As with so many cultural happenings on the horizon in the city, the San Francisco International Film Festival, which opens today, is hosting its first in-person event since the onset of the pandemic.
However, while the return of the theatergoing experience is certainly welcome, Jessica Fairbanks, the festival’s director of programming, says there was definitely a silver lining to losing the silver screen back in 2020.
Interviewed by phone, the San Francisco-born Fairbanks noted that there is more to a virtual film festival than sitting on the couch, watching streaming content. For starters, switching to an online-only presentation allowed the festival to draw in more participation than ever before.
“Last year we had geoblocking for the entire US, engaged 40 states, and had the biggest audience we’ve ever had,” Fairbanks said. “We were also able to make our events far more inclusive for people who are uncomfortable in public spaces or for whom public attendance doesn’t suit their personal circumstances.”
Last year SFFILM, the parent organization of SFIFF, used open spaces and pop-up drive-ins for its smaller festivals. There’s still an online portion of SFIFF this year; six talks are offered virtually only. And the Golden Gate and Jury awards will be staged so that anyone with WiFi will be able to watch.
But the festival is at last back for live audiences and big screens. SFIFF winnowed 4,500 submissions down a 130-film program, representing 56 countries. Fairbanks and her staff of 100 programmers made their selections with an eye toward increasing representation. As a result, more than half of the directors here are female or non-binary.
Here are our picks for some festival highlights:
If the festival hasn’t overlooked the marginalized, it still has the big name guests expected from a film festival. One marquee draw April 29 is Michelle Yeoh, the Malaysian-born superstar who will be interviewed on stage at the Castro Theater by Sandra Oh. Some have been fans of Oh since she gave a lesson in the wisdom of color-blind casting, auditioning for the role of Blanche Dubois in her film Double Happiness (1995) and completely nailing it.
Yeoh originally began as a ballet dancer, but made a lateral move into Hong Kong action film. She made 16 movies in 10 years in Hong Kong in the 1990s. Then Yeoh co-starred in Pierce Brosnan’s best 007 movie by a mile, Tomorrow Never Dies (1997).
Entering her sixth decade, Yeoh is as magic as ever. She’s formidable in the MCU hit Shiang Chi, and as impressive in her cold formality as Joan Crawford in Crazy Rich Asians. She’s also a critical success in the current fantasy Everything Everywhere All at Once. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) starring Yeoh, is a tribute to Hong Kong taoist action that surpassed its models. It will be screened at the event. Fairbanks notes that she can’t wait to see this on a big screen again. “It hasn't been played here in 35mm since it was released.”
Oakland filmmaker Reid Davenport’s I Didn’t See You There took the Sundance award for best US documentary this year. The film is a reflection on Davenport’s physical condition; he’s in a wheelchair because of cerebral palsy. When a circus tent pops up near his home, Davenport considers the question of the freak show and how it reflects the way he’s perceived.
Awfully sweet to the point of awful sweetness is Marcel The Shell With Shoes On. The moist-eyed bivalve, famous–20 million hits–from the webcast, sets out on a mixed-animated journey to seek out his long lost granny (Isabelle Rosellini). In his first feature film, Marcel gets some celebrity help along the way by 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl. The wee mollusc–“Do you know what I use for a bean bag chair? A raisin.”—is voiced by Jenny Slate, a multi-threat performer and filmmaker whose work is all over Fox’s Animation Domination. Slate will be on hand April 22.
John Boyega starred in the single best Star Wars movie, 2017’s The Last Jedi. He was Finn, the Imperial Army soldier who was sickened by a civilian massacre, and deserted the white-armored corps as galactically infamous for their ruthlessness as they are for their appalling marksmanship. In Abi Damaris Corbin’s 892, Boyega is a vet again—this time in a Dog Day Afternoon like situation of a former US Marine who sticks up a Wells-Fargo in desperation after his disability check fails to turn up. Michael K. Williams, famed as Omar on The Wire, turns up in one of his last performances.
It’s clear that Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love will be an audience favorite, maybe because of the rhapsodic, sometimes fulsome, narration by Miranda July. A fan of Werner Herzog’s films on volcanoes might prefer a little more austerity and distance—it’s hard to upstage a volcano. That said, this examination, pulled up from “the deep archives” of French volcanologists and filmmakers Maurice and Katia Krafft shows the spectacular footage the couple caught all around the Ring of Fire during their 20 years together. One day, the phenomena they loved so avidly sealed their fate, as surely as if they’d been one of those couples preserved forever in the volcanic stone of Pompeii. Bonus: a lesson on the difference between “red volcanoes” and “gray volcanoes” (avoid the latter) and a soundtrack that veers from sweet Parisian pop to Brian Eno.
The efforts to squash legal abortion are growing stronger despite public reluctance to return to the back-alley days; SFIFF has two films of interest on the way things were (and might be again). Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ The Janes (April 30) concerns an illegal group of women in late 1960s Chicago who helped guide women with unwanted pregnancies to physicians who could help them. Some of these women are speaking to the camera for the first time about the dangerous business they were in so long ago. Similarly Audrey Dwan’s Happening (April 22, 23) is a story of a lit student seeking an abortion, against the law in early 60s France. It’s based on Annie Ernaux’s memoir L'Evenement.
The more time passes, the more impressive the work of Tererence Davies gets. At worse, his few, and sadly too far between, films are perhaps stately. At their best, they’re absolutely indelible. Benediction (April 29, 30) is the perfect subject for the sort of lush yet hard-edged nostalgia Davies specializes in…as in his Distant Voices Still Lives (1989) and his underpraised adaptation of Terence Ratigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (2012), Rachel Weisz’ best movie. The master’s subject here is Sigfried Sassoon, a hero of World War I who turned against that war, first in verse and then in political action. Unlike the generation mowed down in the trenches, Sassoon (played in older age by Peter Capaldi) lived to have a long literary career, and a string of male lovers including that noted matinee idol Ivor Novello (Jeremy Irvine).
Huey Newton, a founding member of the Black Panther party, was a charismatic young man as conversant with guns as he was with a piano keyboard. Andrew Abrahams and Herb U. Ferrette’s excellent American Justice on Trial tells of how Newton was accused of killing one Oakland PD office and wounding another. This compact (40 minutes) and visually rich documentary unfolds in the tinderbox summer of 1968. The story has only-in-the Bay Area quirkiness—as in footage of defense lawyer Charles Garry in his bathing suit, striking a yoga pose. But there was nothing funny about the threat of armed insurrection if Newton had been sent to the gas chamber…and the question of whether this public figure could get a fair trial. This focuses with rigor on the trial itself; it bypasses the fact that Newton was, before and after this case, a man prone to violence that went beyond self-defense. (At the time of the police shooting, Newton had just come off probation for stabbing a man; this matter is excluded here, just as it would have been for a juror in a murder trial.)
Nixon in China’s music gets around a bit; it was used to good effect in Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 I Am Love, for example. The opera’s composer John Adams collaborated with composer Peter Sellers on Girls of the Golden West, a modern piece about the original female ‘49ers and their voyage to California. John Else’s documentary Land of Gold excerpts the production and interviews singer Julia Bullock. Conservatory students from SF Opera’s Adler Fellows program, perform before the documentary to help celebrate the magnificent Castro Theatre’s centennial. It’s a free show, but RSVPs are required. Fans of Western women are further directed to Bitterbrush (April 24). It’s Emelie Mahdavian’s sumptuously photographed (by Derek Howard and Alejandro Mejia) documentary about a pair of cattle women escorting the steers over the mountains and through the prairie. Director Mahdavian will be there in person.
Closing night is Cha Cha Real Smooth—director and star Cooper Raiff’s tale of a recent college grad with no aims ending up as an emcee at Long Island bar mitzvahs. It co-stars Leslie Mann and Dakota Johnson.
Richard von Busack can be reached at [email protected]