There is any number of ways to “do” a big film festival such as the San Francisco International Film Festival, which begins today (April 21) and continues through May 6. Stick to the directors and actors you’ve heard of. Or focus on a continent or region, such as Asia or Western Europe. Hone in on screenings where the directors, actors or subjects will be present. The most diverse and perverse strategy is to see all (and only) the films that start with a given letter of the alphabet. (The choice is up to you, but in my experience you can never go wrong with “F.”)
My perennial recommendation is to seek out the films from abroad, narrative or documentaries, that don’t have distribution and likely will never return to a Bay Area screen. The Roxie has an excellent track record of booking SFIFF favorites for one-week engagements, but with your crazy schedule you can’t count on being available that particular week.
Now, don’t confuse “non-commercial” with “willfully depressing,” “indulgently abstract” or “stupefying and cerebral.” There are a boatload of terrific films every year that nonetheless don’t play in U.S. theaters because they don’t have critical buzz or a genre hook or a recognizable actor. After all, Isabelle Huppert can’t be in every film (how many languages do you think she speaks?), nor should every movie have a car chase, shower scene or screenplay adapted from Jane Austen by way of John le Carré.
In fact, the SFIFF is showing a le Carré adaptation entitled Our Kind of Traitor. Nonetheless, my point holds: Go for the unfamiliar, the one of a kinds, the potential discoveries. Here are four.
April 28, 6pm, Alamo
May 2, 3:15pm, Alamo
May 4, 3pm, Roxie
Is it possible, after all the films about childhood and parents, to offer a fresh angle on the subject? With The Demons, the remarkably observant French-Canadian writer-director Philippe Lesage has crafted a marvelously understated and palpably unsettling portrait of a 10-year-old named Félix trying to fathom worlds -- at home and at school -- that are just beyond his understanding.
This beautifully colored and precisely measured film has the tone of a mystery rather than a family drama or coming-of-age yarn, and to our shock, if not surprise, malevolent and indifferent forces do haunt Félix’s neighborhood. Full disclosure: I wrote the note on The Demons for the SFIFF program. Yeah, I really, really like this film.
April 24, 9:45pm, Alamo
April 25, 6:15pm, Alamo
The young Mexican director Alejandro Iglesias Mendizábal’s big-hearted debut feature, Leaf Blower, offers an immeasurably more amusing but equally well-thought-out study of the existential and hormonal angst of growing up. Set over the course of one long day, three middle-class, college-age guys enact their daily routines and rituals of friendship and rivalry. Their ostensible quest, though it’s the epitome of a MacGuffin, is to find the keys that one of them lost in a pile of leaves (among many such piles) in their local park.
Leaf Blower is familiar without tipping into cliché and amiable without being trivial. You can read all sorts of social commentary into the shaggy-dog narrative, from police corruption to the unmentioned class system, but the film’s concerns are universal: How and why boys (sometimes) become men, and how their codified roles and flippant interpersonal dynamics (sometimes) evolve into deeper, more nurturing relationships.
May 3, 6:30pm, Victoria
May 4, 8:45pm, Victoria
May 5, 12:15pm, Alamo
Over on the nonfiction side of things, The Islands and the Whales comes from the Faroe Islands between Denmark and Scotland but feels like it emanates from an alternative universe. The ever-increasing population of these close-to-nature communities has long lived on the meat of pilot whales and seabirds, and the film contains necessary but hard-to-watch footage of hunts. These are community events, with up to 500 people on water and land participating in a whale hunt, which lets us see these events as important for not only obtaining food, but as central to local traditions, culture and identity.
If you want to viscerally experience the aphorism that we live in a bubble in the Bay Area -- that is, we have different values than the rest of America (and much of the world), yet assume everybody thinks like us -- don’t miss Mike Day’s provocative, sensitive and wonderfully photographed film. More of an anthropological study than an environmental movie, Day examines the Faroe Islanders' varied responses to pollution of the oceans, international perceptions of the slaughter of whales and one local doctor’s warnings about mercury poisoning.
April 24, 6:30pm, BAMPFA
May 1, 1:30pm, Roxie
May 5, 6pm, Alamo
The SFIFF has shown a couple of the great Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa’s hard-hitting dramas (notably the acerbically titled Joy) about post-USSR society. He excavates history in The Event, a gripping assembly of archival footage from the streets of Leningrad in 1991 at the pivotal juncture when Gorbachev’s experiments in openness ran into resistance from old hard-liners and right-wingers in far-off Moscow.
Pre-internet, people fill the streets clamoring for information and updates that seem to migrate by one of three media: rumor, radio and leaflets. One thing is clear: The clamor for autonomy and freedom is unmistakable. Going forward is the only option for most Soviets.
Why, you might ask, did Loznitsa make The Event now? Infused with the infectious practice of capital-D democracy from the first frame, the documentary feels like an invitation -- no, instigation -- for Russians today to stand up and reclaim their political and social system from Vladimir Putin. Of course, any viewer in a country that happens to find itself in the throes of an election year, or with concerns about encroaches on individual rights, just might find relevance and inspiration.
The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 21-May 5, 2016 at various Bay Area theaters. For tickets and more information visit sffs.org/sfiff59.