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The Cool Stuff Coming To The Pacific Film Archive In The Fall

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Now that Labor Day has come and gone, it’s time for the start of the Fall quarter of the Pacific Film Archive (hereafter PFA) programs.  This season’s programming offers a mix of both lengthy film series and mini-film series for those who can’t make huge time commitments.  Among the subjects of this quarter’s programming are a film series looking at the human cost of the “lock them up” mentality, political filmmaking inspired by the Khmer Rouge genocide and the Lebanese Civil War, a longer centenary celebration of leftist Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini, and a new introduction to films that are not from the state where Stacey Abrams is running for Governor.  Viewers are truly encouraged to experiment with PFA’s offerings and find something new that floats their boat.  

PFA’s Fall headliner film series is “Undoing Time: Cinema And Histories Of Incarceration” (September 8 to November 16, 2022).  It’s a mix of (sometimes rare) documentaries and fiction films on incarceration and its often unacknowledged human consequences.  The settings for these films range from America’s World War II Japanese-American internment camps to a Canadian reservation for First Nation Peoples to a poor Los Angeles neighborhood.  .

Rabbit In The Moon

Among the must-see offerings in this series are:

Staggerlee…A Conversation With Black Panther Bobby Seale” from Francisco Newman and Allen Willis offers their 1970 interview with the co-founder of the Black Panther Party.  Held at the San Francisco County Jail, this interview pushes through the simplistic negative media portrait of the Panthers as thugs (holy Black Lives Matter, Batman).  Seale reveals himself as a man who can talk on such subjects as revolutionary psychology, Huey Newton, and cooking.

Jeff Barnaby’s “Rhymes For Young Ghouls” dramatizes the harm Canada’s residential school system inflicted on generations of First Nation Peoples.  The setting is the Red Crow Mi’krnaq reservation in 1976, where teenage Alia uses her wits and creativity to keep the authorities at bay.

Brett Story’s documentary “The Prison In Twelve Landscapes” damns the current American prison system.  The charges get laid out in vignettes from across the U.S. showing such negative consequences as exploitation of prison labor and the incredible costs incurred by those who want to stay in touch with their incarcerated loved ones.

Emiko Omori’s “Rabbit In The Moon” is the Japanese-American internment camp documentary for those rejecting the “American loyalty over protesting racially-motivated incarceration” historical trope.  The story of those who rebelled against the internment, who stood up and said “this was wrong,” has not been told often enough.  Unsurprisingly, this divergence in Japanese-American community stories about the internment-resulted in political rifts.   

For an engrossing example of political opposition to wrongful incarceration, try the recent “The Infiltrators” from Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera.  In this hybrid documentary/dramatization, two activists from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance deliberately allow themselves to be arrested by the Border Patrol and taken to a for-profit detention center.  Once inside, the activists’ knowledge of the immigration system’s operations are applied to free fellow detained immigrants.

The Heartbreak Kid

For those who prefer lighter but no less dark material, try one of the five films in the “Elaine May: Age Of Irony” film series (September 9 to 30, 2022).  Comedian turned screenwriter/director Elaine May is commonly known for helming the high-profile commercial disaster “Ishtar.”  But such a focus ignores the brilliance of her earlier films.  

A New Leaf,” May’s directorial debut, tells the story of anti-heroic playboy Henry Graham (Walter Matthau).  When Graham squanders his fortune on his expensive lifestyle, he needs to marry some wealthy sucker to maintain the profligate life he’s accustomed to.  Enter nerdy heiress/botany professor Henrietta Lowell (May), who might be Graham’s next meal ticket or somebody Graham will regret meeting.

In “The Heartbreak Kid,” Jewish newlyweds Lila (Jeannie Berlin, May’s daughter) and Lenny (Charles Grodin) drive to Miami Beach for their honeymoon.  However, Lila’s unselfconsciousness and Lenny’s continued run-ins with WASP princess Kelly (Cybill Shepherd) may sink the marriage before the honeymoon’s over.

Mikey And Nicky” are two petty gangsters (played respectively by Peter Falk and John Cassevetes) whose relationship can be described as “Nicky gets in trouble and Mikey bails him out.”  But can Mikey save NIcky from getting whacked for stealing money from his boss?  Not when the fearful Nicky keeps changing the escape plan.  So the two friends spend what might be their last night on Earth sharing previously undiscussed details of their individual lives.  

May garnered her first Oscar nomination for working with star Warren Beatty on the script for the remake of “Heaven Can Wait.”  When L.A. Rams quarterback Joe Pendleton (Beatty) mistakenly gets yanked to Heaven by an overeager guardian angel, his spirit gets reincarnated in the body of millionaire industrialist Leo Farnsworth.  Pendleton hopes to fulfill his dream of leading the Rams to a Super Bowl victory, but he faces a couple of big problems.  His new body is far from professional athlete level ready.  Also, Pendleton’s reincarnation was made possible by the efforts of Farnsworth’s gold-digger wife and his personal secretary to murder the industrialist, neither of whom have given up their plans.  On the other hand, Pendleton as Farnsworth becomes enamored by environmental activist Betty Logan (Julie Christie).

May re-teamed with Beatty and joined with Dustin Hoffman to make “Ishtar.”  Lyle Rogers (Beatty) and Chuck Clarke (Hoffman) are untalented nightclub performers who take a lounge singer duo gig at a Moroccan hotel to advance their career.  But when Chuck loans his passport to the mysterious Shirra, the act of kindness leads to the duo being caught between the CIA and a group of left-wing guerillas in a plot to overthrow the Emir of Ishtar.  Can the would-be stars advance their careers and somehow stay alive?  On its initial release, May’s film was considered the cinematic equivalent of something you used to flatten a city.  But it has undergone critical re-evaluation (or a reassessment thanks to what some naysayers would call a lowering of critical taste) in recent years.

Sarraounia

Liked seeing “Neptune Frost” at the Roxie?  That film kicks off this year’s edition of the “African Film Festival.”  From September 7 to October 29, 2022, see a collection of films from such African countries as Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Mali offering “new horizons and new narratives.”

Besides the Rwandan Afrofuturist film, other movies offered by the festival include: “Sarraounia,” Med Hondo’s historical epic about the titular warrior queen of Niger’s Aznas standing practically alone against the Voulet-Chanoine Mission, a French imperialist force quite willing to use rape, torture, and mass slaughter to get their way;  “The Promises,” Hawa Aliou N’Diaye’s documentary of interviews with women allegedly possessed by spirits known as jinn and their connection to life in a social structure built to control women; and “Mrs. F,” Chris Van Der Vorm’s film about theater director Ifeoma Fafunwa’s efforts to navigate past all the men blocking her from bringing her successful play on women’s empowerment into the heavily male-dominated floating slum known as Makoko.

This year marks the centenary of Italian leftist director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s birth.  The “Pasolini 100” event at the Castro Theater may have devoted only one day for celebration.  But PFA’s “Pier Paolo Pasolini” film series (running from October 22 to November 27, 2022) brings together several noted Pasolini films not shown at the Castro event such as the director’s “Trilogy Of Life” and a radical re-telling of the life of Jesus Christ.

Among the intriguing offerings in this series are: “Teorema,” in which Terence Stamp plays a mysterious out-of-the-ordinary visitor who becomes a catalyst for unleashing the suppressed desires of a bourgeois family; “The Decameron,” an adaptation of nearly a dozen tales from Boccaccio’s famed story collection including the wonderfully raunchy tale of Masetto de Lamporecchio, a handsome man who pretends to be deaf and dumb in a convent full of hot nuns; “The Gospel According To St. Matthew,” in which Jesus Christ is portrayed as the first and best social justice warrior; and “The Canterbury Tales,” an adaptation of tales from Geoffrey Chaucer’s famed story collection including “The Wife Of Bath’s Tale” (starring Pasolini favorite Laura Betti and a pre-”Doctor Who” Tom Baker) and “The Miller’s Tale” (a tale featuring a fake prophecy of flooding and the passing of gas as romantic rejection). 

The “Georgian Cinema: Highlights From The BAMPFA Collection” (October 29 to November 27, 2022) film series does not reveal the secret cinematic history of the state where Stacey Abrams is running for Governor.  This Georgia used to be part of the Soviet Union.  The cinema this country has produced displays a wealth of tradition, song, history, and general love for the arts.  If there’s any synergy at work in this film series, it’s that it’s scheduled to run around the same time as the appearance of Ensemble Basiani (aka the State Ensemble of Georgian Folk Song) at Cal Performances. 

Among the offerings are:

Irradiated

Aleksandr Rekhviashvili’s “The Way Home” finds the pathway in its allegorical titular return via some unexpected cultural routes.  They include the poems of major 1950s & 1960s female poet Bella Akhmadulina, Georgian history and legend, and sets by Amir Kakabadze (the son of famed avant-garde painter David Kakabadze).  “The Way Home”’s also intended as a tribute to Rekhviashvili’s favorite director Pier Paolo Pasolini.

Pirosmani” is director Giorgi Shengelaia’s biopic of Georgian primitive artist Nikoloz Pirosmanishvili.  The film applies the painter’s experiments with color control techniques to give viewers a sense of his artistic style.  Pirosmanishvili may have sold his paintings to bars and restaurants for food and drink.  But he never let the circumstances of his existence compromise his artistic vision.

Director Otar Iosseliani uses the slimmest of set-ups for his film “Pastorale.”  A string quartet visits a remote rural Georgian village.  But beneath the humorous circumstances lies a serious look at the condition of women in this village.

For those who prefer to do their cinematic experimentation in shorter gulps, there are several bite-sized film series being offered this quarter at PFA.

Filmmaker Rithy Panh survived the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal efforts in Cambodia, and has devoted his film career to chronicling the lives lost to that genocide and to warn people away from repeating history.  “Rithy Panh In Person” (September 24 & 25, 2022) features the director in person along with two of his acclaimed films.  Thanks to a general absence of photographic record, the Oscar-nominated autobiographical “The Missing Picture” primarily uses clay dioramas to recount Panh’s life in Cambodia before and during the Khmer Rouge genocide.  In the 2020 Berlinale Documentary Award-winner “Irradiated,” Panh expands his look at genocide and other human atrocities beyond the Killing Fields to consider such other examples as Hiroshima and the Vietnam War.  This film uses “Hiroshima Mon Amour”-style narration, butoh dancing, and a cinemascope filming ratio to create a conversation among images of horrors past.

Leila And The Wolves

The New Lebanese Cinema Of The 1970s And 1980s” (November 10 to 17, 2022) demonstrates filmmaking as an extension of political activism by showing how history is both told and remembered.  “Jocelyne Saab: The Beirut Trilogy” consists of personal essay films examining the Lebanese Civil War’s destruction via its child subjects.  Borhane Alaouie’s elliptical drama “Beirut, The Encounter” uses personal tape recordings sent between a Christian youth and a Muslim youth separated by the Lebanese Civil War’s fighting to reflect on why fighting continues in Beirut.  In “Leila And The Wolves,” documentary filmmaker Heiny Srour’s sole fiction feature, the forgotten sacrifices of Arab women to the cause of anti-colonial liberation finally get their due via dramatic vignettes.  

The last of PFA’s bite-sized film series this season is “In Dialogue With China: Family, Memory, Resistance, And Change” (October 6 to October 27, 2022).  A complement to the Townsend Center’s “In Dialogue With China: Art, Culture, Politics” event, the mini-film series offers three different directors’ takes on current China: Chan Tze Woon’s hybrid documentary/narrative “Blue Island” compares Hong Kong’s past as a refuge from Chinese government repression to a present where the 2020 National Security Law squashes any hint of democracy in Hong Kong; Luo Li contributes “Rivers And My Father” (a document of ordinary life along such Chinese rivers as the Yangtze) and “Li Wen At East Lake” (another fiction/documentary hybrid looking at land development on what used to be the location of Chairman Mao’s summer home): and Li Dongmei’s award-winning debut feature “Mama,” in which 12-year-old Xiaoxian remembers a week of life and death in her remote rural village.

For those who want to dive into the deep end of experimental film’s possibilities, they’ll want to catch this year’s edition of the “Alternative Visions” film series (September 7 to November 30, 2022).  Hop around the globe to see the films of Brazil’s Ana Vaz, a program of Iranian experimental film shorts, a feature created in San Francisco’s Mission District starring the legendary group The Cockettes, samples of films from the Fluxus movement, and even a supposedly lost classic of the Polish avant-garde.   

For example:  

Luminous Procuress

Luminous Procuress” is Steven Arnold’s tale of the experiences of two attractive hippie lads after they enter a strange mansion.  The titular Procuress introduces the duo to a world unbounded by gender or desire.  Expect lots of wearable art, oneiric images, and erotic tableaux in the digital restoration of this film made in San Francisco’s Mission District.

The Avant-Garde Films Of Stefan And Franciszka Themerson” collects a group of 1930s shorts made by the titular pioneering Polish avant-garde filmmakers, who used trick photography, photograms, and collage.  The highlight of the program is the supposedly lost “Europa,” a kinetic condemnation of the fascism creeping across Europe in the 1930s.

Mohammad Reza Aslani has become recently known to Bay Area art film audiences thanks to the restoration of his classic “Chess Of The Wind.”  But before that film, Aslani was just one of many radical artistic film directors who made works finding a happy medium between commission (or government sponsorship) and their own artistic inclinations.  A sample of such works can be seen in the “Iranian Experimental Film: The Artistic Radicals” program.

In the 1960s and 1970s, a Bay Area female filmmaker known as Freude founded a film distribution company known as the Serious Business Company.  It would distribute experimental films by filmmakers who drew on their personal experiences as women for inspiration.  The “Serious Business Company And Bay Area Women Artists” program offers a sampling of the films distributed by Freude’s outfit.

In “The Festival Of (In)Appropriation 2022” program, see intriguing short experiments in audio-visual remixing from around the world.  Whether using detournement, simulation, or digital remixing, existing film and video get turned into critiques of the society that spawned these cultural artifacts.     

Whether presenting films by an unabashedly leftist filmmaker or seeing just how far a filmmaker can take the medium of cinema, PFA’s Fall season offers much for viewers who want to take their cinematic travels outside the Hollywood bubble.


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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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