An invigorated Executive Director Graham Leggat welcomed the crowd to the Opening Press Conference for the 54th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54), then proceeded to justifiably boast about the expansion of San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) programming activities since 2005. "We now provide dynamic, daily year-round programming in the core areas of education, exhibition and filmmaker services. And in so doing we've created an organization unparalleled in scope and vision, by any in the country except those in the much larger markets of New York and Los Angeles." Calling the Bay Area a "great region of film culture and cinematic activity," Leggat placed the SFFS squarely alongside such organizations as the Tribeca Film Institute, Sundance Institute, American Film Institute (AFI) and the Film Society of Lincoln Center (for whom Leggat was Director of Communications before coming to San Francisco).
Before turning the press conference over to the programming team, Leggat thanked numerous sponsors and made mention of three noteworthy milestones associated with this year's SFIFF. "This year marks the 45th year of involvement by George Gund, the festival's chairman of the board. In 1967, he walked into Claude Jarman's office and plunked a check for $1,000 down on the table—unsolicited, unbidden, with no strings attached. That sort of enlightened patronage has marked George's association with the SFFS and the International for 45 years. This year we'll hold a special tribute to him at the Film Society's Awards Night, and we've marked a screening by one of his favorite directors, Otar Iosseliani, as a special tribute to George. I think you'll whole-heartedly agree with me he's a saint, and the Film Society would not be here today if not for his unstinting support over these last five decades."
The other two milestones noted by Leggat were the 20th anniversary of Schools at the Festival, and the fifth anniversary of SF360.org, the Film Society's daily on-line magazine. "It's the only independent, regional film magazine in the country. Funded solely by the Film Society, but categorically not a house organ, SF360 surveys the length and breadth of a vibrant SF/Bay Area filmmaking scene. We would like to think it gives identity, character and strength to that scene, as much as it draws from it."
"There are 189 films in this year's festival from more than 40 countries, with plenty of highlights to mention. In the next hour we'll run through many of them—being comprehensive but not exhausting, enlightening but not highhanded, humorous but not frivolous, informational but not dry, modest but not sanctimonious, and impressive but not boastful." And with that intro, Leggat brought to the stage Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, programmers Sean Uyehara and Rod Armstrong, and Golden Gate Awards Manager Audrey Chang.
Rachel Rosen provided insight into this year's special spotlight on world cinema, which benefits from an annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences grant: "This year our spotlight is called Painting with Light. We found that there were three very unusual films about 'flat art' and it's representation through film. What's interesting is the different ways they bring this flat art into full dimensionality, and also the way they enliven the history of the time in which the art was created. The centerpiece of Painting with Light is Werner Herzog's new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a wonderful 3-D exploration of French caves that have 30,000-year-old drawings. Mr. Herzog has been entrusted with showing these drawings to the world, and of course he does it in his inimitable way. Also in the spotlight is the Polish film The Mill and the Cross, which brings to life Brueghel's 16th century painting, "The Way to Calvary," and also a wonderful new Indian film called Nainsukh, which is about an 18th century Indian miniaturist."
Before the Q&A portion of the press conference got underway, Rosen presaged and addressed the inevitable question about trends in this year's line-up. (Last year's trend, if you remember, was individual films directed by three or more people). "We don't set out an agenda in order to find a theme or make a point. We're really just looking for the individual films that we love, and try to put them together in a group for San Francisco audiences. But I would say the trend this year is 'films that find their own length'—or the 'correct length' for their stories. So we have five films in the festival that are 75 minutes or shorter, and then we have seven films that are 130 minutes of longer. They run the gamut from A Cat in Paris at a lean 65 minutes to Raoul Ruiz' Mysteries of Lisbon at 257 minutes if you don't include the intermission." Other possible trends noted by Rosen include more films than usual from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and a number of films set in a vague near future, which "create an off-kilter feeling, or a sense of dis-ease—not with special effects, but with the wonder of good filmmaking craft and storytelling."
Cross-published at film-415 (in an expanded version) and Twitch. Photos courtesy of SFFS.