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SF DocFest Turns 20 and This Year’s Lineup is Awesome!

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Documentaries have always been a staple of film festival programming.  What makes the scrappy San Francisco Documentary Film Festival (hereafter “SF DocFest”) a treasure to SF Bay Area filmgoers is its willingness to take that extra step to show films a little more out there than bog standard documentaries.  Over the years of SF DocFest’s existence, viewers have been treated to films about North Carolina independent wrestlers (“Fake It So Real”), Japanese country-western music queen Tomi Fujiyama (“Made In Japan”), seemingly insane Russian drivers (“The Road Movie”), life in Oklahoma City’s most notorious stripper club (“Red Dog”), and even an eventual court fight over possession of a mummified leg (“Finders Keepers”).   

This year, SF DocFest turns 20.  Running from June 3-20, 2021, this year’s festival offers two options for catching some of its 40 features and 38 shorts.  Thanks to the pandemic, streaming during SF DocFest is still an option.  But this year will also offer the opportunity to catch some of SF DocFest’s films in person from June 3-17 at the Roxie Theater.  Yes, compared to streaming, theater screenings are more expensive and more limited in their available showtimes.  But come on.  Don’t you miss the joy of getting out of the house and watching a movie with a roomful of strangers?  Besides, all the ticket sales money SF DocFest generates from its Roxie screenings will go back to the theater to help keep this cinema lover’s jewel going.

Summer Of Soul

The films selected for this year’s SF DocFest will take viewers to such places as the U.S., Madagascar, and Nepal.  Several of the selected films, such as “Tell Them We Were Here,” have either previously screened at other festivals or are still available on such streaming platforms as the Pacific Film Archive’s site.  Just consider the SF DocFest screenings a second chance to catch a film missed at an earlier festival.  Here are some suggestions for some SF DocFest festival films to catch:  


Alien On Stage–Kermit the Frog would have called this an idea that shouldn’t be done: adapt Ridley Scott’s “Alien” for the stage.  Unsurprisingly, the amateur theater group’s serious adaptation spectacularly flops.  Fate gives these amateur thespians a second chance to perform their adaptation at a London West End theater.  However, to make this new production work, the bus drivers and the other members of this theater group need to treat their stage version of “Alien” as unintentional comedy… 

Anatomy Of Wings–If you live in an admitted s**thole neighborhood, are you predestined to become pregnant as a teen and drop out of high school?  For the Black Baltimore City middle-school girls who join the Wings after-school project, they slowly get introduced to other possibilities in life.  What began as a place to learn video-making skills eventually turned into a surrogate family where these girls could talk about problems they felt uncomfortable discussing with their parents.  This sometimes heartbreaking film assembles footage created via the Wings program over the course of a decade.  

Dear Mr. Brody

Dear Mr. Brody–Keith Maitland, this year’s Vanguard awardee, presents a strange but true story about a real-life radical philanthropist.  In 1970, hippie millionaire Michael Brody, Jr. offered to give away $25 million of his fortune to anyone in need who asked for it.  He made both his business and home addresses as well as phone numbers public so the needy could contact him.  Brody’s announcement would attract the desperate and others who had various reasons for seeking a cut of what would be at least $100 million today.  Yet who was the man who made this incredible offer?  And why are there 12 unopened boxes worth of requests seeking Mr. Brody’s largesse?

The Face Of Anonymous–If the hacktivist group Anonymous’ membership rulebook requires keeping one’s personal identity secret, then Christopher Doyon must have taken a good long dump on the anonymity rule.  As the notorious Commander X, Doyon claims credit for everything from hitting MasterCard and Visa with DDOS attacks for blackballing Wikileaks to ethically shutting down Santa Cruz County’s official website .  How much should the viewer take this self-proclaimed face of Anonymous at his word, given that he also claims to have invented practical time travel?  That will be for the viewer to decide.  But this film balances Doyon’s account with reality checks from former Anonymous members who talk about such things as the unromantic reason why the Guy Fawkes mask became Anonymous’ symbol.

False Alarm–In January 2018, the 14 million residents of Hawaii received an emergency message that a ballistic nuclear missile was going to land on their state.  The warning turned out to be false.  Yet Nick Lyell’s film shows that’s not the end of the story.  Shrugging off the incident wasn’t necessarily the main reaction of people on the island who thought they would die within the next half hour.  The false alarm would also become a pointed reminder to Native Hawaiians of how their former nation had a history seriously shaped by militarism and colonialism.

Green Bank Pastoral–To prevent the operation of the town’s radio telescope from getting screwed up by terrestrial wireless signals, the Appalachian town of Green Bank has banned both cell phones and wifi.  But an unintended consequence of this civic decree is that Green Bank has now become a mecca for the Electro Hypersensitive.  Can this mix of small town folk, radio telescope workers, and refugees from the modern world somehow get along?

Guinea Pig Diaries–SF DocFest alumnus Olympia Stone returns to the festival with a film about people and the furry animals they love and care for.  No, this isn’t yet another film about the special bond between humans and cats (or dogs).  The animal in question is the guinea pig.  Prepare to be surprised by this dive into the world of small furry rodents and the people who adore and even rescue them.  

Kid Candidate

Kid Candidate–DocFest’s Closing Night Film tells the story of a joke video whose impact became far bigger than expected.  24-year-old experimental musician and filmmaker Hayden Pedigo made a Harmony Korine-inspired video declaring his candidacy for Amarillo’s city council.  The spoof video became very popular in this Texas town run by corrupt incumbent politicians.  What happens when Pedigo tries running for Amarillo’s city council for real?  The musician/filmmaker’s bizarre campaign may have caused more established local politicians to dismiss him as a joke.  But there’s nothing funny about Pedigo’s outreach to those communities currently getting screwed over by Amarillo’s political status quo.

Luchadoras–Think the lucha libre world is a guys-only space?  Meet Mini Serinita, Lady Candy, and Baby Star.  They’re three luchadoras from Ciudad Juarez whose reasons for entering the wrestling world range from escaping the dead end of factory work to making a comeback after having a child.  

Sementara–If you thought “Crazy Rich Asians” told you everything you needed to know about life in Singapore, this film will show how sadly mistaken you are.  Shot during Singapore’s 2015 golden jubilee celebrations, the filmmakers casually interview people from various walks of life about such subjects as religion, identity, and mortality.  Owing more than a little inspiration to the Chris Marker classic “Le Joli Mai,” this film gives a more rounded view of Singapore and the people who call it home.  For the curious, the film’s title is the Malay word for “temporary.”

Shared Resources–Justin Lord’s documentary debut experiments with consensual documentary-making.  Lord’s Southern white middle-class family gets devastated after his  father loses his job (as a debt collector, ironically) and his parents are forced to declare Chapter 13 bankruptcy.  How can a filmmaker record the day-to-day realities of this emotionally fraught situation while respecting his parents’ feelings?  “Shared Resources” attempts to strike a balance between capturing what Lord’s parents are willing to show on camera and satisfying his audience’s desire for access into his family’s lives.  

The Sparks Brothers

The Sparks Brothers–Director Edgar Wright displays a very catholic taste in music.  For his first documentary (and DocFest’s Centerpiece Film), he introduces viewers to a pair of amazing brothers whose innovative music has affected many art forms of the last 50 years.  Brothers Ron and Russell Mael made the leap from school talent shows to a professional music career.  As the band Sparks, the brothers have produced 25 studio albums that have earned the admiration of such folks as Beck, Todd Rundgren, and Patton Oswalt.  Come learn about your favorite band’s favorite band.   

Summer Of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)–DocFest’s astounding Opening Night Film recounts the amazing Harlem Cultural Festival.  For six weekends in New York City’s Marcus Garvey Park, festival goers were treated to an electric lineup of musical talent that included the likes of B.B. King, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Stevie Wonder, and many others.  Generous amounts of film footage recorded the festival.  Yet the television networks of the time weren’t interested in showing any of this material.  (Yes, Woodstock happened towards the end of the Harlem festival, so it could have sucked out all the media air.  But it’s only fair to suspect racism may have played a part as well in the broadcasters’ decisions.)  Literal decades would pass before musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson would encounter that footage and turn it into this electrifying mix of concert film and historical record.  Winner of the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the most recent Sundance Film Festival. 

Taming The Garden–If you had the resources to uproot majestic trees and relocate them to your own private grounds, should you be allowed to do so?  The inhabitants of a Georgian village where these old trees originated wrestle with this issue.  To some, the trees are symbols of their village’s collective history.  To others, selling off these old wooden giants generate much needed revenue for the village. 

Welcome To The Dark Ages AKA What Time Is Death?–After a 23-year moratorium, The KLF are back (sort of).  Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, the band’s members, have gone from making rock music to becoming Undertakers To The Underworld.  Their big project is building the People’s Pyramid.  This scheme involves the remains of the dead, 34,952 bricks, and a projected completion date of three hundred years.  Are Drummond and Cauty a pair of nutters?  Well, they’ve got on board such partners as The Green Funeral Company’s Claire & Rupert Callender and conceptual architect & kimchi chef Paul Sullivan.  And a viewer should never underestimate a duo willing to write a contract on the side of a hired car before pushing it off a cliff.  


Whether we celebrate SF DocFest by streaming its offerings or coming down in person to the Roxie Theatre, let us all hope that the festival will still be around for at least another 20 years.

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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.