psychiatrist would parlay his fame to advance his Satanic ritual abuse theory at the 134th convention of the American Psychiatric Association.  Police officers across the nation started being trained in “learning” how to spot alleged Satanic influence.  Prosecutors started using “Michelle Remembers” as a supposed reference guide for Satanic abuse prosecutions.

What made Satanic panic hysteria more than just another incident in humanity’s long history of public madness were the harms inflicted on the panic’s victims.  New Jersey teacher Kelly Michaels, for one, wound up getting sentenced to 47 years in prison for allegedly molesting 19 pre-school children.

It’s a testament to the power of Satanic panic hysteria that not enough people noticed just how flimsy the bases for these prosecutions were.  The alleged molestations by Michaels occurred during the daytime in a building where there were other teachers present.  And if a child supposedly suffered physical abuse at the hands of a Satanic cult, where were the signs of bodily trauma on the child’s body consistent with such abuse?  Aggressively branding Satanic panic skeptics as covert Satanists provided a disincentive for questioning these cases.

Yet such discrediting also diverted attention from the highly unclean hands of certain people profiting from spreading this fake panic.  The $10,000 the Catholic Church paid to make “Michelle Remembers” a commercial success was recouped via increased church membership.  The psychiatrists who allegedly treated Satanic ritual abuse collected some handsome fees for their supposed service.  Sensationalist journalist Geraldo Rivera may have gotten great ratings for his 3-hour show on Satanic cults, but that show also caused a lot of personal harm.

Unsurprisingly, both Dr. Pazder and Smith had the dirtiest hands of all.  There are school records showing Smith was nowhere near a Satanic cult at the time claimed in her book.  Dr. Pazder’s alleged expertise in recognizing Satanic cults came from personal experiences in Africa that were more likely the result of cultural ignorance.  Smith’s doctor also had a fondness for being in the public limelight.  The relationship between Dr. Pazder and Smith can be safely called one far removed from the professional doctor-patient relationship they publicly claimed, as the relationship in practice involved personal stalking and intimate partially-clothed body contact among other things.

Smith is perfectly free to choose not to cooperate with the makers of “Satan Wants You.”  But given her highly dubious relationship with her psychiatrist and the harm resulting from the  book she co-authored, her silence comes across as both a rejection of personal accountability and a refusal to atone for the harms her actions have caused.

The ultimate harmful legacy of the panic sparked by “Michelle Remembers” is humanity’s continued dangerous foolishness regarding alleged Satanists among us.  What are the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy and QAnon claims of Satanism in government beyond a modern iteration of scamming the suckers?

(“Forgotten Fountains” and “Time Bomb Y2K” screen at 8:45 PM on June 7, 2023.  “Satan Wants You” screens at 8:45 PM on June 8, 2023.  Both in-person screenings take place at the Roxie Theater (3117-16th Street, SF).  For more information about the films and to order advance tickets, go here.

All films reviewed here, excluding “Time Bomb Y2K” are available for streaming during the DocFest virtual festival until June 11, 2023.  To get more information about the films and to order tickets, go here.)


Filed under: Arts & Entertainment