Five to Watch: In Film this Month, the Spirit Sings

Still from Bayou Maharajah (Courtesy of Lily Keber)

April brings the big kahuna of the annual Bay Area film calendar, the San Francisco International Film Festival (April 23-May 7). Between the public excitement over the arrivals of movie stars (Richard Gere, Miranda July and Guillermo del Toro are among those announced before the full lineup goes public today) and the cognoscenti’s anticipation for under-the-radar art films from the Venice and Sundance fests, there’s not a lot of oxygen for all the other silver-screen offerings this month. Too bad, because much of April teems with mood-raising movies replete with musical improvisation, poetic abstraction, social progress, spiritual elevation and expressive animation. Spring ahead, indeed.

Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story, photograph circa 1992; (Courtesy of James Gudeman)
Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story, photograph circa 1992 (Courtesy of James Gudeman)

Few things in this world are as liberated as the unchained melodies of top-flight jazz improvisers. Yet a disproportionate number of jazz musicians suffer for their art on account of racism, commercial apathy or drug addiction. The Cry of Jazz: New Documentaries, a fascinating series running Apr. 2 – 23 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, reintroduces us to New Orleans pianist James Booker (Bayou Maharajah, Apr. 2), alto saxophonist Frank Morgan (Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story, Apr. 9 and 11), genius multi-instrumentalist Rahsaan Roland Kirk (The Case of the Three Sided Dream, Apr. 16) and percussionist and composer Kahil El’Zabar (Be Known, Apr. 18). Manfred Kirchheimer’s rediscovered and restored Stations of the Elevated (Apr. 23), a 1981 marriage of Charles Mingus’ free jazz and New York City graffiti, provides the capper. Take the ‘A’ train, or any train, to the bluesy, soulful side of town. For more information visit ybca.org.

Still from Scheherazade's Diary (Courtesy of Human Rights Watch Film Festival)
Still from Scheherazade's Diary (Courtesy of Human Rights Watch Film Festival)

Depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full type or not, a human rights film festival is a compendium of the world’s woes or a travelogue of justice on the rise. The University of San Francisco’s 13th annual Human Rights Film Festival (Apr. 9-11) touches both bases, from an exposé of the corruption that accompanies oil drilling in Nigeria and Ghana (Big Men) to a theater project in a Lebanese prison that allows women to reclaim their stories and identities (Scheherazade’s Diary). A pair of programs showcasing shorts by USF students and alumni augment the feature documentaries culled from the Human Rights Watch Traveling Film Festival and other sources. For more information visit usfca.edu/artsci/hrff.

Still from Hypnosis Display (Courtesy of SF Cinematheque)
Still from Paul Clipson, Hypnosis Display (Courtesy of SF Cinematheque)

You don’t need to have the soul of a poet to enjoy experimental film. You do, however, have to let go of the usual urge to intellectualize, understand and explain. Impressions replace narratives; beauty supplants meaning. Just as a saxophone solo isn’t a burst of random notes, an avant-garde film contains rhythm, motifs and torrents of unexpected pleasure. Crossroads, San Francisco Cinematheque’s annual blowout of new work by the best filmmakers working in this restlessly innovative and perennially overlooked genre, turns the Victoria Theatre into the trippiest spot in town Apr. 10-12. Paul Clipson’s Hypnosis Display receives its local premiere opening night with Liz Harris of Grouper performing the soundtrack. Or pick any of the beautifully curated programs of shorts, like the ones that feature the entrancing multiple-projector works of Berlin’s Ojoboca or Karissa Hahn’s enigmatic vignettes of domestic confinement and (possible) escape. If you think San Francisco has been scrubbed of raw artistic impulse and unique personal expressions, the Mission is the place to be this weekend. For more information visit sfcinematheque.org.

Still from Painting Peace (Courtesy of International Buddhist Film Festival)

Being transported out of your mind for a while is one path to enlightenment. Another is spending an hour and a half in another person’s consciousness. The world premiere of Painting Peace (Apr. 11), Dutch filmmaker Babeth VanLoo’s portrait of Berkeley calligrapher, translator and Zen teacher Kazuaki Tanahashi, has the potential to turn heads around. It screens in the International Buddhist Film Festival 2015 Bay Area (Apr. 10–16 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael), which is filled with movies from here and yon, including several other world premieres, that have the gentle power to cure you of cracking “only in Marin” jokes. Enlightenment starts with small steps. For more information visit buddhistfilmfoundation.org.

A still from Len Lye's A Colour Box. (Courtesy of Other Cinema)
A still from Len Lye's A Colour Box. (Courtesy of Other Cinema)

Sure, everybody rightfully acknowledges the subversive strains in Max Fleischer and Chuck Jones cartoons. Younger viewers cite The Simpsons and the Pixar movies. But where can you see original and even radical animated films that aren’t created by committee or rated PG? At the Other Cinema’s Stereo-Scopophilia program on Apr. 18, where avant-garde stars Rodney Ascher, Lewis Klahr and Kelly Sears screen alongside mid-twentieth-century masters Len Lye (of New Zealand) and Oskar Fischinger (of Germany). The increasing use of animation in documentaries, as described by critic Jeffrey Skoller and illustrated by the fearless, playful works of Chris Marker and Martha Colburn (among others), is the theme of an equally provocative program the following Saturday (Apr. 25). The truth is far out there. For more information visit othercinema.com.

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