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The SF Documentary Festival is Here and it Looks Fantastic

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The Artist and the Pervert

The San Francisco Documentary Festival (aka DocFest) has long earned its reputation for cheerfully screwing with the familiar air of film festival stodginess. Sure, DocFest presents film screenings and appearances by film talent, just like other film festivals. But do other festivals also present a heavy metal karaoke party, a chance to ridicule bad art with like-minded others, or “Breakfast Club” Bingo?

Unsurprisingly, DocFest comes from the same offbeat folks who present the San Francisco Independent Film Festival and the Another Hole In The Head Film Festival.  This year’s edition might be called the voting age festival since it’s the 18th one. Running from May 29 to June 13, 2019, the festival presents 84 films and eight parties at venues ranging from the Brava Theater to Bender’s Bar & Grill to the venerable Roxie Theater.  

As always, DocFest presents films handling the topical and weighty.  A couple of selections this year deal with abuse of undocumented immigrants’ labor (Building The American Dream) and Russian media disinformation (Factory Of Lies).  But the DocFest folks haven’t forgotten to offer films that know how to have fun.  Viewers will also see at this year’s festival a handmade pasta maker making a comeback (Funke), life in a town built on broken dreams (Barstow, CA) and a look at Third Wave ska (Pick It Up! Ska In The 90s).  

Pick It Up! Ska In The 90s

Obviously there’s a lot to choose from in DocFest’s 16 days of true stories.  Here are some suggestions:

The Artist & The Pervert–Georg is a renowned Austrian composer whose parents were Nazis.  Molena is a renowned black kink educator. They’re also a couple with Molena serving as slave to Georg’s master.  This film follows their consensual interracial relationship, one which pushes the buttons of outsiders.

Bending Lines: The Sculpture Of Robert Wiggs–Could you get artistic inspiration from seeing armadillo scales or cracks in dried mud?  Sculptor Robert Wiggs’ works are sparked by the natural patterns he sees in these phenomena.  His simple yet beautiful sculptures make concrete for the lay viewer important ideas in quantum physics and particle physics.

Bill Traylor: Chasing Ghosts–Saying artist Bill Traylor led an eventful life is like saying water is wet.  Starting out a slave on an Alabama cotton plantation, Traylor would live a life affected by such major historical events as the Civil War and the Great Migration.  To record the stories of his life, he would turn to drawing and painting, producing over a thousand works between 1939 to 1942. This film introduces to new audiences an important American artist.

Circles–Meet Oakland high school counselor Eric Butler.  A Hurricane Katrina survivor and pioneer of the restorative justice movement, Butler struggles to help troubled black and Latino students stay in school whether through fighting snap suspensions or gritty mentoring.  So what happens when the arrest and jailhouse beating of Butler’s teenage son causes him to question his work and his effectiveness?

Dance Craze: The Best Of British Ska…Live!–This year marks the 40th anniversary of 2 Tone ska’s bursting onto the world’s music scene.  To celebrate, DocFest brings as part of a ska double feature The Greatest 2 Tone Ska Film Ever.  This out-of-print concert film gives you performances by such classic bands as The Selecter, Madness, The Specials, and Bad Manners.    

Dons Of Disco–Never heard of the 1980s Europop genre known as ItaloDisco?  You will with this account of the superstar ItaloDisco band Den Harrow.  Bigger than Michael Jackson or Duran Duran in the 1980s, their music conquered Europe and even the USSR.  Then it’s revealed that the band is ItaloDisco’s Milli Vanilli.  A good-looking club kid may have been the face of Den Harrow.  But Den Harrow’s voice actually belonged to a singer-songwriter lacking the looks to make it big.  Now a couple of decades’ worth of non-payment of royalties to the voice behind Den Harrow has removed his shyness about telling all…

Framing John Delorean

Framing John Delorean–The average Broke-Ass reader will remember John Delorean as the guy who designed the “Back To The Future” car.  But how many such readers will remember Delorean also brought the world the GTO? Or how the fall of the brilliant car designer’s career became the epitome of crashing and burning?  This year’s DocFest Non-Fiction Vanguard Award winners Don Argott and Sheena Joyce re-tell Delorean’s story. The panoply of people interviewed for their perspectives on the brilliant car innovator range from former GM associates to Delorean’s children to even Irish assembly line workers.  Alec Baldwin re-enacts key scenes from the auto designer’s life.

In Bright Axiom–If you received an invitation to go to a certain address and enter a certain access code, would you step inside once the door opened?  Many people would say no, as they don’t know what to expect. Meet a group of curious and creative people who say yes. They’re the Latitude Society, who are willing to trust the unknown to participate in this social experiment and create personally transformative experiences.

I Want My MTV–Nearly 40 years ago, a new cable channel would send cultural shock waves throughout America.  It would devote itself to screening music videos from the hottest pop stars of the era. The channel, MTV (for Music Television), would become a major pop cultural touchstone for those who were young at heart in the 1980s.  DocFest’s Closing Night Film takes you back to the early days of MTV, when the idea of a music video television channel was still considered a crazy idea.

J.R. “Bob” Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenius–Douglass St. Clair Smith and Steve Wilcox were unemployed friends and self-proclaimed weirdos.  Disgusted with consumer-driven culture, the duo took a page from conservative southern televangelists to create the new joke religion The Church of the Subgenius.  The duo became Reverend Ivan Stang and Dr. Philo Drummond. One of DocFest’s Opening Night films tells the story of how their “church” became the prankster duo’s vehicle for spreading the words of joke prophet J.R. “Bob” Dobbs in challenging society’s conspiracy of normalcy.

Pariah Dog

Pariah Dog–This film might be called Kedi for dog lovers.  Street dogs have existed in India’s towns and villages for thousands of years.  This film focuses on four men and women who have taken on caring for these neglected canines in the streets of Kolkata.  As the viewer learns about these outsider caretakers’ lives, they’ll also get a resident’s view of the Indian city these caretakers call home.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project–Reclusive Communist radical Marion Stokes embarked on a project to record and preserve television news that contradicted or challenged the official line on events ranging from the Iran Hostage Crisis to the Sandy Hook mass shooting.  Over thirty years, Stokes’ archive would reach 70,000 VHS tapes. Director Matt Wolf takes the viewer inside both Stokes’ life and her incredible video library of inconvenient truths.

Red Dog–Country songwriter and film co-director Luke Dick’s childhood was marked by the unusual village that helped raise him.  HIs dancer mother Kim had the support of her co-workers at the Red Dog Saloon, the notorious Oklahoma City topless bar. Luke wanted to know more about the world of the Red Dog, so he asked Kim and some of her co-workers for stories about working at the bar.  The result is this film, which will deliver such life lessons as “don’t go to J.C. Penny’s for sexy nightgowns” and “don’t ride with people willing to toss you into a dumpster when they think you’ve O.D.’d.”

Spider Mites Of Jesus: The Dirtwoman Documentary–Meet Richmond, VA legend Donnie “Dirtwoman” Corker.  Thanks to a childhood bout with the “spider mites of Jesus” (aka spinal meningitis), Corker was left illiterate and with very few job prospects.  But having a larger-than-life John Waters-like unpredictable personality led to Corker eventually becoming a drag performer who re-branded himself as Dirtwoman, the self-proclaimed Queen of Richmond.

When The Storm Fades–You’ve probably seen dramatic re-enactments of Third World people surviving natural disasters.  But when was the last time you saw a disaster film that also ridiculed the white savior complex? The Pablos (who play themselves) lost their Tacloban seaside home to 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan.  Three years later, they’ve rebuilt their poor home and endure a daily struggle to recover. However, a couple of Canadian tree-planting volunteers wind up worsening the Pablos’ problems.

(For further information about these and other DocFest films screening this year, go to https://sfindie.com/festivals/sf-docfest .)

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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.