Tired of watching movies about white guys, directed by other white guys? Me too.
The good news is, the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival opened April 21 with plenty of viewing options to alleviate our aforementioned fatigue. We might not run production companies or casting agencies, but we do have the power of our wallets. So if you choose to spend some of your hard-earned cash on an SFIFF screening over the next two weeks, here are a few films that actually pass the Bechdel Test, star people of color and/or in some way more accurately represent the people watching movies these days.
April 29, 6:15pm, Alamo
May 2, 9:15pm, Alamo
This debut film from director Anna Rose Homer centers on Toni, a young tomboy trained in boxing but trying to find her place in a competitive dance team. When a mysterious illness begins affecting the older dancers -- the eponymous “fits” -- Homer captures the girls’ movements, both graceful and violent, with formal framing and moody abstraction. As someone who once searched diligently for films set in Cincinnati and found the pickings slim (see the 1993 inline skating-themed Airborne), it's nice to see that hilly and complicated city get screen time.
April 26, 9pm, Roxie
Next up, two films focusing on young Middle Eastern women finding their voices (literally) offer portraits of aspiring musicians in repressive patriarchal societies. Farah of Layla Bouzid’s narrative feature As I Open My Eyes “just wants to sing.” Despite pressure from her mother to study medicine, she’d rather perform politically-tinged music with her male bandmates. The setting is Tunis circa 2010, during the waning days of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s presidency as the Arab Spring approaches.
April 27, 6:15pm, Alamo
April 29, 8:45pm, BAMPFA
In Robksareh Ghaem Maghami’s documentary Sonita, the film’s subject is an Afghan refugee in a Tehran homeless shelter similarly at odds with her surroundings. She loves hip-hop, idolizes Rihanna and defiantly opposes her mother’s demands that she marry so her “bride price” can buy Sonita’s brother a wife of his own. An audience and grand jury favorite at Sundance, I spoiled the ending for myself while reading about this film, so I'll stop here.
April 28, 9pm, Victoria (Kabul Dreams performs live after screening)
April 29, 6:30pm, BAMPFA
Returning stateside, two films depict the Bay Area through the eyes of transplants. Babak Jalil’s Radio Dreams takes place at a San Francisco Farsi-language radio station, where the real-life Afghani band Kabul Dreams is scheduled to jam with their heroes: Metallica. Will the idealistic station manager’s hopes for an epic musical meeting of East and West succumb to the realities of running a commercial broadcast? More importantly, will the rock stars even show up?
April 24, 8:30pm, Castro
In Ian Olds’ The Fixer, an Afghani man relocates to rural Sonoma Country as an aspiring journalist. Sidelined to a mere internship at a failing newspaper, he pursues what may or may not be a murder, confused to discover that even though he’s experienced the dangers of war, intricate and contradictory backwoods relationships are a far more perplexing dynamic.
May 1, 2pm, Castro
SFIFF isn’t just about the new and notable: This landmark film of New Queer Cinema is 20 years old, newly restored and screening digitally. Director Cheryl Dunye (responsible for spearheading the New Parkway’s ongoing Bechdel Test Movie Night) plays Cheryl, video store clerk and aspiring filmmaker, who starts investigating Fae Richards, a black lesbian actress of the 1930s and '40s whose story surprisingly parallels much of Cheryl’s own.
Like my colleague Michael Fox, I’m having trouble ending this list, so I’ll throw out a few additional recommendations. For films about the private lives of women, check out Mountain, Yaelle Kayam’s debut feature about a lonely Orthodox wife in Jerusalem, or Happy Hour, a decidedly not-hour-long movie from Ryûsuke Hamaguchi about four friends in Kobe, Japan.
For the contemporary inheritors of Dunye's queer cinema, see The Joneses, Moby Longinotto’s documentary about Jheri Jones, a fabulous 73-year-old transgender matriarch, or Check It, the story of gay and trans young people who form a gang in Washington, D.C. to protect themselves, with some of the gang's members finding paths out of violence in the process.
And for what might be the most surreal film in the festival, look to Under the Sun, Russian filmmaker Vitaly Mansky’s state-sanctioned documentary of a young North Korean girl and her family. As the relationship between the filmmaker and his government handlers breaks down, Mansky trains his camera on the cracks in the
façade, capturing the edges of scripted moments in this real-life Truman Show set in Pyongyang.
The 59th San Francisco International Film Festival runs through May 5, 2016 at various Bay Area theaters. For tickets and more information visit sffs.org/sfiff59.