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Being Broke-Ass And Going To SFFILM 2021

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Around this time last year, the newly imposed Coronavirus lockdowns unfortunately meant cancelling the 2020 edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (hereafter SFFILM).  Now that the COVID vaccines are really starting to roll out, it’s time to celebrate SFFILM’s return.   This year’s festival features 103 films from 41 different countries.  It runs from April 9-18, 2021 both with live events and streaming.

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche

Familiar SFFILM staples return, such as Opening and Closing Night Films, a live music with film event, and the Persistence Of Vision Award.  But in addition, this year’s festival will offer its first Mid-Length Films section and a special 2020 Flashback section.  Mid-Length films refer to films which are too long to be shorts yet too short to be feature-length films.  2020 Flashback offers a selection of worthy films chosen for the 2020 SFFILM that never got their chance to be discovered by Bay Area audiences.

For viewers who want to see a film live, the Fort Mason Center Drive-In will be the place to go.  However, this is also the most expensive option as a General Admission ticket is $70 on a per car basis.  For those who are planning to watch only two or three SFFILM offerings via online streaming, the cost is $12 per stream.  For those who have both time and a lot of films they want to see, the Festival Streaming Pass will be their best bet.  The pass gives unlimited streaming access during the festival for only $75 each.

A couple of caveats are in order here.  First, while drive-in tickets are generally $70 each per car, Opening Night and the Film and Music Event tickets are naturally more expensive at $100 per car.  Second, you can watch a stream any time over the course of the festival.  However, once you start a stream, you have 24 hours to finish it.

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street

Now that those preliminaries are out of the way, here are some suggestions for films to catch:

Abou Leila–This surrealist Western-like film was one of several titles chosen for what would have been the 2020 SFFILM.  It’s mid-1990s Algeria, and the country is wrapped in civil war.  Lotfi and S. are lifelong friends taking a trip together into the desert.  But this isn’t a pleasure excursion.  S. has a tip that notorious terrorist Abou Leila is hiding somewhere in the Sahara.  Yet Lotfi has doubts about the tip’s reliability and is concerned about his friend’s slowly unraveling mental state.  Events soon take a definitely weird turn.

After Antarctica–Explorer Will Steger returns to the continent of Antarctica 30 years after his previous visit.  Back in 1989, he and five other men mounted the first-ever coast to coast trek across the frozen continent to draw attention to the problems of climate change.  This chronicle of his new trip is laced with dynamic footage from that earlier seven-month long expedition.

Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama + Dear Philadelphia–In “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Mama,” Hip-hop artist Topaz Jones offers a modern spin on “the Black ABC’s.”  This was a bunch of flash cards created by Black educators in 1970 to teach Black children the alphabet.  Paired with this film is “Dear Philadelphia,” a portrait of the residents of North Philadelphia talking about what gives them joy and helps uplift their community.  A high degree of the area’s residents may be addicts or homeless.  But for those residents who can help, they find hope in such things as giving haircuts to the homeless or even learning to bond with a horse.

Fauna–Director Nicolas Pereda takes aim at Mexican narco culture and its media representations.  Actors and partners Luisa and Paco are traveling to a small Mexican mining town to visit Luisa’s parents.  But what begins as an awkward family encounter turns into something else entirely.  Luisa’s father suddenly takes an interest in Paco when he learns the actor has a recurring role in “Narcos: Mexico.”  But that’s nothing compared to what happens when Luisa’s brother Gabino starts talking about the mystery novel he’s reading, one involving a missing activist, twin sisters, and a shadowy group of narcos.


Homeroom–Director Peter Nicks brings his Oakland documentary trilogy to a close with this portrait of the Oakland High School Senior Class of 2020.  Even before COVID-19 affected their school year, the largely African-American and Latinx student body were embroiled in a confrontation with the city’s school board.  Their aim: the removal of police from school campuses, a demand made long before George Floyd unfortunately became a household name.  

I’m Fine (Thanks For Asking)–This COVID-era drama won a 2021 SXSW Jury Award for Best Dramatic Presentation.  Widowed and homeless Danny needs to raise $200 in the next 24 hours to make the security deposit for an apartment that will get her and her 8-year-old daughter off the streets.  The child thinks they’re only camping on the side of the road for fun.  But what happens when disaster upsets Danny’s desperate efforts? 

In The Same Breath–Director Nanfu Wang achieves a pissing off incompetent government twofer with her new documentary.  It’s an on the ground look at the origin and spread of COVID-19 over the course of 2020.  Along the way, Wang takes the governments of both the US and China to task for misinformation, mismanagement, and just really bad leadership.

Lily Topples The World–At age nine, Lily Hevesh found she liked creating intricate patterns with dominoes before knocking them down.  Who would have expected her passion to translate into a Youtube channel with nearly two million subscribers, appearances on “The Tonight Show,” and even appearances at corporate events?  Actress Kelly-Marie Tran executive produced this portrait of an artist who shows how even play can become a life’s work.

Ma Belle My Beauty

Ma Belle, My Beauty–Want something arty and steamy?  Try Marion Hill’s summer romp set in the countryside of Southern France.  Newlywed musicians Bertie and Fred seem to have it made.  They’re living in a great place, they regularly have great dinners with friends and neighbors, and their band’s set to do a multi-country tour.   Yet Bertie feels something’s missing.  Then the charming Lane shows up for a surprise visit.  Old memories start getting stirred in Bertie’s mind, as Lane used to be her polyamorous lover.

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche–Brixton native Marianne Elliott became better known to the world as Poly Styrene, the frontwoman for legendary British punk band X-Ray Spex.  But to film co-director Celeste Bell, she was her mother.   Now Styrene’s daughter travels back through her mother’s past as she meets musicians influenced by X-Ray Spex and recounts her own memories of her famous mother.

The Spokeswoman–Meet Maria de Jesus Patricio, known to her fans as Marichuy.  She’s the first inidgenous woman to run for President of Mexico.  The film follows her campaign through the wilds of Mexican electoral politics while capturing the racism and sexism she encounters.  Whatever happens, her campaign will finally put indigenous issues into the national discourse.

Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street–Learn the story of how the much beloved children’s program “Sesame Street” came to be.  See how a determination to make children’s television that was both educational and entertaining translated to such classic kids songs as “Up And Down” and “C Is For Cookie” as well as such unforgettable characters as Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and of course the Cookie Monster.  If those references don’t bring at least a smile to your face, you lack a child’s soul.

Unseen Skies–Artist Trevor Paglen makes very political art by drawing on such subjects as global mass surveillance and artificial intelligence.  So why is Paglen traveling through the Nevada desert?  As this documentary shows, these travels are connected to his new project: launching a satellite into orbit.

Valley Of Souls

Valley Of Souls–Another of the 2020 SFFILM cancellation casualties is this powerful Colombian drama set during the country’s civil war.  It’s the tale of the downriver odyssey of a fisherman named Jose.  His two sons were kidnapped by paramilitaries, which pretty much amounts to a death sentence.  As the fisherman searches for his boys’ bodies, he encounters people representing both the good and bad of humanity.

We Are As Gods–”We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”  That was the statement of purpose of the Whole Earth Catalog, a countercultural product catalog dedicated to turning its readers on to useful tools of high quality or low cost that might not be common knowledge.  Catalog founder Stewart Brand started the catalog in 1968 and kept its mission alive in various forms until 1998.  But as this biography shows, Brand may now be in his 80s but he’s still a countercultural and even a cybercultural influencer.  

(To order tickets to the 2021 SFFILM, go here.)


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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.

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