San Francisco Turns 55: The San Francisco International Film Festival
By Dennis West

Gonçalo Tocha's It's the Earth Not the Moon

Gonçalo Tocha's It's the Earth Not the Moon

From April 19–May 3, 2012, the annual San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) celebrated its fifty-fifth anniversary. Festival publicity trumpeted SFIFF as the oldest continuously running film festival in the Americas; but the public celebration seemed a bit muted as the festival’s long-time “presenter”—to use the de rigueur marketing parlance—the San Francisco Film Society, had within the last year been rocked by the death of Executive Director Graham Leggat and then, months later, of his replacement, Bingham Ray. The latter died unexpectedly only three months before the announced start of SFIFF 55; but the film society resolutely decided that “the show must go on”—and so it did under Interim Executive Director Melanie Blum.

SFIFF is an eclectic, midsized festival which seeks to screen recent films that local audiences would otherwise—at least in the case of many foreign titles—have little chance of seeing on the big screen. According to festival publicity, this year’s edition presented 174 fiction and nonfiction films from forty-five countries. The programs of screenings suggest the event’s broad appeal: World Cinema (recent fiction features from the United States and elsewhere), Documentaries, The Late Show (billed as “Thrills and Chills from around the World”), New Directors (first- and second-time fiction filmmakers emerging on the international scene), and Cinema by the Bay. The latter program celebrated the work of established and emerging filmmakers based in the Bay Area.

Both the New Directors Showcase and the program of documentary features were competitive. The top documentary prize, the Golden Gate Award, went to Gonçalo Tocha’s fine It’s the Earth Not the Moon, which uses a slow-paced and down-home social history approach to examine life yesterday and today on the remote island of Corvo in the Portuguese Azores. 

In addition to screenings, the festival sponsored many other types of activities in support of film culture. In the popular Schools at the Festival Program, visiting filmmakers dropped by local junior high and high school classrooms in order to comment on their own work and to inspire the next generation of cineastes. A series of master classes invited festivalgoers to hear from specially qualified international guests, such as Sarah Lawrence professor Malcolm Turvey, who discoursed on “Tati, Chaplin and the Democratization of Comedy.” In addition tributes to major figures—Kenneth Branagh and Judy Davis for example—rounded out the programs on offer.

Navigating the 55th edition of SFIFF proved tricky for this first-time visiting critic because of the strict and, from my perspective, unhelpful protocols imposed, such as a hit-and-miss lottery system for day-of tickets, which were the only ones designated for critics. In light of these challenges, I resolved to concentrate on one program—New Directors—and see as many of those fiction features as the luck of the draw would allow. This approach proved felicitous, since from amongst the thirty-one titles in this meaty selection many gems appeared. Notes on a few of my favorites appear below.

Two films offered powerful portraits of young to middle-aged men in crisis. In the dark personal drama Oslo, August 31, the Scandinavian coscreenwriter and director Joachim Trier follows a thirty-four-year-old recovering drug addict on his one-day leave as he journeys from his rehab center into the Norwegian capital in order to interview for a seemingly made-to-order position with a cultural magazine. The interview goes horribly wrong, as does most everything else for the deeply depressed protagonist as he drifts along on August 31—the last day of Oslo’s summer and a time when better adjusted folk are seen cavorting in the swimming pool or otherwise enjoying themselves. Trier excels at orchestrating emotionally wrenching scenes such as the failed interview. Or this: we watch aghast as the disturbed protagonist mechanically loads up his pockets with rocks and then wades out into a murky lake—as if a decision to commit suicide could be so neat and easy. Lead actor Anders Danielsen Lie—with his angular face and bright eyes that challenge both individuals and society at large—is mesmerizing as a recovering addict, first lost to depression and then funneled inexorably into an existential crisis from which there may be no exit. The festival catalogue notes that Oslo, August 31 is based loosely on Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s 1931 novel Le Feu follet, which had been adapted for cinema by Louis Malle in 1963 as The Fire Within. Trier’s self assured and immensely despairing adaptation proves that he is indeed an up-and-coming director to watch.

Israeli screenwriter-director Eran Kolirin’s protagonist-in-crisis in the now dark, now funny absurdist comedy, The Exchange, is a reddish-bearded and balding twenty-something advanced graduate student in physics whose mental-emotional unhinging begins slowly when he unexpectedly breaks his usual routine and returns home from the university one day at an off hour—then for some unknown reason does this creature of habit begin to see his apartment, and even his sleeping wife, in a different and detached manner, as if in another realm. Shai Goldman’s clinically observant camerawork follows the bespectacled and perpetually quizzical-looking protagonist as he slides deeper and deeper into alternative ways of seeing and being, especially after he meets up with a fellow apartment dweller who wholeheartedly serves as an enabler—a loony sidekick whose idea of expressing himself involves howling threats and insults at imaginary inhabitants behind the closed doors of empty apartments, or just lying flat, face up, on the marble floor of the lobby of a busy apartment building. The protagonist’s ever more bizarre conduct comes at a heavy price: he becomes detached from his spouse and associates, not to speak of workaday reality. Kolirin ends his narrative à la Antonioni’s Blow Up—the protagonist picks up a ball that has inadvertently rolled up to his feet on the beach, considers it, and… like Antonioni, Kolirin challenges us to ponder what it is we think we see and know—be it a ball or any other aspect of “reality.” This profoundly original film deservedly captured the FIPRESCI or International Critics Prize as the best work in the New Directors Showcase.

Two strong Brazilian features appeared in this selection. Coscreenwriter and director Júlia Murat’s slow-paced, elegiac Found Memories combines documentary and fictional techniques in order to explore life in a decaying, never electrified town—now inhabited by a few elders set in their routines—in Brazil’s coffee-growing region. Jutuomba is a Brazilian Macondo, a semiabandoned, formerly commodities-producing enclave. Rusty railroad tracks symbolize the Macondo’s withering away as the coffee boom has gone bust. Murat elegantly uses stationary camera set-ups and carefully composed shots to produce a compelling meditation on history, memory, community, aging, and change. Change reaches the community in the form of a photographer—a dynamic, modern young woman no less—who appears out of nowhere and commences to take a pronounced professional and personal interest in the town and its inhabitants. Her photographs of Jutuomba—taken with both modern and pinhole cameras—provide a fascinating gallery of faces, lifestyles, and places that will be no more. A montage of historic black-and-white still photos opens screenwriter-director Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighboring Sounds as well it should, since the troubled history of Brazil’s Northeast is his inescapable subtext.

The photos show iconic historical images of the Northeastern countryside, such as the raised machetes of landless peasants demanding better conditions, or the typical casa grande or old-style “big house” inhabited by the wealthy owners of sugar-cane plantations in a region where the concentration of land in the hands of a few has long been a seemingly insurmountable problem. However, Mendonça Filho sets most of the action of his tensions-just-below-the-surface drama in an urban area he knows well—his own neighborhood in the Northeastern coastal city of Recife. He draws on finely nuanced ensemble acting; a multilayered, subtle, and provocative sound design; and an intriguingly interwoven narrative structure to explore the troubled lives of residents living along a single upscale street, which as the film opens is coming under twenty-four hour surveillance by a private security firm hired by concerned neighbors to deter crime. The narrative frame is chronologically limited to a few days, but in this short time period the director both creatively explores and provides in-depth analysis of the major problems currently facing Brazilians as their now booming country emerges onto the world stage: the profound and longstanding socioeconomic divisions that have traditionally separated the nation’s haves and have-nots; the penchant to seek upward mobility and advantage not through personal effort or merit but via influence peddling involving personal bonds with powerful relatives, friends, and other influential figures; the corruption and inefficiency of social institutions, such as the police; a tendency to resort to extrajudicial violence to settle personal differences; and the urgent social problems that have arisen with the rapid growth of megacities—from pervasive street crime to the far-reaching social costs of speculative, high-rise and high-density urban real estate. Mendonça Filho has long been known as a creator of shorts and as a perceptive film critic. With this riveting first feature, he now emerges as a major talent onto the rich Brazilian film scene.

My hat is off to the organizers of SFIFF 55 for soldiering on in spite of devastating losses in terms of personnel. Perhaps their carry-on spirit was best exemplified by the popular movie-related city tours they generously hosted for festival guests. If fate was unkind to you in terms of a ticket to a screening, no worries: join the Vertigo tour, get out into the sunshine, drink in San Francisco’s spectacular hillside vistas now bedecked with spring flowers, and, to boot, see just where another man in crisis, the acrophobic Scottie, first spied Madeleine—or was it Judy? Or Carlotta?

For more information on the SFIFF, click here.

Dennis West is a Contributing Editor at Cineaste and Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho.

Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine.