April 26, 2007

SFIFF. Preview.

Jay Kuehner surveys the offerings of a golden anniversary edition.

SFIFF While the collective (and by now bloodshot) eye of the cinemonde turns its gaze in anticipation to the �granddaddy of all film festivals� that is Cannes, another coastal celebration is getting underway that can claim such august status. The San Francisco International Film Festival is turning 50, and a preview of its golden edition leaves the impression that the fest is old enough to know better (about film history) and still too young to care (about its boundaries). In translation, this means tributes to forebearers obvious (George Lucas, Spike Lee) and less so (Heddy Honigmann, with her latest, Forever), while pushing film out of the theaters and showcasing recombinant trends, such as the �live cinema spectacle� Arrows of Time by Ken McMullen, which alights on Derrida, Beuys, Borges and Stanford physicists alike. Less heady but hybrid still: Guy Maddin'’s extravaganza Brand Upon the Brain, with live orchestra (and castrato), and a seemingly unholy pairing of Victor Sjöström'’s surreal silent Swedish classic The Phantom Carriage with live score by reknown Scandinavian composer Jonathan Richman (that’s a joke).


Falling For those who take the festival in stride, inside, and sitting down, ensconced in the Kabuki’s all too familiar theaters, it's the strata of international films comprising the bulk of the program that inform their festival experience. A glance at the lineup reveals a lean, even discreet survey of the year in international film. Lean because the program is not overstuffed; you get the sense that there are no films unaccounted for (i.e., programmers fought for their choices). And discreet, well, because there is a lack of conspicuous films in lieu of some that too easily could have slipped by in their upstream swim of the festival circuit (in hopes of spawning distribution). For example, two standouts that come to mind are Barbara Albert's Falling, following her kinetic Free Radicals and again employing ensemble performance to great effect (she also co-wrote fellow Austrian Michael Glawogger's Slumming, a compelling morality tale that outwits its eurotrashing protaganists). And Pablo Trapero's Born and Bred, which finds the Argentine - who practically jump-started a new wave with his grainy lament to unemployment in Crane World back in 1999 (SFIFF 2000) - maturing in unforeseen ways.

Likewise, the program is encouraging to new directors, some making return trips to SFIFF with fresh work. Auraeus Solito moves out of the barrio of his charming debut The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (SFIFF 2006) and into the lush Filipino countryside with Tuli. Veronica Chen (Smokers Only, SFIFF 2002) is back with Agua, a prizewinner at Locarno and Palm Springs that one colleague wryly dubbed The Loneliness of the Long Distance Swimmer.

Love for Sale: Suely in the Sky Virtual unknown Takushi Tsubokawa, returning with Aria, may be welcome to those who caught his somnambulistic Clouds of Yesterday last year. Karim AĂŻnouz, who thrust the sinuous Madame SĂŁta at audiences in 2003, again considers marginality in Love for Sale: Suely in the Sky (gorgeously rendered by the estimable cinematographer Walter Carvalho). And the winner of last year's SKYY Prize for best new director, Ying Liang - for Taking Father Home - used some of his prize money to fund his latest, The Other Half. Ying sticks with video, but his sense of formal interplay is conceptually rich, marking him as one of the more auspicious Chinese talents since Jia Zhangke.

This fidelity to director’s' nascent or continuing careers is a benevolent sign that, even at a ripe 50, the festival still has a nurturing instinct. Not only toward directors, but audiences as well. The sense of continuity is naturally a consequence of the flow of film exhibition, but a keen viewer will be rewarded for prior risks. Case in point: Eduardo Coutinho, the not-so-nascent Brazilian documentarian whose Master: A Building in Copacabana was a sleeper at SFIFF 2004, is again represented with The End and the Beginning, his foray into northeast Brazil in search of a subject. Blink (or step out for food) and you may have missed the connection.

Once From there the links are myriad. While you're in Brazil, why not catch the doc about indefatigable tropicalista musician Tom ZĂ© (Fabricating Tom ZĂ©, by DĂ©cio Matos Jr)? Or possibly resent the fact that Sundance Documentary Award winner Manda Bala, about the cycle of corruption in Brazil, isn't here, meanwhile realizing that a host of other standouts from Sundance are? Busker love in Once (John Carney, Ireland) won the hearts of the staunchest of critics in Park City, and features a sweet duet from its pair of nonprofessional actors. The Devil Came on Horseback (Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern), which also kicked up dust at Sundance, comes across as a formally conventional documentary about genocide in Darfur, but morphs from a consideration of its message to its messenger - an ex-marine who becomes lone witness to atrocity in Darfur while serving as an unarmed observer.

Ghosts of Cité Soleil (Asger Leth, Denmark), features a similarly complicated relation to its subject(s), here two rival gang leaders who are also brothers, in Port-au- Prince's notorious slum under Aristede's dubious execution of democracy. At Telluride, the film was highly divisive, seen as a disguised gesture of cultural tourism or conversely a fearless portrait of survival. Either way, the film offers some rather astonishing footage - perilously ripe for a Hollywood makeover.

Typical of SFIFF, French films get good billing. Both Pascale Ferran's César-winning Lady Chatterley and Olivier Dahan's Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose are welcome but have secure futures beyond SFIFF. Better perhaps to gamble on lesser-knowns such as Claire Simon (On Fire) or Christophe Honoré, whose follow-up to the Bataille-inspired Ma mère, Dans Paris, is a far more tender affair than its predecessor. A mercurial and fractured look at the bond between two brothers, this nouvelle vague-inflected bagatelle is played by two of France's indelible young actors, Romain Duris and Louis Garrel. Other French faces worth following, both behind and before the camera: Jean-Pascal Hattu's 7 Years, fresh from New Directors/New Films, features Bruno Todeschini (seen in last year’s Perfect Lovers by Nobuhiro Suwa), and Jeanne Waltz, whose A Parting Shot stars Isild Le Besco, who graced the Kabuki last year for a screening of Emmanuelle Bercot's study of idolatry, Backstage.

Bamako Pedro Costa's cryptic, demanding, and spectral Colossal Youth is among the more inspired choices from last year's Cannes competition. It's an austere work poverty, time and longing - see it at your own risk, miss it at your peril. It finds an unwitting companion piece, methodology wise, in Rob Nilsson's anthology of scenes from his work with the Tenderloin yGroup's acting workshops for street people, to be screened at SFIFF's outdoor venue. Another Cannes alumnus, Abderrahmane Sissako, inveighs on African - and by extension, global - politics with his fierce polemic Bamako, offering a platform for SFIFF's Picturing Development dialogue, presided over by the film's executive producer, Danny Glover.

Hot topics inevitably abound, but arguably the most anticipated address is to the state of cinema itself, delivered by Peter Sellars, the pioneering theater and artistic director. Locals may recall his collaboration with composer John Adams for the San Francisco Opera production of Doctor Atomic (which, in an instance of festival fortuity, is documented in Jon Else's Wonders Are Many). More recently, in Vienna, Sellars produced an unprecedented achievement with his New Crowned Hope series, in which several directors were commissioned to make films in commemoration of Mozart's anniversary.

SFIFF is privileged to be screening two of the series’ seven films - a small quotient, admittedly - but happily one of them is among the cinema year's real gems. Once I acclimated to Garin Nugroho's bewitching Opera Jawa, a retelling of a Sanskrit legend, nothing struck me more than the unfurling of an epic swath of crimson linen through the Indonesian jungle, by which macho butcher (and killer dancer) Ludiro attempts to seduce the beautiful, married Sita. The film is replete with ravishing visual sequences, and as a lament for victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami, it offers salve to sufferers anywhere. Its inclusion in SFIFF's 50th edition is good news indeed, enough to make me forgive a minor grievance, the absence of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Call it Syndromes and Half a Century.

-Jay Kuehner

To see the highlights all over again from another angle, check Dennis Harvey's "SFIFF50" at SF360.

Update: Michael Hawley has quite a preview at the Evening Class, where Michael Guillén asks David Thomson for his take on The Deal.

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Posted by dwhudson at April 26, 2007 3:08 AM