San Francisco Indie-Fest: Week Two

by Peter Wong on February 21, 2008

This writer’s second week at S.F. Indie-Fest kicked off with the “My American Legacy” program. The program assembled half-a-dozen politically-themed short films of varying quality.

“Another Word For Family” looked at the modern day effects of a racist legacy in the filmmaker’s Mississippi Delta town. Vintage home movies and stills were subjected to negative imaging and even outright blurring while residents’ reminiscences could be heard on the soundtrack. That technique provided an effective visual metaphor for the plastic nature of the town residents’ memories. One wonders if director April Grayson is also implicitly indicting the town’s older residents for not directly confronting their shameful past. Still, the short does offer a bit of earned optimism regarding social change in the town.

Anne Wallace’s “El Otro Lado”’s strongest element is its soundtrack. It consists solely of voiceovers by residents from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. The residents’ contradictions and points of agreement blend into a solid sonic wall. Unfortunately, the film’s effectiveness is undone by its central image. This was a tracking shot that suggested a train following the impossibly long length of the border wall. The monotony of the shot transformed its appropriateness into soporific boredom.

The program’s best short, “Pilgrimage,” effectively argued for remembering a decades-old wrong as a valuable political act. The injustice in question was the American government’s internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The film talks to several people involved in organizing the first of the annual pilgrimages to the Manzanar concentration camp. Director Tadashi Nakamura persuasively shows how this act of public remembrance liberated the Nisei community of a historic shame and had far-reaching social consequences. Most relevantly to our current times, solidarity developed between former Nisei internees and Arab Americans in the wake of 9/11. At least half a dozen more remembrance movements need to be spawned to address the crimes of the despot Bush regime.

“Massacre At Murambi” remembers a terrible massacre from the Rwandan genocide. Director Sam Kauffmann implies that doing nothing in Darfur amounts to sanctioning a reprise of the Rwandan genocide. The film’s emotional argument feels noticeably manipulative. It also blithely ignores concerns that Western interest in Darfur stems less from humanitarian urges than interest in the country’s mineral resources.

Irina Patkanian’s “My American Neighbor” is a charming piece on the virtues of physical distance and feelings about the country of one’s birth. Patkanian parallels her adjustment to America and her attitudes about Russia with that of American expatriates living in Europe and the Middle East. None of the people interviewed reject being born in America. Yet to varying degrees, they demonstrate that they are not blind to America’s faults. The interviewees’ individual perspectives on patriotism provide a refreshing alternative to the mindless flag-waving or flag displaying that passes for love of country in the United States.

The program’s final short, “What Do Want, When Do We Want It” uses a letter by Thomas Merton to eloquently explain the necessity of taking part in protest marches. Merton captures the feelings of hope and empowerment that such marches nurse. His words are an elegant and timeless rebuke to those trolls who dismiss protest marches. Director Alex Jablonski, though, fails to match Merton’s words with eloquent images. He manages to visually convey the democratic nature of protest marches. But the passion that prompts people to march unfortunately eludes him.

One wonders if S.F. IndieFest programmers deliberately choose the most oddball takes on relationships for its Valentine’s Day screenings. Last year’s festival had “Steel.” That “romantic” short from the anthology film “Unholy Women” dealt with a guy and a woman who concealed the upper half of her body in a generally featureless sack tied around her waist. This year, the festival offered “Frownland.”

Ronald Bronstein’s film dealt with a classic theme, the desire of people to connect and communicate with others. More sensitive audience members may feel Bronstein perverted this empathetic theme by populating his film with several characters that can grate on a viewer’s nerves. Keith Sontag, the film’s central character, is a man for whom the act of speaking the words of the English language results in subjecting unwary listeners to a wildly uncontrollable sonic spray. He also demonstrates spectacular cluelessness about the most basic social cues.

Yet the film does offer insightful pleasures if one resists the urge to walk out of a screening. None of the alienated characters are out and out repulsive and obnoxious, although a hyper-articulate character comes close. One can even adjust to Sontag’s way of speaking given enough time. Bronstein’s bluntly claustrophobic images challenges the viewer to re-examine their boundaries or their standards for choosing who they are willing to associate with. “Frownland” may be too grating to be called art. On the other hand, it ably takes on art’s challenge of forcing viewers to confront unpleasant or disturbing truths about life.

Sam Fleishner’s oddly affecting short “Cave Flower” presents an unusual love letter to skuzzy New York City. The viewer sees an unusual sense of history and life in a graffiti laden squat. A freight elevator whose every inch is covered by clipped out magazine photographs becomes an impromptu museum of contemporary culture. Even the probably polluted Gowanus canal is transformed into a romantic waterway. This is one of those films where the possibility of male-female attraction proves less important than the beauty of surviving in the margins of society.

“La Trinchera Luminosa del Presidente Gonzalo” (“The Shining Trench of Chairman Gonzalo”) is a faux documentary. Supposedly, director Jim Finn presents a day in the life of a group of imprisoned female Shining Path members still determined to continue their revolutionary struggle. The film’s real focus, though, is satirizing the excesses of Maoist ideology as little better than religious fundamentalism in political drag. Both systems share the same hostility to ideas or beliefs that challenge or even question the movement’s fundamental tenets.

On the other hand, much of the film falls flat due to tedium. The minutiae of group activities fail to incite even ethnographic interest. Interview sequences with several prisoners feel like re-statements of the obvious. The film’s highlight, a Maoist reinterpretation of “Macbeth,” doesn’t succeed in putting an absurd yet plausible spin on Shakespeare’s tragedy. Finn’s short film ends up feeling twice as long as its actual running time.

Gabriel Lamb’s “The New Grass” provides an introductory look at San Francisco bands that blend bluegrass music with other genres such as punk. As a snapshot and sampler of an up and coming scene, the short intrigues the curious viewer. Those with some aversion to bluegrass music, though, will not be convinced by this standard talking heads documentary to expand their musical horizons.

Dengue Fever could be described as an American cover band specializing in 1950s and 1960s Cambodian pop music. Yet that literal word picture does a disservice to the talented band, which is far more than an exotic novelty act. John Pirozzi ably captures the magic and importance of the band in his documentary “Sleepwalking Through The Mekong.” The film follows Dengue Fever through a 10-day tour of Cambodia. Over in America, the band may be a semi-known independent music group. In Cambodia, though, they became national stars.

That success came from far more than having a Cambodian lead singer and white guys speaking a few sentences of the local language. Dengue Fever’s work symbolized a form of national healing. The Americans of the band provided a positive counterpoint to the Americans who bombed Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The music played by the band came from musicians who were ruthlessly killed or imprisoned by the Khmer Rogue. The work of Dengue Fever, like that of other Cambodians serving as living cultural treasures, demonstrates that Cambodian culture can live on and even be passed down to future generations.

Pirozzi’s film captures the semi-improvisational nature of the band’s tour. Viewers see Dengue Fever performing on Cambodian national television, a nightclub, and even an improvised stage created out of scraps of material. What it doesn’t provide is any deep insights into singer Chhom Nimol’s past or the band’s working dynamics. However, if one considers the film’s real star to be modern-day Cambodia as it heals from the trauma of the past few decades, then the film is satisfying. In fact, this mostly enjoyable film needs an expanded version to flesh out Dengue Fever’s backstory…and provide a bit more performance footage of the band.

Luke Wolbach’s “Row Hard, No Excuses” offered the promising subject of following several competing two-member teams as they attempt to row across the Atlantic Ocean. The film does capture the motivations of various participants in taking part in this extreme sport. What drives these contestants run the gamut from proving self-worth to one’s father to finishing a challenge … even if it means rowing solo across a three thousand mile ocean. The hazards of the race also get unsparingly depicted. Extreme hand blisters, incredibly nasty seat rashes, and even interpersonal friction are captured in unsparing detail.

Wolbach fails, though, to invest the contestants’ struggles with a visceral sense of drama. For a film about sports, this is a major flaw. Without caring whether the middle-aged John Zeigler and Tom Mailhot break the world record in this unusual sport, the viewer is left with a passionless portrayal of some obsessed people. The only race contestants who do earn the viewer’s emotional interest turn out to be the team of Pedro and Pancho. Those two semi-certifiable goofballs clearly had fun taking part in this unusual contest. Would that the rest of the film had displayed an equal measure of fun and adventure.

“Sexina: Popstar, PI” makes a triple play for the trashiness trifecta with its natural promises of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. However, the drugs get limited to one decadent party, the rock and roll makes muzak look like punk rock, and the sex is limited to one makeout scene and lots of innuendo. Writer/director Eric Sharkey may have intended to create a campy movie. Yet it’s too self-conscious and restrained to qualify as camp. There’s way too little ridiculousness on display to provide much unintentional entertainment. The cleavage display on the titular heroine’s silly official private investigator outfit gets old very quickly. On the other hand, this year’s most ludicrous (so far) bad guy demise provides a slight smile. San Francisco’s lesbian community, though, will probably not be amused by the film’s making fun of its sole lesbian’s frustrated desire for Sexina.

A far, far superior entertainment is Oren Pell’s supernatural horror story “Paranormal Activity.” The film simultaneously taps both post-9/11 paranoia and ancient human fears of malevolent supernatural beings. Pell achieves this effect by never showing on-screen the supernatural being terrorizing Micah and Katie. By keeping the being in the literal and figurative shadows despite Micah’s continual efforts to learn about it, the film subtly emphasizes the characters’ lack of control and understanding regarding the menace they face. The psychic the couple consults can provide only vague generalities at best.

Micah’s obsessive videotaping eventually becomes a form of denial regarding the couple’s possible no-win situation. “Paranormal Activity” eventually makes the viewer wonder just how much distance separates modern people from medieval peoples when it comes to dealing with the supernatural. Stop wondering and watch this film. Just don’t expect to have a good night’s sleep afterwards.

“Paranormal Activity” screens again at the Roxie Theatre (3117-16th Street at Valencia, S.F.) on February 20 at 9:30 PM. Advance tickets may be ordered online at Dengue Fever will play at The Independent (Divisadero, S.F.) sometime in the spring.

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