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AOC, BBC & Claire Denis: Preview Of SFFILM Festival 2019

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Knock Down the House, Directed by Rachel Lears

Broke-Ass readers living in the S.F. Bay Area who want longer immersion in the world of film outside the Hollywood sphere are in luck next week.  April sees the return of the annual SFFILM Festival. Formerly known as the San Francisco International Film Festival, this two week event enters its 62nd year as America’s oldest film festival.  At this cinematic bacchanalia, a lucky viewer can see everything from new work by established directors to first works by filmmakers and actors who may become tomorrow’s stars. Previous editions of the SFFILM Festival have shown such later hits as “Whiplash” and “Sorry To Bother You.”

This year’s festival runs from April 10-23 at such venues as the Castro Theatre, the Dolby Theatre, the Pacific Film Archive, the Grand Lake Theatre, and the Victoria Theatre.  Attendees can choose from among 163 offerings of various lengths from 52 different countries. Narratives, episodics (episodes from TV series), and short films can be found here.    

Especially for newbies, the process of choosing what to see at the SFFILM Festival can feel overwhelming.  Seeing creator Armistead Maupin and star Laura Linney appear in person with the first episode of the “Tales Of The City” reboot may sound thrilling.  But not everybody has $70 a head to blow on the Opening Night Film and Party. What follows are some suggested offerings that might be more financially doable.


The Broke-Ass (aka Community) Offerings

Attending the SFFILM Festival’s Community screenings won’t cost a dime.  The only limits are registration availability and a willingness to travel to the venues hosting these events.  

Night And Day–Over four decades, the BBC arts program “Arena” covered everybody from the Sex Pistols to Akira Kurosawa.  To honor the series’ receipt of this year’s Mel Novikoff Award, SFFILM presents an abridged version of “Night And Day.”  “Arena” executive producer Anthony Wall originally condensed decades of the series’ programming into a 24-hour real-time visual experience.  The edition being shown at SFFILM runs only nine hours. However, this version includes previously unseen footage. Also, when the viewer arrives and how much of “Night And Day” they choose to see is up to them.

United Shades Of America: Season 4 Premiere–W. Kamau Bell’s Emmy Award-winning series looks at life in the 21st century U.S.  This episode takes Bell to Mississippi. The state’s become a hotspot in the fight for reproductive justice and access thanks to recent government efforts to curtail a woman’s right to choose.  The Bay Area comedian will take part in a post-screening discussion.

We Are The Radical MonarchsThe Radical Monarchs are an Oakland-based youth leadership development troop for girls of color.  Members of the Monarchs get merit badges for such activities as social justice and allyship. This documentary follows troop founding moms Anyavette and Marilyn and their girls over the course of a season as they deal with everything from growing pains to the Trump Administration.


Twenty Films To Check Out

American Factory–Dreams of returned prosperity danced in the eyes of recession-hit residents of Dayton, Ohio.  The Chinese car glass manufacturer Fuyao seemed to be Dayton’s savior after it bought a defunct GM plant and got it running again.  Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s documentary captures the subsequent clashes between American and Chinese personnel over management styles and the nature of labor relations.

Asako I & II–The new film from Ryusuke Hamaguchi (“Happy Hour”) might be called a gender-flipped version of “Vertigo.”  In Osaka, Asako and Baku meet and become lovers. After Baku disappears without a trace six months later, the heartbroken Asako moves to Tokyo.  There, she meets Ryohei, a man who’s Baku’s doppelganger. Yet Ryohei claims he has no knowledge of Baku. If Ryohei’s lying, why is he doing so?  If Ryohei’s telling the truth, what does this say about Asako?

Booksmart–Actress Olivia Wilde’s directorial debut flips the teen comedy on its head.  On the eve of their high school graduation, Amy and Molly notice their incredible scholastic record is counterbalanced by their failure to do anything fun while in high school.  So they decide over the course of one wild night to squeeze in four years’ worth of teen hijinks…

Boots Riley: State Of Cinema AddressOakland native and political activist Boots Riley has gone from fronting The Coup to making the hit award-winning film “Sorry To Bother You.”  His talk considers how various social movements have challenged filmmakers to be more creative in capturing how these movements are changing the world.     

Claire Denis: Tribute +  “High Life”–Film festival screenings of a soon-to-be-released film can give attendees the opportunity to ask questions of the creative personnel behind the film.  Claire Denis happens to be one of France’s best current working directors. Several Denis films including “Nenette And Boni,” “Beau Travail,” and “White Material” have screened at previous SFFILM Festivals.  Now the director appears in person with her new film “High Life.” Robert Pattinson, Andre Benjamin, and Juliette Binoche star in this tale set aboard a space exploration ship populated by death row inmates.  But interstellar wonders take second place to Denis’ look at the dark galaxies inside the human soul.

The Farewell–Loved Awkwafina’s memorable supporting performance as the college best friend in “Crazy Rich Asians?”  Wait till you see what happens when she takes on the lead role in Lulu Wang’s Centerpiece film. The comedian plays a broke Asian-American artist who returns to China.  She’s joining other family members in saying goodbye to a dying grandmother. The trouble is, nobody’s willing to tell the grandmother she’s dying. Instead, the rest of the family winds up going to ridiculous extremes to hide the truth from the old woman.

The Grand Bizarre–Jodie Mack’s experimental animated documentary feature uses hand-woven textiles, pop song beats, and stop-motion animation (among other things) to take a tour of labor around the world.  This decidedly offbeat ethnographic documentary assembles and animates the physical objects created by our work to create a commentary on life under the capitalist consumerism bootheel. Another reason to check out this program: Guy Maddin’s newest short plays before Mack’s film.

Hail Satan?–Penny Lane’s (“Nuts!”) entertaining new documentary takes viewers inside The Satanic Temple.  The group’s not as concerned with worshipping Satan as they are protesting (and mocking) America’s theocratic tendencies.  The Temple’s activities range from adopting a highway so they can pick up litter with pitchforks to designing a monument to Baphomet for display in Bible Belt country.   

Honeyland–Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s film won the World Cinema Documentary Grand Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  Lonely Hatidze lives with her ailing mother in the Macedonian mountains and uses ancient traditions in caring for her bees. The arrival of new neighbors promises Hatidze welcome relief from her loneliness.  But friction between Hatidze and her neighbors arises when the newcomers’ interest in beekeeping doesn’t include following the veteran beekeeper’s advice.

Knock Down The House–Rachel Lears’ stirring documentary follows four women from different backgrounds who are running grassroots political campaigns against entrenched male incumbent politicians.  Among the documentary’s subjects is one Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Note: This film was made before the DCCC started taking steps to prevent future AOCs from being elected.)

Midnight Family–Because Mexico’s public health system badly lacks resources, outside entrepreneurs fill in the system’s gaps.  Director Luke Lorentzen takes viewers into the world of the Ochoa clan, who run a Mexico City-based private ambulance service.  This verite account of the clan’s business captures the harrowing life and death dramas of their daily operations.

Minute Bodies:  The Intimate Lives Of F. Percy Smith–Prepare to get your mind blown by this documentary about the founder of “micro cinema,” F. Percy Smith.  The scientist built his own equipment to photograph plants and microorganisms, using such then-radical techniques as time-lapse photography.  Director and Tindersticks front man Stuart A. Staples provides a new score to accompany Smith’s 1920s and 1930s footage of life at the microscopic level.

Monos–A group of teen soldiers belonging to the rebel group The Organization have been tasked with keeping their hostage Doctora (Julianne Nicholson) alive.  A military attack on their base plus Doctora’s escape attempt leads to the soldiers’ venturing deeper into the jungle, where military discipline is not the only thing to unravel.  Alejandro Landes’ Sundance Jury Award winner features a score by Micah Levi (“Under The Skin”) and plays like what would happen if you crossed “Apocalypse Now” with “Lord of the Flies.”  

The Nightingale–Jennifer Kent’s follow-up to “The Babadook” goes for an epic revenge saga in the wilds of 19th century Tasmania. Former Irish convict Clare, aided by Aboriginal guide Billy, wants violent revenge against a vicious British lieutenant and his underlings.  Those military men committed horrible crimes against Clare and her family. If graphic violence makes you uncomfortable, find another film.

One Child Nation–Nanfu Wang’s new documentary casts a baleful eye at popular compliance with China’s One Child law.  Returning to her home village, Wang learns from her family members just what extreme measures Chinese citizens took to obey the law.  These measures included forced sterilization and relying on human trafficking rings. Documentaries such as this show why Wang is not one of the Chinese government’s favorite directors.

Project Gutenberg–This thriller from Felix Chong, the writer of “Infernal Affairs,” will remind viewers how Chow Yun-Fat became an icon of Hong Kong action films.  Painter (Chow) is a notorious counterfeiting network mastermind. The police hope to use information from former Painter associate Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) to bring the mysterious leader down.  But the film is Chow’s show. Whether he’s publicly insulting an aspiring painter’s talent or giving the two-handed gun salute like a boss, Chow clearly takes viewer attention and runs away with it.  

Raise Hell: The Life And Times Of Molly Ivins–Late Texas journalist Molly Ivins would have brayed with laughter at Donald Trump’s many “fake news” lies.  Her mixture of wit and anger helped deflate (and even take down) the corrupt politicos she encountered in Texas politics.  Janice Engel’s biography shows how Ivins defied the cultural and journalistic stereotypes of the 1960s and 1970s to become an unforgettable political commentator.

Show Me The Picture: The Story Of Jim Marshall–Iconic photographic images of such 1960s and 1970s rock legends as Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix were the handiwork of one man: Jim Marshall.  This San Francisco-based photographer displayed a gift for capturing the person behind a rock star’s public persona. But Alfred George Bailey’s cinematic biography shows Marshall’s large appetite for drugs and guns plus his aggressive personality would ultimately undermine his life and career.

Well-Groomed–Could you hack it in the world of competitive dog-grooming?  Rebecca Stern captures entrants to the Groom Expo’s annual grooming contest displaying the wildest and most inventive use of dog fur.  See groomed dogs made up to resemble Jurassic Park or even an entire farm. Note: Registered dogs can be brought to the April 21 screening.

What We Left Unfinished–The priceless negatives of the Afghan Film Archive were kept safely hidden between 1996 to 2002.  When director Mariam Ghani gained access to the archive, she discovered several uncompleted films made from 1978 to 1991.  Excerpts from these unfinished films tantalize the viewer. More importantly, the personal recollections of the makers of these incomplete works illuminate the tangled skeins of recent Afghan history.

(For further information about the SFFILM Festival’s offerings and to order advance tickets, go to .)

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Peter Wong

Peter Wong

I've been reviewing films for quite a few years now, principally for the online publication Beyond Chron. My search for unique cinematic experiences and genre dips have taken me everywhere from old S.F. Chinatown movie theaters showing first-run Jackie Chan movies to the chilly slopes of Park City. Movies having cat pron instantly ping my radar.