By Mark James.
Conceived in 1957 by film exhibitor Irving “Bud” Levin as a way to expose the locals to foreign film, the San Francisco International Film Festival is the oldest in the Americas. The 58th SFIFF will exhibit more than 180 films from 46 countries in its two-weeks. Noah Cowan, the executive director, says that a special effort this year was given to programming the festival with “Bay Area values” and we can assume that includes the current economic, social and political dynamics. Politics has played a pivotal role in modern San Francisco, and now as the city reshapes itself into a global center for technology and the trans-Pacific super rich, many long time residents who feel threatened are questioning what the phrase “San Francisco values” actually means anymore. It is against this fractious backdrop that the festival delivers a finely curated selection of films and documentaries that examine our global political past and point to a way forward.
Fittingly, opening night was devoted to a tech titan in Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (Alex Gibney). A precursor to Danny Boyle’s major studio depiction, this CNN-produced documentary paints a deeply unflattering portrait of Jobs. Gibney sets the tone early in his film by questioning the worldwide display of grief when Jobs died and wonders how Jobs’ values affected those of his customers. What follows is a take down of what some might call the Jobsian myth. Nothing is left out — paternity suits, questionable labor practices, and the extremely stressful workplace Jobs took such pleasure in creating (pity the fool who loses a prototype). Interspersed are images of Jobs’ favored spiritual retreat, a Japanese Zen Buddhist temple, loved one might suspect for its Gattaca-like beauty and emptiness as much as anything more spiritual. Gibney concludes that Jobs’ ability to relate to machines better than humans has made us all more isolated and emotionally stunted.
Best of Enemies, the utterly fascinating new documentary from directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon, details a pivotal moment in American political discourse (and the lives of its two protagonists) and details how that DNA is embedded in today’s toxically polarized punditry. As the major political party conventions got underway in 1968, ABC suffered from a poverty of money, viewership, and self esteem. Desperate to shake up a NBC/CBS duopoly, they invited two opposing public intellectuals — conservative William F. Buckley, Jr. and proto-liberal Gore Vidal — to provide intentionally lively commentary. It was a time in which intellectuals and authors were celebrated in popular culture, from the pages of Playboy to the late night stage of Johnny Carson. These two were no exception, appearing on talk and even comedy variety shows. Perhaps the most awkward display of pop-culture relevance was the openly bi-leaning-heavily-to-gay Vidal, surrounded on “Playboy After Dark” by Playmates whose breasts would have broken any greco-roman mega mould, chatting stiffly with a waxen Hugh Hefner. Buckley and Vidal put on a great show and people tuned their TVs to ABC. Neville and Gordon masterfully recreate the dramatic tension of Buckley and Vidal’s historic face-offs, but as heady hubris gave way to more personal attacks, the terms of the debate fundamentally degraded to what many argue was a point of no return or the end of a promising road. And though most know all too well the epic events outside the studio (which one could argue almost swallowed up this story in the process) Neville and Gordon craft such a dramatic film that it all is fresh, hot and electric.
The Black Panthers : Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson), chronicles the brief life of an iconic bay area cabal. We are reminded that in the West, the later years of the civil rights struggle played out in flamboyant and often violent contrast to the cringing persecutions broadcast from the Southeast. Nelson’s film is most interested in conjuring the feeling of empowerment that young black men (and woman) felt through their association with the Panthers — and its often horrible cost. “We were making history and it wasn’t nice and clean; it wasn’t easy,” former leader Ericka Huggins acknowledges. Archival footage showcases the Panthers’ swagger, style and even sex appeal. In this journal of a time of idealism, revolution and impatience, Nelson provides a balance that captures the infighting, lawlessness and eventual self-destruction of the group. With our current conversation over race relations, police misconduct and income inequality, the film syncopates with the present tense, making for a timely theme.
Dreamcatcher (Kim Longintto) is a hopeful new documentary that tells a tale of people struggling for redemption. Brenda Meyers-Powell is an ex-prostitute in Chicago who has overcome emotional and physical abuse to devote her life to helping other women in similar situations. The grimness of this story unfolds before a calm and non-judgmental camera and is ultimately lifted by the light of Meyers-Powell’s electrifying eloquence and authentic love for her ladies. Her star power and seeming unlimited wig collection are Moses-like against the forces of evil that surround her. The sheer enormity of the challenge — combating the cycle of poverty and abuse — really hits home when Meyers-Powell coaxes a room of at-risk (seemingly an understatement) girls to share their own stories. One by one each recounts rape, physical abuse and emotional turmoil with such directness and stark clarity that it takes your breath away — then the camera steadies on Brenda’s face and her expression of acceptance, and insistence, that despite everything there is a way up and out.
Democrats (Camilla Nielsson) focuses on the work of Robert Mugabe, who in 2008, in the wake of a contentious (most would say rigged) presidential win and under immense international pressure, convened a bipartisan committee to write a new constitution — a document meant to help the country transition from corrupt dictatorship to some semblance of a democracy. Filmed over three years with deep access to the negotiations and evolving relationship between two political rivals who have been tasked with producing a draft, the documentary has all the tension of the greatest of political thrillers. Listen to Me Marlon (Stevan Riley) sheds surprisingly masterful, elevating light on what is often just the wobbly recorded regrets of an old, tired, depressed Marlon Brando. Granted access to the previously unseen and unheard Brando personal archive of audio and videotapes, Riley works very hard to explore and reveal to us the many nuances of this most elusive and enigmatic figure. The refreshingly original structure of this documentary — no talking heads or voice-overs, just Brando talking about himself — lends a unique intimate quality that confides in us about career and an often-turbulent personal life. This multifaceted portrait is a triumph for its originality. Riley creates posthumously what feels to be the man himself.
Albert Maysles, half the team of two who cultivated those unforgettable Grey Gardens in the East Hamptons, was surely our reigning master at capturing and then revealing the intellectual and emotional underpinnings of Jewish theatrics and queer infused camp in a documentary. The competition was always stiff — there are a lot of bright people out there and a vast America with eccentrics hoarding away in every corner. But Maysles, in particular, who died earlier this year, had such a light touch with his non-judgmental direct cinema technique. It works as a muse as it quietly follows his often loud subjects, in this most recent case the garden is Manhattan and the subject the “geriatric starlet” Iris Apfel in Iris — a “collector” of fashion and accessories, and all around self-made institution of the sort that probably only Manhattan could keep tame and well fed, as long as she gets to summer in Palm Beach. Apfel powers through every frame of this 80-minute tour de closets (and store rooms and drawers and boxes and bags). “I like individuality. It’s so lost these days. So much sameness. Everything is homogenized. I hate it. Whatever…” Apfel says, explaining her creative drive. Maysles makes a compelling case for redefining the fashion that defines fashion as art — from spearheading a one women fashion exhibition at the Met to lecturing young people on style, Apfel proves that when done right “style” can become an all-consuming quest for the substantial.
Calling all New Yorker fan-boys and fan-girls: you will be backflipping over Very Semi-Serious, Leah Wolchok’s fabulous new documentary about the magazine’s fabled Cartoon factory. Wolchok brings it all: cartoons, of course — hundreds of them sorted alongside the person (and personality) responsible for each, then each is revealed with a loving slow tilt pan down, from the top of the page to the punchline. Then there are the weekly open calls — that’s right, you can get on a plane and present yours to the legendary Bob Mankoff, himself a cartoonist extraordinaire. The open calls are somewhere in-between a gallery opening, musical chair (singular, the one in front of Bob) and an Annie Leibowitz fantasy photo-op of all the greats who’ve made you laugh at life — George Booth and Roz Chast, naturally, but also new voices, like Ed Steed, who first discovered the magazine while backpacking through Vietnam and now tosses off little weird cartoons of comedic soul that land lightly on the page as though they had always belonged there, from Issue 1, making Eustace Tilley’s monocle shake with laughter.
How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy (Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht) portrays the intimate relationship between two filmmakers. Documentarians Les Blank and Richard Leacock’s friendship dates back to the 70s, when Leacock convinced his fellow NEA panelists to fund Blank’s proposal to film Créole musicians. Direct cinema pioneer Leacock sought to capture little more than the feeling of being there. It’s a philosophy he has applied to his passion for food and music and living in general. Blank applies the same impulse in a prolonged visit to Normandy to capture the life of Leacock and his wife Valérie Lalonde. And while the film purports to be a mere visit it is actually a tightly constructed character study that provides insight into Leacock’s career and becomes a love story and reflection on a great creative life — a most poignant tribute to Leacock’s love affair with all that enters his orbit.
Sand Dollars (Laura Amelia Guzman) highlights two remarkable performances, one from veteran Geraldine Chaplin the other from newcomer Yanet Mojica, which inhabit this tale of unequal romance. Set in a small seaside town in the Dominican Republic, a local and her boyfriend exchange their bodies for cash to aging tourists. A slow-burning romance of sorts’ sets in between an older jet-setting woman and a young local. Quiet tensions and vulnerable performances set the tone in this measured exploration of Caribbean sex tourism. See it for Chaplin’s outstanding performance alone, which rivals that of Juliette Binoche in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014). 7 Chinese Brothers (Bob Byington), on the other hand, offers lighter material. Having been fired for stealing booze while working at the Buca di Beppo, Larry (Jason Schwartzman), a good hearted slacker then talks his way into a job at the local Quick-Lube, solely because of the bright spot that is his boss Lupe (the excellent Eleanore Pienta). While wobbly on plot in some places, Schwartzman uses his 76-minutes to cover a lot of ground (friendship and its foibles, love lost, family) while talking rapid-fire and making us laugh.
Finally, on April 30th the festival paid homage to the current affordability crisis by hosting local socially active journalists, including Tim Redmond of the left of center blog 48 Hills and a number of local filmmakers — many of whom (along with other artists) are feeling marginalized by the changing San Francisco ecosystem. Boomtown: Remaking San Francisco featured films in progress, many celebrating a culture that many feel is in danger of disappearing. Most notable were The Lexington, about the last full time lesbian bar in San Francisco that recently closed due to rising rents and a preview of the forthcoming The Last Black Man in San Francisco. At a time in which the number film festivals have mushroomed, at times leading to questionable film selections, SFIFF again stands tall, its world-class programmers selecting the year’s best, while taking the time to refocus locally and keep that conversation going as well. Bravo.
Mark James lives in San Francisco and is a frequent contributor to Film International.