Arts and Culture

S.F IndieFest has a lot of great stuff going on

The Bay's best newsletter for underground events & news is a proud media sponsor of the 22nd S.F. IndieFest! Running from January 29 to February 13, 2020.

Ibiza The Silent Movie

Hey, Broke-Ass Readers!  Are you ready to encounter a beautiful nude woman with a glowing crucifix on her body?  How about seeing in person the man who brought the world “The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle?” Or do you want to hear the strange-but-true story of the attempt to create a “Sundance of the East?”  If you answered yes to at least one of these questions, you’re ready for the 2020 edition of the San Francisco Independent Film Festival aka S.F. IndieFest!

Running from January 29 to February 13, 2020, the 22nd edition of S.F. IndieFest comes to such venues as the Roxie Theatre (3117-16th Street), the Victoria Theatre (2961-16th Street), and the 518 Valencia Art Gallery (518 Valencia, duh).  21 countries supplied a total of 47 features and 57 shorts to this film festival which is a two week celebration of the independent and the subversive. Besides the films, there will also be parties and guest appearances galore.

Because of the timing of this year’s IndieFest, there will be no anti-Valentine’s Day Power Ballad Sing-along this year.  However, IndieFest attendees can still mock the Super Bowl (Super Bowl LIV: Men In Tights) or the Academy Awards (Up The Oscars Benefit Bash).  In addition, the Bawdy Caste gives “The Big Lebowski” the Live On Stage treatment.  For Broke-Ass Readers interested in one-off parties, they should check out the “American Psycho” event.  No, this isn’t a party celebrating the well-deserved impeachment of the current occupant of the White House.  Instead, it’s an homage to the 20th anniversary of Mary Harron’s dark comic adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ notorious serial killer novel.

Nichelle Nichols, subject of “Woman In Motion”

Now for those whose partying hasn’t left them too wasted to take in a movie, there are marquee events to consider.  Festival Opening Night Film “Woman In Motion” offers a portrait of actress Nichelle Nichols (who will appear in person at the screening).  Todd Thompson’s documentary shows there was way more to the actress than playing Lt. Uhura on “Star Trek” TOS.  Offscreen, Nichols worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and led a successful nationwide blitz to diversify NASA’s astronaut base beyond white males.  The Roxie Opening Night Film is “Come As You Are,” director Richard Wong’s (“Colma The Musical”) remake of the Belgian comedy “Hasta La Vista.”  In this seriocomic film, a trio of differently-abled adult men still living with their parents take a road trip to Montreal.  There, they intend to visit a brothel that caters to special needs clients so they can lose their virginity.

For something sexual which goes a lot darker, check out B. Harrison Smith’s “The Special.”  It’s what might be described as a sort of Glory Hole Horror.  The title refers to a brothel’s unusual sexual gratification option.  It’s a box with the words “Stick It In Here” written on its side and an arrow pointing to a dark hole.  For a possibly cuckolded husband, The Special delivers comfort before becoming a source of obsession.

Readers who prefer the tamer thrills of athletics might want to check out Coan “Buddy” Nichols and Rick Charnosky’s documentary “The Tony Alva Story.”  At age 62, subject Alva is the world’s oldest professional skateboarder.  He’s also the man referred to as the godfather of modern day skateboarding.  After the film, viewers can talk to Alva in person.

For those interested in more unusual sports, they might want to learn about competitive pigeon flying.  That’s the subject of “Pigeon Kings.” San Francisco native Milena Pastreich’s documentary follows a Los Angeles group of South Central black and Latino breeders over several years as they breed flocks of Roller Pigeons for World Cup competition.  

For a more unusual take on man-nature relations, check out Dan Wayne’s documentary “Big Fur.”  Its subject is a champion taxidermist trying to create a life-size Bigfoot.  This project isn’t aimed at providing him more fame and glory. Instead, his replica might inspire others to find the real Bigfoot.

The Planters

By contrast, the project at the center of “The Planters” would be considered of dubious inspirational value.  No, Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder’s comedy has nothing to do with a certain well-known peanut company.  Instead, the title refers in part to telemarketer Martha’s ongoing project of burying boxes of “treasure” for discovery by other residents of her desert town.  The telemarketer’s now “assisted” by her new childlike guest Sadie, who has multiple personality disorder. Add in stop-motion fantasy sequences, and the result is what the IndieFest program guide calls a gentle-spirited David Lynch film.  (For those who prefer the David Lynch of “Blue Velvet” and “Eraserhead,” the Pacific Film Archive’s David Lynch film series has just started up.)

Yasuhiko Shimizu’s “Vise” is just one of S.F. IndieFest’s more bonkers offerings.  It begins as the story of an aspiring model who figures she needs a smaller face.   A surgeon uses a vise to fulfill the wannabe model’s desire. The film soon brings in a love story, a “man on the run” tale, and lots of violence.

This year’s IndieFest’s best weird title is “Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway.”  It’s the story of a CIA Special Agent whose pizzeria business dreams have been sidelined by a mission to save the world from a big-time threat.   However, destroying the computer virus code-named “Soviet Union” proves a lot more difficult when his mission turns out to be a trap. What makes this familiar tale way different is what else director Miguel Llanso adds to the story mix.  This film might be for you if you like mashing together Afro-futurism, psychedelia, lots of reality-warping, and even stop motion animation with live human actors.

Blood Machines

The IndieFest offering which turns the gonzo craziness dial up to 11, though, is Seth Ickerman’s “Blood Machines.”  It’s a sequel to the director’s Carpenter Brut music video and YouTube sensation “Turbo Killer.”  Two space mercenaries attempt to hunt down the Mima. It’s a rogue ship piloted by an AI seeking to free itself from human control.  But when a beautiful nude woman with a glowing crucifix on her body emerges from the eventually disabled ship, it’s “do machines have souls” time.  The visual style of the film mixes together such influences as John Carpenter, Chris Foss’ spaceship art, heavy doses of neon, and 1980s B-movies.  Add in some synthwave tunes, and you’re ready to fly through the reaches of space.

Speaking of mixing music and film, this year’s recipient of the IndieFest Philo T. Farnsworth Award For Innovative Filmmaking is rock ‘n’ roll filmmaker Julien Temple.  His career has been marked by inventive ways of bringing rock to the cinema screen. Not only will Temple be here in person, but a couple of very special films he helmed will be shown at IndieFest.  His newest film “Ibiza: The Silent Movie” takes viewers on a musical tour of the culture and history of the White Island as it faces the twin threats of wealthy socialites’ annual invasion and gentrification.  Presented in 35 mm, “The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle” is Temple’s classic mockumentary about the rise and fall of The Sex Pistols.

If you missed “Cat Sticks” at the recent Third I Film Festival, you’ve got a second chance to see Ronny Sen’s Slamdance sensation.  This oddly beautiful black and white Indian film follows a group of drug addicts over the course of one long rain-soaked night.  They’re all searching for the drug high of “brown sugar” with various degrees of success. Alternately tragic, oddly funny, and even unexpectedly beautiful, this is a don’t miss offering.

By contrast, just one outsider faces a hostile world in IndieFest’s Centerpiece Film, Riddhi Majumder’s “Pariah.”  The title character may just be a stranger who’s left a forest to go to an idyllic nearby village to obtain food.  But the village’s local despot whips up the villagers’ suspicion and hatred to the point of regarding the stranger’s presence as “an attack on our society and culture.”  The resulting mass hysteria leads to tragic results.

A tragedy of a far different sort is chronicled in Jason Cohn’s documentary “The First Angry Man.”  There was a time when providing city, state, and federal government services wasn’t characterized by constant cutbacks or lack of money.  That situation changed for the worst four decades ago with Howard Jarvis and his notoriously successful Proposition 13 campaign. Cohn’s film tells the story of Jarvis’ campaign and its ennobling of selfishly refusing to pay for one’s share of the common good.

In Bob Byington’s new polarizing comedy “Frances Ferguson,” the titular snarky Nebraska substitute teacher is highly dissatisfied with her life.  But her solution, having an affair with one of her students, sets her off on a downward spiral which includes jail time and unwanted celebrity.


Take one French film producer, her husband (who used to be a mafioso), and a small town full of people excited at the possibility of becoming movie stars.  This is not fiction, but an actual account of an attempt to create a Sundance Of The East. The end result is Martha Shane’s documentary “Narrowsburg.”

Don’t forget that IndieFest also offers half-a-dozen short film programs.  Take time to check one or two of them out, as you might luck out and see the early creative steps of a future famous filmmaker.  Some of the shorts to be shown include “Wavy Tales” (ordinary people asked how their microwave ovens work come up with some truly bizarre answers), “Compartmentalization Storage Facility” (a special facility where customers can literally store their personal issues in rented compartments), and “All Eyes On Me” (tattoo request by a girl from a religious family involves a sentence expressing all her religious beliefs).

For those whose cinematic tastes run more towards international film noir, IndieFest has you covered with “The Wild Goose Lake.”  The new film from director Diao Yinan (“Black Coal, Thin Ice”) concerns the consequences of an underworld gathering going badly wrong.  Imagine such film noir staples as rain-slicked alleyways and the neons of cheap diners (nighttime noodle shops here) playing out in an unnamed Chinese city, and you’ll get an idea of what to expect with Diao’s film.

The Wild Goose Lake

An IndieFest offering which has its Chinese protagonist going for the unexpected is “Lucky Grandma.”  Sasie Sealy’s film concerns an ornery chain-smoking 80-year-old grandmother who wants to live independently in New York City’s Chinatown.  Her decision to head to the nearest casino and go all-in on a possible lucky streak leads to her eventually getting stuck in the middle of a Chinatown gang war.

Closing Night Film “Alice” won the Narrative Feature–Grand Jury Award at SXSW.  The title character in Josephine Mackerras’ film is a wife and mother who makes the unpleasant discovery that her husband has bankrupted their family by blowing all their money on hookers.  In a last ditch effort to support herself and her kid, Alice becomes a high-end escort. Don’t hold your breath waiting for the MRA crowd to cheer Alice’s efforts.

Obviously, there are other IndieFest programs that haven’t been mentioned such as a chance to enjoy bad art (“Bad Art Gallery”) or a film pitting treasure hunting geocachers against some very pissed off mutant boar men (“Wild Boar”).  Just know that if you prefer your movie fare to offer offbeat alternatives to cookie-cutter Hollywood fare, you need to make time for S.F. IndieFest.

(Note:  Broke-Ass Stuart’s is an S.F. IndieFest Media Sponsor)

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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.