San Francisco International Film Festival 54 Preview

by Peter Wong on April 4, 2011

189 films. 40 countries represented. New works by Werner Herzog, Kelly Reichardt, and Errol Morris, among other directors. Two glorious weeks in late April and early May. Yes, it’s time for the 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF).

Veteran readers will know that given the scope of SFIFF’s offerings, it’s impossible to catch every single film or festival event … and that’s not counting the honoring of the 20th anniversary of SFIFF’s Schools at the Festival program. But that breadth of cinematic choices allows patrons to find a film to fit their individual tastes. Here follows some SFIFF films and events that caught this writer’s eye.

Cannes award winner “On Tour,” SFIFF’s Closing Night Film, stars Mathieu Almaric as a French producer who brings an American neo-burlesque troupe on a tour of French coastal towns. Among the performers are such actual Bay Area performers as bawdy piano player Kitten on the Keys and Roky Roulette, whose French monarch routine must be seen to be believed.

Other films with a Bay Area connection include “Better This World,” Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s documentary about two young activists involved in the 2008 Republican National Convention protests; “The Selling,” Emily Lou’s comedy about selling a haunted house in a down housing market; and “Something Ventured,” Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s portrait of the men and woman whose creation of venture capitalism helped bring about our digital world.

For viewers seeking fare that resists easy categorization, 2011 Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award-winner Matthew Barney will premiere “Drawing Restraint 17.” “Sound Of Noise” from Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjarne Nilsson concerns a gang of musical anarchists pursued by a tone-deaf policeman. Alejandro Chomski’s “Asleep in the Sun” adapts Adolfo Bioy-Casares’ metaphysical mystery novel of mental illness, dogs, and odd doctors. Clio Barnard’s previously-reviewed “The Arbor” uses lip-synching actors to recount the troubled lives of playwright Andrea Dunbar and daughter Lorraine.

Those who prefer their cinematic struggles to be less ambiguous can check out Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “!Women Art Revolution,” which chronicles 1960s and 1970s feminist artists fighting the old-boy art establishment. “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975,” from Goran Hugo Olsson presents rediscovered Swedish footage of the titular sociopolitical movement with commentary from contemporary African-American cultural observers. Risteard O’ Domhnaill’s “The Pipe” may spark PG&E pipeline explosion flashbacks with its chronicling of Irish farmers and fishermen fighting multinational corporation Shell’s attempt to construct a high-pressure gas pipeline.

The legacies of political unrest provide springboards for several other SFIFF films. Alrick Brown’s “Kinyarwanda” uses Tutsi and Hutu narratives to recount the Rwandan genocide and reconciliation. Twitter feeds and cell phone video footage are employed in Ali Samadi Ahadi’s “The Green Wave” to recount Iran’s Green Wave revolt. Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies” adapts Wajdi Mouawad’s epic tragedy of Arab-Canadian twins discovering their dead mother’s hidden history of torture and political assassination. Tatiana Huezo’s “The Tiniest Place” tells of survivors returning to rebuild a village destroyed by the Salvadoran military. Legendary Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzman’s “Nostalgia for the Light” draws parallels between astronomers searching the heavens and relatives of Pinochet’s disappeared searching for victims’ corpses.

A different exploration of the past can be found in Mel Novikoff Award winner Serge Bromberg’s program of rare and restored 3-D films. A newly restored print of the Fellini classic “La Dolce Vita” screens at the Castro Theatre. Kanbar Award winner Frank Pierson discusses his screenwriting career, which stretches from American classics such as “Cool Hand Luke” to “Mad Men.” But a probable hot ticket will be the restoration of the rarely screened Rainer Werner Fassbinder pre-cyberpunk film “World on a Wire.”

Several SFIFF offerings also bend commercialized genre filmmaking in different directions. 3-D and Werner Herzog may sound like an improbable combination. But Herzog’s “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams” uses 3-D technology to give viewers probably their only accessible glimpse of 30,000-year-old cave drawings. Kelly Reichardt’s highly acclaimed “Meek’s Cutoff” stars Michelle Williams in a story of trust and perilous thirst in the Old West. Christopher Munch’s “Letters from the Big Man” gives the “I loved a sasquatch” story a WTF turn. The bending genre like a pretzel award, though, will probably go to Jo Sung-hee’s apocalyptic South Korean debut feature “End of Animal.”

Repurposed source material can be found in several SFIFF programs. Leonard Cohen’s album “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” inspires a program featuring short films based on its songs as well as live performances of Cohen songs by such artists as Kelley Stoltz and Pale Hoarse. Claire Denis’ musical collaborators Tindersticks perform new live soundtracks to footage from half a dozen Denis films. The most ambitious repurposing probably goes to Raul Ruiz’s 4 ½-hour epic “Mysteries Of Lisbon,” which turns a 19th century Portuguese novel into a surrealistic costume drama.

For those who want their films more straightforwardly entertaining, the festival has them covered. One can go for yakuza drama (Takeshi Kitano’s “Outrage”), a 1960s samurai film homage (Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins”), zombie horror (Jim Mickle’s “Stake Land”), fighting trolls (Andre Overdal’s “The Troll Hunter”) or Hong Kong crime drama (Dante Lam’s “The Stool Pigeon”).

LGBT-themed pickings are unfortunately scarce but fortunately high-profile. Opening Night Film Mike Mills’ “Beginners” features Christopher Plummer coming out at age 75. One hopes Mills deals with the old queen problem for Plummer’s character. Maryam Keshavarz’ debut, Sundance Audience Award-winner “Circumstance,” tells of a young lesbian couple in Iran and the political problems affecting that relationship. Pierre Thoretton’s “Yves Saint Laurent L’Amour Fou” follows the career of the famed designer through life partner Pierre Berge’s preparations for selling off their art collection. Christine Vachon, who delivers the State Of Cinema address, produced such noted LGBT films as Kimberly Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry” and Todd Haynes’ “Poison.”

Space considerations forestall detailing a beautiful film about Detroit or new films from Miranda July and Hong Sang-soo. But readers can discover these other treasures themselves.

(For advance tickets and further information, go to )

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