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SF DocFest 2020 Preview

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Coronavirus concerns have curbed holding the 19th annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival (aka DocFest) live.  So this year DocFest attendees will have to do without drinking parties at a nearby Mission District bar or opportunities to meet a filmmaker in real life.  

The People Who Suspend

Fortunately, despite a general lack of live events, this year’s DocFest is still  happening…but online.  From September 3-20, viewers can stream at any time the festival’s 49 shorts and feature films, you pay $10 (like it was 1 single movie theater ticket admission).  There will still be Q&A sessions both live and pre-recorded for certain films being screened.

So buy your booze from a local distiller or brewer, get your takeout from a locally owned restaurant in the mission, and have your own docfest at home this year, live!

DocFest’s offerings this year will show viewers once again that the documentary form can be a lot more than “just the facts” dullness or only about tame subjects such as art or nature.  DocFest viewers can: take a deep dive into the world of body suspension (The People Who Suspend); meet a Native American UC Berkeley Environmental Studies student fighting a Shasta Dam raise (One Word Sawalmem); get introduced to the Tarahumaras’ long distance running culture (The Infinite Race); see how people live with a wind storm that can topple tall trees and drive people to suicide (The Wind: A Documentary Thriller); or even discover the unexpected riches of the world of palindromes (The Palindromists).

Here are some 2020 DocFest films that sound intriguing: 


Americaville–Who would have expected Jackson Hole, Wyoming to be a place for Chinese citizens to decompress?  But that’s exactly what takes place in this gated community set in the mountains north of Beijing.  Here, in a replica of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, stressed out Chinese citizens can indulge in playing American sports, conduct cooking experiments with “American” recipes, and even celebrate the 4th of July.  However, the existence of this community has the Chinese government’s back up.

Animation Outlaws–The Spike and Mike animation festivals showed hip audiences that animation could be a lot more than something to entertain kids.  Thanks to these festivals, the world was first introduced to such future pop culture staples as “Beavis And Butthead,” “Wallace And Gromit,” and “Happy Tree Friends.”  Now meet the two hippies who changed the commercial animation world as well as some of the animators whose careers were launched by the Spike and Mike festivals.

Bleeding Audio–Have the changes brought about by digital technologies undercut the ability of new musical acts to become successful?  Bay Area filmmaker Chelsea Christer answers this question by following the travails of the Oakland band The Matches through the eyes of its members.  Once considered an up and coming band, The Matches broke up while trying to navigate the music industry changes wrought by the digital revolution.  Yet, could that breakup portend The Matches’ members becoming stronger for the experience?

Dharma Rebel – Noah Levine–Noah Levine is not your typical Buddhist teacher.  This local tattooed punk founded the Against The Stream movement to reach more unconventional audiences with the teachings of Buddhism.  This documentary started out as a portrait of Levine’s successful addiction recovery program Refuge Recovery.  But when an ex-girlfriend accuses Levine of sexual misconduct, the film takes a decidedly unexpected turn.


Iconicity–Why have the Southern California deserts become a magnet for artists and radicals?  Blank landscapes dominate the desert.  Summer temperatures here can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit.  But as Leo Zahn’s road trip film shows, fringe communities have amazingly thrived in this region.  Along the way, viewers will see works by such artists as Leonard Knight, Desert X, and Ricardo Breceda.  Capping the film will be a visit to the Bombay Beach Biennale, a festival celebrating the beauty of decay.

Insert Coin–Has the Netflix series “High Score” whetted your appetite for learning more video game history?  Then check out this portrait of Midway Games, which follows the company’s amazing rise to its eventual implosion.  The video and arcade game company made its mark on 1990s pop culture by creating games heavy on the violence yet reveling in anarchy.  Midway’s hits included “Mortal Kombat” and “NBA Jam.”

The Last Blockbuster–Once upon a time in America, the Blockbuster Video chain ran to over 9,000 stores across the nation.  Now, only one store in Bend, OR remains to keep the Blockbuster flame alive.  Sandi, the manager of this last Blockbuster store, struggles to keep her business open.  Along the way, she’ll learn that something other than Netflix killed the Blockbuster chain.  The film features appearances by director Kevin Smith, actress Ione Skye (“Say Anything”), and comedian Doug Benson. 

Picture Character–Could the emoji be the harbinger of a new language?  Directors Martha Shane and Ian Cheney take a deep dive into the world of picture characters.  Here, you’ll learn who makes sure emojis are standardized and how emojis have evolved.  The film will even take viewers to Japan, aka the birthplace of emojis.

Ride Slow, Take Photos–Is it still possible to have a discussion about immigration in America that doesn’t devolve into defensive posturing and the parroting of Faux News talking points?  San Francisco photographer Erik Mathy decided to find out.  In November 2019, he rode his bicycle from San Francisco to Tucson to get first-hand perspectives on the immigration issue.  Carrying a large-format film camera and self-made lenses, Mathy interviewed and photographed everyone from US Border Patrol agents to a rancher to a Zen Buddhist minister.  See what the photographer found when he talked to people face to face.

Ride Slow, Take Photos

Riplist–Many people gamble, but how many would gamble on the date of someone’s death?  Meet seven people who have placed bets in what’s known as a celebrity death pool.  Basically, the gambler guesses which celebrities (e.g. elderly presidents, retired rock stars) will die in the next year.  As the film follows these seven people over the course of a year, viewers can ponder whether these gamblers can be condemned as morbid.  Or should these gamblers’ bets be considered a way for them to appreciate life’s brevity?  

Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago–Bay Area resident, writer, and film noir fan Barry Gifford gets an unusual biographical tribute.  Director Rob Christopher uses Gifford’s autobiographical story collection “Roy’s World” to bring Gifford’s 1950s Chicago childhood to life.  Christopher employs archival footage, animation, and even spoken word from the likes of Willem Dafoe and Lili Taylor for this project.  

Sleeze Lake: Life At Its Lowest And Best–In 1977, the members of the Midwest van club Midwest Vans Ltd. found a location for their next van party.  It was a piece of land located 100 miles outside of Chicago.  Around the land’s small pond (dubbed by the van lifers “Sleeze Lake”), the club members built a sort of resort community.  Here, a visitor could find strip clubs, casinos, and even a barbershop.  The resulting party would become a legend among the club members.

Stalking Chernobyl: Exploration After Apocalypse–Ever wonder what happened to the area around Chernobyl in the wake of the decades-old nuclear disaster dramatized in last year’s HBO mini-series “Chernobyl?”  Then welcome to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone!  Since the human settlements in the area cleared out, wildlife has slowly returned to the area. But that doesn’t mean the Zone is completely human-free.  The area’s now become a magnet for everyone from tour companies to the adventure hikers known as “stalkers” (insert Andrei Tarkovsky joke here).   

Truth Or Consequences

Truth Or Consequences–DocFest’s Centerpiece Film is a speculative documentary set in a time where commercial space travel is feasible.  The title primarily refers to Truth Or Consequences, New Mexico, the locale of the world’s first commercial spaceport.  Well aware that they could never afford to fly into space themselves, four town residents reflect on both their personal histories and the town’s legacy of commercial re-invention.  Bill Frisell provides the film’s improvised score.  Film producer Sara Archambault is this year’s recipient of the SF DocFest Non-Fiction Vanguard Award.

Uncivilized–In 2017, filmmaker Michael Lees relocated to an island forest with basic tools, religious texts, and camera gear.  His aim was to have space to think about escape routes from such modern problems as overconsumption and technology addiction.  But when the insanely powerful Category 5 Hurricane Maria makes a direct hit on the island, the entire human population is thrown back to the Stone Age.  See how Lees amazingly managed to survive the hurricane and its aftermath while living in the wild. 

Even online, this year’s DocFest will offer more than just film-related events.  The Bad Art Gallery returns in a virtual gallery with twenty cringeworthy pieces of art accompanied by snarky commentary.  For the modest sum of $20, interested viewers can take a gallery original home along with a copy of the snarky commentary for their particular piece.

New this year is the Filmmaker Feud event.  As the name suggests, this is a SF DocFest spin on the Family Feud game show.  Two teams of filmmakers appearing at this year’s DocFest will guess how SF art film patrons answered such questions as “Most Popular Mission Bar Cheap Beer,” “Best Animated Movie Not For Kids,” and “How many years to be able to claim to be ‘from San Francisco.’”  

The 19th DocFest’s slogan may be “Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.”  As this year’s selections show, truth can also be more entertainingly unpredictable than a formulaic Hollywood multiplex film.


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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.