Saturday, June 16, 2012

SFIFF 2012: FESTIVAL REPORT (PART ONE)—By Frako Loden

Several weeks have gone by since the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival (4/19–5/3/12), and the fifty-odd new films I saw there now have an equal chance at living in my memory. Many have faded, some still haunt me. That helps me assemble a list of short reviews, from least favorable to most, as a final recap of this year's festival experience. So many of the films are opening quickly after the festival that the more I procrastinate, the more films there are to see in the theatres and the longer this gets. I saw about an equal balance of documentaries and narratives. Overall the documentaries left the strongest impression this time, running the gamut from excruciating to sublime—but mostly well-crafted and sometimes unusually creative.

Where Do We Go Now? (Lebanon: Nadine Labaki, 2011)—This film did two things. It confirmed my allergy for remote-village parables, and it made me rethink my affection for Labaki's previous Caramel (2007), which at least didn't try to address dire problems with bathetic comedy. The caramel in that film served as a sweet and sticky depilatory for its urban Beirut beauty salon staff and other women, each of whom has a specific problem that can be resolved through group effort. In the current film a remote village maintains a fragile peace between its Christian and Muslim citizens. Although its priest and imam get along fine, the male citizens erupt whenever there's an inadvertent incident in the village or they get wind of the sectarian strife growing in other parts of the country (presumed to be Lebanon). The women, who of course get along fine and can control themselves, devise a plan to disarm the men and prevent a religious war. The caramel equivalent in this film is a strong dose of hashish baked into pastries, which are forced on the men until religious differences give way to bromantic revelry. Then there are the Russian strippers. But just to show it's serious, the film begins and ends with a trip to the cemetery. This is the kind of film that wins audience awards, but it lost at SFIFF to The Intouchables, another facile we-can-get-along bromance. (Press screening)

Next come two unconventional documentaries about the narcissism of their makers. The Sheik and I (USA: Caveh Zahedi, 2012) brought on the cringes like no other festival film. Caveh Zahedi, Bay Area-based American filmmaker, is commissioned to make a film for the Sharjah (Emirate) Biennial. Didn't the Sharjah Art Foundation know Zahedi's previous films and have some idea how Zahedi would react filmically to their rule that the film could not criticize the sheik of Sharjah? Maybe they did and thought he would be just the right director to riff on "art as a subversive act" (a phrase from their invitation letter). Well, I'm sure they rued the day Zahedi brought his family and his crew to the emirate to improvise a film, and this documentary is an often excruciating series of confrontations between Zahedi and his contacts at the foundation when he isn't trying to shoot asininely stereotypical scenes involving a chorus line of men in burkha drag, terrorist children and the kidnapping of the sheik, all employing crew members and people off the street. (Implied threats against the latter for participating in a subversive and ultimately banned film became a point of controversy at some US screenings.) Can a film be accepted as a self-reflexive portrait of an ugly, ethnocentric American when the portrayal seems all too authentic and unexamined? (DVD screener)

I was in love with An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (USA: Terence Nance, 2011) during the first half-hour. My fellow viewers, a large number of whom were young African Americans who all seemed to know each other, shared my delight and even recited some of the narrator's lines. This narrator is every bit as narcissistic as Zahedi's in The Sheik and I, but the film he speaks of is already done: an actual 2006 short film called How Would You Feel? and only half of this feature film's subject. The other half, folded into this short film, is his ambivalent feelings for a young woman who fails to come over as promised, manifested in beautifully inventive visuals. It's a vivid depiction of the colorful chaos that this fairly minor incident provokes in a young creator's mind, but it's also overbearing, repetitive, overlong and unabashedly narcissistic. Like Zahedi's film, the narcissism is so sustained that it feels unexamined. But unlike The Sheik and I, its freshness promises new ideas and methods from its filmmaker. (Festival screening)

It's the Earth Not the Moon (Portugal: Gonçalo Tocha, 2011)—I'm surprised that this won the Golden Gate Award for feature documentary. It's the only festival film I walked out on, after watching 2:15 of its 3:05 running time—I think that's enough to write about a film that makes little of its potentially fascinating subject. I might have found it as fascinating as a dozen people in the row behind me did, if like them I were from the Azores island of Corvo. But I'm not, and another reason for my premature departure was their incessant whispering and pointing out every single thing they recognized. Maybe this was the appropriate response, since the film opens with the bald premise to shoot "every single thing." My viewing companion said he was expecting a film about Corvo, which is a tiny remote island at the very western extreme of Europe, to say something about Europeans on the fringe. Or that the people living there at least have a certain attitude toward mainlanders who share their Portuguese language. Or that the island has a rich history of harboring pirates and whalers. But no. We come back again and again to an old lady who is knitting a traditional fisherman's cap for the director. This is sweet, but the old lady doesn't have anything interesting to say or do about it. Robert Koehler's catalogue description mentions the film's "almost naïve sincerity" as if it were a conscious aesthetic choice. Conscious or not, it's not enough to justify its inordinate length and missed opportunities. (Festival screening)

Another disappointing documentary with a fascinating subject has a mouthful of a title: The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi, and 27 Years Without Images (France: Eric Baudelaire, 2011). Under the narrations of an unseen man and woman, we see unpeopled rooms and rooftops of a city. The man is Adachi Masao, a filmmaker who worked under several Japanese New Wave directors and made his own films before joining the ultraleft-wing Japanese Red Army and abandoning Japan for exile in Lebanon. (I'm eagerly awaiting in the Bay Area a couple of films recently featuring Adachi.) The woman is Shigenobu May, daughter of the notorious, now-imprisoned revolutionary and founder of the Japanese Red Army Shigenobu Shigeko, whose support for the Palestinian cause sent her to Lebanon and involvement in a hostage taking in The Hague kept her there. In their adopted country Masao helped raise May for many years. Those with little background knowledge of the Japanese Red Army will struggle to understand the narrations' oblique references, not to mention the landscapes scanned by the camera. They might prefer to see the much more straightforward, and maybe more satisfying, Children of the Revolution (2011; directed by Shane O’Sullivan and viewable at Distrify), a fascinating comparison of the lives and opinions of May and the daughter of Red Army Faction co-founder Ulrike Meinhof. (DVD screener)

I don't have a strong impression of Last Winter (Belgium / France / Switzerland: John Shank, 2011), in which a young man struggles to keep up his father's cattle farm in the face of mounting financial debt and his opposition to the compromises of fellow cooperative members. I do remember its elegiac and observational quality of the nature gradually encroaching on the proud farmer's enterprise. (DVD screener)

Pierre Rissient: Man of Cinema (USA: Todd McCarthy, 2007)—Despite my love of films about people who love, promote, revive and present films, I got weary of this documentary early. I thought it was visually unattractive and bloated, with too much irrelevant time spent on the beach with an unidentified Asian woman or in his home village. (DVD screener)

An extremely bleak film, this one fictional, was Goodbye (Iran: Mohammad Rasoulof, 2011). Made by the director of Iron Island (2006) and White Meadows (2010), both of which had grim premises leavened by fascinatingly allegorical settings and unpredictable outcomes, Goodbye at first aroused expectations of a similar treatment. But this film, apparently made under clandestine conditions as Rasoulof awaited the results of his appeal (stemming from his arrest along with fellow filmmaker Jafar Panahi), plays one note throughout, and that is of unrelieved despair. Noora, a young lawyer recently disbarred for political activities, has done everything, including getting pregnant, to improve her and her internally exiled journalist husband's chances of emigrating from Iran. As her pregnancy develops complications and her fixer becomes less available, Noora undergoes ominous visits by government agents and learns that her husband has been imprisoned. Just before the film's climax, Noora voices its obvious message: "If one feels like a foreigner in one's own land, one should leave his country and feel like a foreigner in a foreign land." For a stubbornly righteous woman like her, that's preferable to living in a homeland where offering bribes is a reflexive act and a woman needs her husband's signature for every important decision. (DVD screener)

Dreileben: One Minute of Darkness (Germany: Christoph Hochhäusler, 2011)—For me this was the least powerful of the Dreileben Trilogy. Maybe as a stand-alone it would have had more impact, but as the final film in a triptych it didn't bear sufficient gravity. I had to keep reminding myself that maybe it wasn't the intent of this series of films to evoke the horrifying rituals and history of an entire geographical region like its Yorkshire counterpart, the harrowing Red Riding Trilogy. (DVD screener)

Off Label (USA: Michael Palmieri & Donal Mosher, 2011)—I found this a wildly uneven and unpredictable look at the lives of Americans who have voluntarily and involuntarily served as guinea pigs for pharmaceutical companies. The conditions of those who have survived—one subject was recruited by his unethical physician and committed suicide in a gruesomely drug-induced way—attest to the frighteningly chaotic state of drug trials and a population out of control on psychiatric medications. But scenes like a wedding and the drawn-out pathos of a mother compromise the investigative rigor of this documentary. (Festival screening)

The Day He Arrives (South Korea: Hong Sang-soo, 2011)—I'm not sure how much longer Hong can riff on romantic and professional rejection and the embarrassing behavior that comes from drinking too much. But I'm a fan of his films about self-appointed losers in the film world who get more resentful with each gulp of soju. I also enjoy the zoom-ins that feel more conspicuous and playful with each film and the doubling and repetition that trap his protagonists in their memories and tragicomical defeatism. (DVD screener)

Gimme the Loot (USA: Adam Leon, 2012)—Bronx-born African American teen taggers Malcolm and Sofia roam through the boroughs trying to raise $500 so they can sneak into Citifield ballpark (which they call Shea, naturally) and win fame over a rival crew as "the biggest writers in New York City" by "bombing" the hated mechanical Big Apple that rises when the Mets hit a homerun. Much of the film dwells not so much on the teens' gritty urban life, although there's some of that, but on comical culture clashes between them and other, mainly white, New Yorkers. My favorite sequence involves the pair tailing a young white woman, with Sofia jogging behind her for what seems like miles, and their bafflement when the jogger disappears into a rooftop water tower. The outcome is so low-key as to be anticlimactic, but the fun is in the pursuit through neighborhoods on a hot summer day. (Press screening)

Hysteria (UK / France / Germany / Luxembourg: Tanya Wexler, 2011)Maggie Gyllenhaal is the life force in this silly but diverting period romantic comedy about the development of the electric vibrator as a treatment for the title "ailment." Set in the 1880s when telephones were a novelty and infectious germs as the cause of disease were just a crackpot theory, the film begins with a progressive young doctor resigned to a job manually diddling middle-class matrons to "hysterical paroxysm" to treat symptoms of unhappiness and frustration. Gyllenhaal plays a socialist-feminist settlement-house worker who fascinates the young doctor and embarrasses her stodgy physician father. Rupert Everett (whose surgically altered face is unsettling in a film set in the Victorian era) plays the young doctor's inventor friend who comes up with an electric vibrator just in time to relieve the latter's repetitive stress injury and bring joy to future generations of hysterical sufferers. After a courtroom resolution that settles everything, the closing credits feature an illustrated timeline of vibrators, ending with the I Rub My Duckie Waterproof Personal Massager. (Press screening)

Old Dog (China / Tibet: Pema Tseden, 2011)—In a stationary wide shot employed through most of the film, a man on a motorbike brings a shaggy old dog into a Tibetan outpost and sells it. Later when confronted by his elderly father, the son says he'd just as soon get money for it as have it stolen like so many others by profiteers. The old man decides to recover the dog. Thus begins a laborious commute from country to town and back again. Business in town is conducted through the smoky din of vehicles and a building construction boom. In the Q&A, the director explained that the Tibetan nomad mastiff, traditionally used by Tibetans as guard dogs and treated as a member of the family, is coveted by wealthy Chinese as a status symbol along with their Hummers. Pema Tseden cited the astronomical prices buyers are willing to pay those who coax, or steal, them out of Tibetan hands. The camera stands back and observes the loss of this symbol of traditional life, as well as the implied loss of potency of the Tibetan family, within a larger landscape of grandeur and fertility. I come to this film not via Pema Tseden's earlier films but through a film shown at March's Asian American Filmfest and directed by Old Dog's cinematographer Sonthar Gyal, Sun Beaten Path (2011), another superb film about life and death in Tibet. (Festival screening)

Choked (South Korea: Kim Joong-Hyun, 2011)—Three months after seeing this film to write the catalogue notes, my most vivid memories are of characters hunched under counters or sitting silently in their kitchens trying to avoid the unwelcome presence at the door: the cop, the creditor demanding money, the relocation thug. When the violence comes it's clumsy and realistic. Woven through these tense proceedings is a thread of unexpected humor and warmth that appears one moment and vanishes the next. I found it an impressive debut with psychological complexity. (DVD screener)

Dreileben: Don't Follow Me Around (Germany: Dominik Graf, 2011)—A group of us recently held a show of hands to say which in the Dreileben Trilogy we liked most, and I was among only a few women who chose this second film. Since the three are so disparate and don't evoke the cumulative horror and sense of place of the Red Riding Trilogy, I found it easy to isolate this film and its psychological acuity. It focuses on Johanna, a police psychologist from out of town called in to help find the escaped killer. Locked out of the hotel (where the young lovers from the first film are spotted cavorting on a bed), she stays with a college friend in an old house that, while being renovated as a bed and breakfast, is yielding up layers from East Germany's past. I'm not familiar with Graf's previous work, most of which is for German TV, and I hope to see his acclaimed 2010 series In Face of the Crime. Aware at least that Graf is famous for his genre films and especially the policier, I was surprised to find that this is more a psychological study of Johanna and her friend concerning the man they unknowingly shared. At least that aspect of the film impressed me more than the police investigation, which veers into the improbable and the comical. (DVD screener)

Valley of Saints (India / USA: Musa Syeed, 2012)—Two young men living by Kashmir's Lake Dal vow to abandon their region's dying tourist trade and go see the world, but their plans are forestalled by a nearby political crisis as well as the arrival of a young woman scientist measuring the lake's pollution. I regret that I took no notes for this debut film and consequently remember very little of it besides the moments of scenic beauty in the gliding boat and subtle glances exchanged by the parties before they're urged to take action. (Festival screening)

Smugglers' Songs (France: Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, 2011)—This festival was marked by my pleasure with two French period films, a category I usually pass on. I checked this one out of curiosity—actually a desire to see Jacques Nolot, who plays a sympathetic marquis—and found it a smashing entertainment. Set in 1755, the film tells the story of a hearty band of smugglers faithful to the nonfictional anti-tax "Robin Hood of France" Louis Mandrin, who has just been broken on the wheel by the tax authorities. The smugglers clandestinely publish Mandrin's verses with the help of the sympathetic nobleman and carry on a black market of duty-free stolen goods for the people. The film has a winning combination of heroism, humor and realism. It never occurred to me that someone unused to riding in a conveyance, even horse-drawn, might suffer from motion sickness. (Festival screening)

Farewell, My Queen (France: Benoît Jacquot, 2011)—(Opening in Bay Area theatres 7/13, in time for Bastille Day). Now that Opening Night is part of the distant past, what I remember from this costume drama is incessant movement in and out of the chambers of Versailles and the heaving of rich brocades and silken décolletage as word of the storming of the Bastille, and impending doom of the royal family, travels the corridors both upstairs and down. Marie Antoinette's young reader, who suggests Marivaux but ends up looking at fashion magazines with her lovesick majesty, is so besotted by her mistress that she stays at her side even when she learns that the queen heads the soon-to-be-headless list. Frivolity turns to terror turns to serene heroism in an exquisite green dress. For entertaining character turns here's Jacques Nolot again and Noémie Lvovsky as a comically flustered lady-in-waiting. (Festival screening)

Alps (Greece / France: Yorgos Lanthimos, 2011)—By all accounts Yorgos Lanthimos will never be able to live down the shock he caused in the seriously disturbed family drama Dogtooth (2009). The actress who played one of the sequestered sisters, Aggeliki Papoulia, is the protagonist of his new film. Her dancing that was so unsettling in Dogtooth here looks just repetitious. Dogtooth's deadpan conversation style, full of non-sequiturs yet evidently comprehensible to its speakers, is reproduced here. Still, there are genuinely tender scenes in this film that recall the poignant father-daughter sequences in the Lanthimos-produced Attenberg (2010). (DVD screener)

Ethel (USA: Rory Kennedy, 2011)—Once in a while the Pacific Film Archive draws an audience so different from its usual clientele that you can literally smell it. The audience for this documentary wears a fragrance different from the PFA regulars. They're also more audible, with knowing chuckles and sad sighs. Older, mainly white viewers who lived through the Kennedy era of Jack, Bobby and Teddy packed the place and clearly adored this film. It's not hard to love since director Rory Kennedy, youngest daughter of Robert and Ethel, had total access to her siblings and mother as well as loads of video footage of exuberant family outings. She's also a seasoned documentary filmmaker with outstanding titles like Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (2007) to her credit. Ethel is an affectionate, nostalgic tribute to a woman who modeled for her eleven children a peculiarly American form of noblesse oblige. (Festival screening)

Crulic–The Path to Beyond (Romania / Poland / France: Anca Damian, 2011)—Much of the time I was at sea plotwise trying to follow this eccentrically animated film narrated by a dead man. Maybe a sense of the absurd and the senseless is the desired effect of this plea for posthumous justice for a Romanian man, Claudiu Crulic, who was accused of stealing a judge's wallet and denied due process and died in 2008 after a months-long hunger strike in a Polish prison. A catalogue of his meager personal effects collected by his mother after his death combines photography with drawings in a poignant way. The unpredictable animation and unsentimental, often black-humored narration keep this from being totally bleak. It stands alongside Persepolis (2007) and Waltz With Bashir (2008) in the ranks of politically engaged animation. (Festival screening)

Part Two can be found here.

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