By Mark James.
The San Francisco International Film Festival, which ran April 24 through May 8th of this year, is true to its name in that its greatest strength has always been its international slate of movies. This year, the Festival’s 57th (remember it is the longest running Festival in our hemisphere) was truly exceptional, showcasing cinematic wonders worthy of one of America’s most beautiful and expensive cities. Yes, the cost of living in San Francisco is a topic that looms large in local conversation. One could argue this is nothing new, but the changes that are occurring during this most recent tech-driven economic bubble are transforming the city in a blistering and clearly permanent fashion. It is through this lens of transfiguration that we receded into the cool comfort of darkness and watched the 150 odd films that made up this year’s extraordinary schedule, fittingly crowded with entries that illustrated a strong sense of class awareness.
Possession and ownership cause anxiety in History of Fear (directed by Benjamín Naishtat), a free-form film that centers on the have’s and have-not’s—and the details that separate them in present day Argentina. The sense that bourgeois society is literally coming apart is not based on an underclass that comes pitchfork in hand, but rather in the society’s own paranoia. The film opens in the air, over tidy suburbia, with a police helicopter issuing an evacuation order. But for what? And for whom? As an intense heat wave pummels Buenos Aires, we are served a series of small snippets seemingly unconnected: a convulsing man in a fast food restaurant, the anxiety of being trapped in an elevator alone, a home alarm that has gone off without explanation. The film paints a paranoid society bound together by fear. The only people who perhaps have nothing to fear, the film suggests, are those with no material possessions to lose. History of Fear won the SFIFF New Directors Prize this year, and was a standout for it’s thoughtful ruminations on the discontents and limits of Argentine society.
Gaining assimilation and tolerance (some would argue in lieu of real acceptance), North American LGBT filmmakers are still focusing on themes that incorporate marriage, children and military service. But more nuanced and thorough depictions of current queer life could be found in the festival’s 2014 International LGBT-themed offerings. Top among them was Eastern Boys (directed by Robin Campillo), a stunning depiction of conflicted gay male sexuality and eastern European immigration. The film depicts the story of a bourgeois, middle-aged Parisian man who, while cruising the Gare du Nord, connects with a young male hustler. What transpires next is intense and frighteningly unexpected. Touching on themes of gay self-deprecation, as well as class conflict and acceptance, the film’s most powerful explorations come when it explores the wide range of male interconnectedness and power struggles that transcend sexual themes. Performances are strong throughout but Danil Vorobyev’s turn as a gang leader is a standout.
Shot as a diptych by resplendent cinematographer Agnès Godard, Salvation Army (directed by Abdellah Taia) is an adaptation of Taia’s own autobiographical novel that tells the story of a gay Moroccan youth finding personal strength in a society that shuns him. Loosing some of the first-person headspace that was present in the novel, the film does succeed in exploring the complex themes (and often histrionics) of Moroccan-French sexual co-dependencies, class-conflict and post-colonial gay life. The film also succeeds in giving much needed exposure to the unique struggles faced by gay Arab men.
What Now? Remind Me (directed by Joachim Pinto) is, despite its name, an extraordinarily lucid, moving portrait of illness, artistry, and, rarest of all in film these days, the passage of time. The Portuguese filmmaker lenses himself as he goes through experimental drug trials for HIV and Hepatitis-C, partially as a note-taking exercise and obliquely as a last will and testament. The drugs he takes make him forgetful and scattered, and he’s afraid they might not work, or they might poison him along the way. But before long, the elegiac quality of the film lifts to allow amused, contemplative shadings to drape themselves over Pinto’s memory, letting tenderness and humor nose their way in. At over two and a half hours, this film rewards patient viewers with a very intimate personal portrait and a unique affirmation of living.
A ten year-old boy wishing to express himself while being raised by his embattled and bitter mother make for magic in the Venezuelan feature Bad Hair (directed by Mariana Rondon). Complex and multilayered, the film uses the boy’s desire to straighten his curly hair as a means of exploring motifs that move beyond classic coming out hyperbole. Themes of self-discovery, deeply entrenched homophobia, sexism and Venezuela’s decades long, turbulent economic and political situations form the core of this exquisitely acted story.
Again, touching on mother and sons is Fernando Eimbcke’s wonderfully restrained poker-faced comedy, Club Sandwich. An adoring (some would say suffocating) mother and her son languidly pass time at a deserted off-season Mexican resort hotel, until the boy’s interests turn to an odd and aloof young girl. Romance unfolds quietly in this empty resort, and the mother’s slow acceptance of her son’s impending adulthood and the unobtrusive manner in which his surging urges of youth are handled by the filmmaker provide an intimacy and honesty that is rare in Western cinema.
A coming-of-age crisis also envelopes Militant (directed by Manolo Nieto), where after his father’s death a student worker’s rights activist finds himself responsible for the back-wages owed by his father. Disheveled and awkward, Ariel Cruz (Felipe Dieste) is a metaphor for a generation that has inherited economic and political hollowness — ready to protest but unsure of the realities of exactly how or even why they chose to do so. Focusing on a slow burning character study, Nieto claims that the film is not political, but with issues like class, ownership of capital and worker’s rights front and center, it is difficult to dismiss the social implications. The film won the FIPRESCI Prize for best feature-length fiction at the Havana film festival this year.
Political activism is at the core of Cesar’s Last Fast (directed by Lorena Parlee and Richard Ray Perez), chronicling the 36 day fast in 1988 by AFW founder Cesar Chavez, to protest the use of pesticides that were thought to be harming migrant workers and especially their new born children. What sets the film apart from the typical bio-pic is its ability to see Chavez as man and not mythic saint. It achieves this balance by smartly using archival footage that helps reveal elements of Chavez’s worker-led movement—notably the overarching importance that Catholic Liberation Theology and the Catholic Worker Movement played in the farm worker movement.
Catherine Breillat’s astonishing and fresh autobiographical film, Abuse of Weakness, centers on a noted filmmaker who suffers a debilitating stroke. Deciding to cast a known con man in her new project is a move that is risky and turns brutal. The lead character’s motivation for this ‘abuse of (her?) weakness’ remains opaque, which may be the films only weakness, but an extraordinary performance by Isabelle Huppert is one of the strongest at the festival.
Tackling substantial issues of racism, poverty, immigration and integration, the French documentary School of Babel (directed by Julie Bertuccelli) avoids vacuous classroom preachiness. With current European politics being dominated by such issues, Bertuccelli humanizes the plight of a group of multicultural kids attending a school in Northern Paris. Ranging in age from 11 to 15, the children come from diverse backgrounds. Many are political refugees or have fled violent homelands. Bertuccelli keeps her camera in the schoolroom, but also includes parent teacher conferences—which help to illuminate the complexities of each student’s unique situation. With an absence of voiceover, the kids and their personal stories supplant any overt political speech and in so doing say very much indeed.
SFIFF 57 featured three Master Classes. Funny or Die: Anatomy of a Comedy Short offered insights into the creation of on-line short form comedy, Painting with Pixar gave a hands-on looks at the work of the local studios art department and another local company Dolby offered a class that highlighted the history of sound in film. The Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature went to Justin Simien’s Dear White People, with Chinese Puzzle by Cédric Klapisch also tallying high votes from filmgoers. The Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature was given to Mike Fleiss’ The Other One: The Long Strange Trip of Bob Weir, with Stanley Nelson’s Freedom Summer also scoring well with SFIFF audiences.
Mark James lives in San Francisco and is a frequent contributor to Film International.