Thursday, May 16, 2013

SFIFF56—Michael Hawley Wraps Up Week Two

The 56th International San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) ended last week after screening 158 films from 51 countries, spread out over 15 days and 263 screenings—144 of which were sell outs. Here are some thoughts on what I saw the second week of the festival, in the order I saw them. (Week one can be found here).

Everyday Objects. In Nicolas Wackerbarth's prickly and detached second feature, a German woman arrives at a French Mediterranean resort to meet up with her lover. She soon learns he had to leave town unexpectedly, forcing her to share a roof with his petulant children while waiting. She puts up with the town's hostile dogs and condescending shopkeepers as well. I was fully engaged in this wry vision of alienation until it felt like the director was artificially stacking the deck against his protagonist. I completely lost interest somewhere around the pube-trimming scene. The film's blah ending seemed to scream, "So what, who cares?"

La Sirga. This was one of two Latin American films I saw with a strong female character in an aquatic locale, in this case a mountain lake high in the Colombian Andes. In William Vega's austere and transfixing debut film, a young woman flees from a village massacre to her uncle's ramshackle homestead, a lakefront guesthouse being fixed up for tourists who are unlikely to come given the region's political instability. Vega inserts sexual tension and the possibility of romance into his vision, along with ethnographic details such as talk of mountain elves, a drunken jam session and scorpion-marinated water which the uncle rubs on his body at bedtime. What I'll probably remember most about La Sirga, however, is its infuriatingly vague ending in which an important character appears to have been killed, but without a clue as to why or by whom.

Youth. I had fairly low expectations for this semi-autobiographical film about a girl's transformation during the fatal illness of her famous film director father. But first-time director Justine Malle, daughter of Louis, has produced a memorably bittersweet film that could promise great things ahead. Esther Garrel, daughter of director Philippe and sibling of actor Louis (with whom she shares hangdog eyes and prominent nose), is almost too good as the self-absorbed and overly sensitive college-age teen navigating her way into adulthood.

Computer Chess. Despite walking into this movie totally unnerved—the screening next door was the controversial late-term abortion doc After Tiller and every ticketholder has to pass through airport-like security—I still managed to sleep through much of this new film from mumblecore progenitor Andrew Bujalski. Was it the film's grainy B&W, low-fi look, achieved from a 60's era Portapak videocam, or perhaps the deadpan humor that fell flat as often as not? Should I want to give Computer Chess another chance, and another chance I think it deserves, I can revisit this 1980-set comedy about nerds attending a computer chess convention when Landmark Theatres opens the film locally on July 26.

Inequality for All. SFIFF56's Centerpiece Film was this cogent documentary about our nation's widening economic disparity. The film "stars" and is narrated by charismatic ex-U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, whose UC Berkeley lectures, accompanied by some of the most inventive and effective graphics I've ever seen in a documentary, are used as a framing device. Both Reich and director Josh Kornbluth were on hand for a Q&A. I enjoyed Kornbluth's response to a question about the film not showing "both sides" of the issue. He replied that sometimes—as with science vs. creationism—facts are facts and there isn't a second side worthy of discussion.

Mai Morire. Enrique Rivero's second feature was one of my top films of the festival and the second Latin American film to feature a strong female protagonist in an aquatic setting, this time the canals of Mexico City's suburb of Xochimilco. Stunning widescreen visuals, ethereal landscapes, disturbing dream sequences, gentle humor, ethnographic details and leisurely pacing are all employed to tell this story of an independent woman who returns home to care for her dying 99-year-old grandmother.

No More Road Trips? Film archivist Rick Prelinger presented a work-in-progress screening of his newest creation, an assemblage of home movies taken of Americans on the open road. The titular question mark derives from Prelinger's supposition that the high cost of gas has put an end to the notion of cross-country road travel. While the film contained much that was memorable—Yellowstone bears, a retracing of JFK's Dallas assassination route, atomic clouds back-dropping a 1958 drive through Las Vegas—there was overall too much generic road footage and not enough moments of human interest. This film was screened silently and audience members were encouraged to provide a "soundtrack." The result was a lot of onomatopoeia and people indentifying makes of cars.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The occasion for screening this 1978 sci-fi classic was the festival's handing of 2013's Founder's Directing Award to Bay Area filmmaker Philip Kaufman. Following a clips reel, the director was interviewed by film writer Annette Insdorf (author of a 2012 Contemporary Film Directors edition on Kaufman), who claimed him as her favorite American director because of his non-auteurist approach to movie-making ("He's more interested in telling a good story"). This was my first time seeing a Castro Theatre on-stage interview projected on the big screen and it was a little disconcerting. I admire Kaufman well enough, but I was really there for a Body Snatchers nostalgia trip. The film was shot in San Francisco just two years after I'd moved here and it was a thrill to catch things like Woolworths on the corner of Powell and Market. I hadn't seen the film since its initial release and forgot how incredibly suspenseful it is. I only regret that the fest was unable to rustle up a 35mm print and resorted to a less than optimal Blu-ray projection. Finally, to my great astonishment, I watched as a Castro staff member scolded a director with a film in this year's festival—he was sitting across the aisle from me—for recording Invasion of the Body Snatchers with his cell phone camera. I kid you not.

The Search for Emak Bakia. This was a great year for documentaries at SFIFF and Oskar Alegria's whimsical, free-form search for the reason artist Man Ray named his 1926 experimental film Emak Bakia, was a favorite. A Basque phrase meaning "leave me alone," The Search For Emak Bakia goes down some delightfully screwy paths before arriving at the truth—it was the name of a Biarritz seaside mansion where Ray stayed during filming. That discovery, however, only leads down more byways—one of which involves an old Romanian princess—before reaching the end of this poetic and endlessly fascinating work of non-fiction filmmaking.

Crystal Fairy. My 2013 SFIFF ended on a high note with this screamingly funny and ultimately touching new work from favorite Latin American filmmaker, Sebastián Silva (The Maid, Old Cats). Michael Cera, of all people, stars as an obnoxious American putz who drags three hapless Chilean brothers (played by the director's own siblings) plus an intense American neo-hippie named Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffman), on a quest for a hallucinatory cactus plant in the desert region of Northern Chile. Both Silva and Cera were onstage for a rollicking Q&A afterwards, in which it was revealed that: the film is an "85 percent true story" based on Silva's experiences with an actual San Francisco woman named Crystal Fairy, it was conceived in one week of pre-production and shot in 12 days, and yes, they did all ingest the psychedelic cactus pureé we see being cooked in the movie. Best of all, it was announced that Silva will be returning to San Francisco in December for an Artist in Residency program with the SF Film Society.

In addition to the 24 programs I saw during SFIFF56, I squeezed in another three films via DVD screener. Dan Krauss' tragic The Kill Team, tells the story of young military whistleblower Adam Winfield, whose failure to immediately report "scenarios" in which American soldiers got away with killing innocent Afghans, resulted in three years of prison and a bad conduct discharge. The film won the festival's Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Feature Documentary. Next, after hearing many terrific reports about Kenji Uchida's Key of Life, I felt compelled to check it out. This meticulously constructed social comedy about a suicidal slacker and Yakuza hitman who inadvertently switch lives is indeed a near-flawless work, although I might argue with the festival's categorization of it as a "screwball comedy." Finally, in Present Tense, Belmin Söylemez' deadly dull drama about living life in state of abeyance, a young Turkish woman works as a café fortune teller while futilely planning a move to the U.S. It's the kind of film that makes me wish the festival didn't devote an entire third of its line-up each year to the works of novice directors. But what the hell do I know? Present Tense ended up winning SFIFF56's New Directors Prize and the $15,000 cash prize that goes with it.

Cross-published on film-415.

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