We considered saving the headline for April, when the San Francisco International Film Festival brings the cream of recent world cinema and a bevy of filmmakers to town. To tell the truth, though, Bay Area filmgoers are treated to a host of visiting filmmakers pretty much every month. March offers a singularly tantalizing selection of films and directors from places that are usually under the radar and off the beaten path. Make the most of it.
Who'd have guessed that Marin County, once the land of peacock feathers and hot tubs, is filled with fans of the International Buddhist Film Festival Showcase? (Uh, everyone.) No fewer than nine films screen this weekend, March 1-3, at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. With luck, director Dafna Yachin will be in the house along with Digital Dharma (Saturday, March 1 at 6:15 p.m.), her record of the late Gene Smith's incredible, inspiring campaign to preserve thousands of volumes of Tibetan literature. Yerba Buena Center For the Arts repeats three of the selections next weekend (March 9-10) plus Tokyo Waka (Sunday, March 10 at 4:00 p.m.), a sublime, crow's-eye view of Japanese city life by local documentary makers par excellence John Haptas and Kris Samuelson, who will be in attendance. For more information visit cafilm.org/rfc and ybca.org.
Buddhist-themed films can often be said to have a meditative, timeless quality. The opposite impulse -- urgent timeliness -- defines the selections in the annual touring Human Rights Watch International Film Festival. Mai Iskander will be here to open the series with Words of Witness (Thursday, March 7 at 7:30 p.m.) her touching portrait of a modern young Egyptian woman who dives into social media and the movement for political change and, regrettably, loses her idealism. The fest unspools on Thursdays this month at YBCA; for more information visit ybca.org.
The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival has reinvented itself as CAAMFest, expanding the festivities to encompass live music and food-oriented events. Movies are still at the heart of the program, which runs March 14-24 and attracts numerous directors to the Bay Area with their latest work. Filipino writer-director Ron Morales is slated to appear with his profoundly harrowing kidnap drama Graceland (Friday, March 15 and 22, New People Cinema in SF), as is Nicholas Bonner with his one-of-a-kind romantic comedy shot in North Korea, Comrade Kim Goes Flying (Saturda, March 16; Sunday, March 23; and Sunday, March 24). Imagine the stories they'll have to tell. For more information visit caamfest.com.
A brief segment on a newscast is typically the only glimpse we get of other countries. If the subject is Africa, it's more like a snippet -- and one that fits our narrow, pre-existing perceptions. For any kind of in-depth perspective, we rely on independent filmmakers such as Olivia Wyatt, whose interest in Ethiopian music led to Staring Into the Sun, a one-hour film record of tribal rites and songs (accompanied by a CD of recordings). The Mission District bastion of underground film, Other Cinema, hosts the Northern California premiere of Wyatt's work on Saturday, March 16, along with Mark Brecke and his mélange of newsreels and original footage about Somalia past and present. For more information visit othercinema.com.
Staring Into the Sun
When she began her career in the 1970s with stunningly frank shorts that challenged all previous screen portrayals of lesbians, San Francisco State-educated filmmaker Barbara Hammer was exploring a subculture as foreign to most Americans as, well, Ethiopian tribes. Four decades of groundbreaking experimental and documentary work hasn't quite edged the New York-based filmmaker into the mainstream, but she is no longer the lone radical. Made in SF: Films by Barbara Hammer (Thursday, March 21 at SFMOMA) revives a pair of works she made during various residencies hereabouts. Hammer once described her sex-positive 1974 short Dyketactics as "a lesbian commercial," while her 1992 documentary Nitrate Kisses goes even further in rescuing queer sex from the celluloid closet. Hammer, curiously, isn't scheduled to attend, but the audience for this show can be counted on to bring their own experiences into the theater. For more information visit sfmoma.org.