Tuesday, April 03, 2007

2007 SFIFF50—Memories and Anticipatory Remarks by Michael Hawley

Happy 50th Anniversary to the San Francisco International Film Festival! Speaking as someone who has attended every festival since 1976 (and I believe I have all the catalogs to prove it,) I offer my heartiest congratulations. To be sure, it's been a great ride all these 31 years.

The first festival I attended took place at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater from October 13 to 24, 1976. I was 23 years old and had never been to a film festival before. Among the roughly two dozen features screened that year were Alain Tanner's Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, Eric Rohmer's The Marquise of O, Akira Kurosawa's Dersu Uzala and Claude Miller's The Best Way. Although I'm a bit foggy about what I saw that year, I specifically remember experiencing my first Fassbinder film, Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven, and the huge impression it made upon me. Flipping through that year's catalog, I also see that there were tributes to Burt Lancaster, Jack Nicholson, Natalie Wood, Roger Vadim, and Shelley Winters. I'm horrified all these years later to admit that I didn't attend a single one of them. My guess is that they were prohibitively expensive for a young office drone making a $600 a month salary. Either that or I thought these people would be around forever.

Thirty-one years, hundreds of films and dozens of tributes later, reflecting back is certainly a daunting task. Off the top of my head, I'm grateful to the festival for the opportunity to be in the same room and breathe the same air as Dolores Del Rio, Bela Tarr, Agnes Varda, Giulietta Masina, Ousmane Sembene, Ginger Rogers, Sharmila Tagore, Guy Maddin, Arturo Ripstein, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and so many other Cinema Greats. Certainly the world premieres of Stop Making Sense and Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Castro Theater in 1984 and 1994 respectively rank among the most fabulous evenings of my film-going life.

And how could I ever forget the night of October 14, 1980? The film was Sergio Giral's Maluala, about a 19th century slave revolt in Cuba. Seconds after the film began, flying objects went whizzing over my head, which turned out to be fruits and vegetables being hurled at the screen by anti-Castro audience members. Immediately, pro and anti-Castro camps began trading insults and threats, and were soon trading punches as well. Security was brought in to break things up, and to tell you the truth, I can't remember if the screening continued or not. I only remember that it was terribly exciting . . . not exactly the riots which greeted the 1930 premiere of Luis Buñuel's L'Age d'Or at the Studio 28 cinema in Paris, but as close as I'd ever get to that kind of extreme passion at the movies.

The 1990s were my "Volunteer Years" with the festival, during which time I performed a variety of duties in exchange for the privilege of attending press screenings. One of my favorites memories occurred on Easter Sunday in 1998, when I was working the first day of telephone ticket sales. The phones never stopped ringing and it seemed everyone wanted a ticket for Robert Frank's Cocksucker Blues. It was hilarious hearing people embarrassingly stammer over the film's title, and I think I might have even said to a few people, "I’m sorry. I didn't get that. Would you mind repeating that last title again?" Then the following year I was working crowd control at the Kabuki and made the mistake of trying to block a group of stampeding Russians who were late for a sold-out screening of Alexei Gherman's Khrustaliov, My Car! I got knocked flat on my ass for the trouble and decided I was getting too old for this volunteer business.

Fast forward to 2007 and this year's festival. There's been a lot of speculation about the line-up for the 50th anniversary edition, and now that it's been announced, I'll say without reservation that I'm extremely pleased. There are a good 25 films in the program which also appear on a wish list I've maintained since last year's Cannes Film Festival. The following 10 films are the ones that really made me throw my fist in the air and holler YES! when I learned of their inclusion. Most are films that will probably never be seen again in the Bay Area:

Flanders—Bruno Dumont dropped a real stink bomb with 2003's Twentynine Palms and the reception for this one hasn't been much better. But the folks on last year's Cannes jury must have seen something worthwhile to award it the Grand Prix. This just picked up a U.S. distributor, but it's one I've never heard of (International Film Circuit), thereby making this my number one festival priority.

Brand Upon the Brain!—Guy Maddin remarked last year that San Francisco was one of the places he hoped to present his latest work as it was meant to be seen and heard, with accompaniment by a live 13-piece ensemble, a couple foley artists, a narrator and a "castrato." I've been salivating ever since and am thrilled that we get to experience this at our very own Castro Theater.

These Girls—This documentary about homeless girls living on the streets of Cairo, Egypt drew major attention at Cannes and subsequent festivals last year. The Arab Film Festival could possibly pick this up for its program next fall, but I'm not taking any chances.

Colossal Youth—Pedro Costa's lengthy, minimalist narrative about impoverished Cape Verdean immigrants living in Lisbon was the great audience divider at Cannes.

Gardens in Autumn—The festival has been a consistent supporter of French-Georgian director Otar Iosseliani over the years and I'm very pleased they've programmed this, his latest work. As a bonus we also get Otar Iosseliani, The Whistling Blackbird, Julie Bertuccelli's (Since Otar Left) documentary about her friend and mentor, filmed during the making of Gardens in Autumn.

The Old Garden—I was blown away by Im Sang-Soo's A Good Lawyer's Wife, and somewhat less so by its follow-up, The President's Last Bang. I cautiously skipped seeing his new one in Palm Springs in hopes that either the SFIAAFF or the SFIFF would bring it to the Bay Area.

Dans Paris—I'm probably one of the few people that wasn't completely appalled by Christophe Honoré's sleazy Ma Mère. Louis Garrel apparently enjoyed the experience enough to star in the director's new one, playing brother to Romain Duris, who is probably my favorite contemporary French actor. IFC/First Take is scheduled to release this in August, but I'm afraid I can't wait that long.

Ghosts of Cité Soleil—This is an acclaimed documentary about the slums of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and I've been anxious to see it ever since checking out the stunning clips available on the film's official website.

Daratt—Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's revenge fable from Chad won a special jury prize at Venice last year, and is one of several sub-Saharan African films in this year's festival seeking to rectify last year's absence of same. It's also one of the six features commissioned for last year's New Crowned Hope series celebrating Mozart's 250th birthday.

Opera Jawa—Garin Nugroho's all singing, all dancing Indonesian updating of a tale from the Ramayana. It's also one of the New Crowned Hope films.

And now for a few words about the other films that were on my wish list. Several of these have U.S. distributors and I may forego their festival screenings in lieu of some of the more rarefied selections. Such is the case with the opening and closing night films, Emanuele Crialese's Italian-American immigration epic Golden Door and Olivier Dahan's Edith Piaf biopic, La Vie en Rose. The other European films that have been on my radar include Jean-Pascal Hattu's 7 Years, Pascale Ferran's multiple César-winning adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley, and Philippe Falardeau's Congorama, all from France. There's also Joachim Trier's Reprise from Norway, and Nanni Moretti's satire of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, The Caiman. This latter film I attempted to see in Palm Springs, but unfortunately the European distributor sent a print with French subtitles. Let's hope San Francisco has better luck.

The SFIFF has always had a strong selection of films from Latin America and this year is no exception. I'm especially excited about a pair of Argentine films, Pablo Trapero's (Crane World, Rolling Family) Born and Bred, and Carlos Sorin's (Historias Minimas, Bombón el Perro) The Road to San Diego. I'm also curious about Verónica Chen's Agua. I didn't care much for her debut film, Smokers Only, which screened at the festival in 2002. This latest effort, however, won the New Voices/New Visions Special Jury Prize at Palm Springs this year, so I'll most likely make an effort to see it. From elsewhere in Latin America I've heard great things about The Violin, the debut feature and multiple Ariel-winner from Mexico's Francisco Vargas, and Brazilian director Karim Ainouz' follow-up to Madame Sata, Love For Sale: Suely in the Sky.

From the USA I have my eye on Strange Culture from Bay Area filmmaker extraordinaire Lynn Hershman-Leeson (Conceiving Ada, Teknolust), as well as Hal Hartley's Fay Grim, which incidentally is being released on DVD less than two weeks after the festival ends. Rounding out the line-up of films from my wish list are Japan's Hana, from Hirokazu Kore-eda (After Life, Nobody Knows), Australia's Jindabyne, Ray Lawrence's follow-up to the remarkable Lantana (and soon to be seen at a Landmark Theater near you,) and Reha Erdem's Times and Winds, a Turkish film which Michael Guillén saw and loved at Toronto.

So there you have it, my view of the festival quick on the heels of the SFIFF50 Press Conference. I'm reviewing which films are being press-screened, which ones will be available on screener, which ones have U.S. distribution and which ones will have special guests accompanying them. Now it's a matter of sitting down and making a game plan to see as many of these wonderful films as possible from April 26th to May 10th.

Cross-published at Twitch.

04/04/07 UPDATE: Elsewhere, Susie Gerhard sums up the press conference for indieWIRE.

04/05/07 UPDATE: With customary aplomb, Brian Darr has profiled the program line-up masterfully at Hell on Frisco Bay.


YNOT TONY said...

shouldn't they give you an award for attending so many years? :)

Anonymous said...

How's about a life-long CineVisa pass?

Paul Martin said...

Michael, during the week I saw a media screening of Ma mère as a preview of the Isabelle Huppert retrospective I've posted about. In light of some of the discussions we've had (eg, Private Property), I was curious to see if you liked it. I found it a shocking film, but I think it was very impressive and have written highly about it (not online yet - next day or so).

BTW, if you feel so inclined, drop me an email so I can contact you direct. My email address is on my blog.