A disturbingly alienated Japanese man, a zombie-like stranger to his wife and sons, preoccupies himself with his curious business. An Indian poet of enormous empathy is likewise estranged from her husband and children, paying the price every day for her determination to express herself. A trio of dedicated professionals, careening around Bulgaria's capital in a van treating medical emergencies, coalesce into a chain-smoking family. The aging residents of a dwindling Japanese mountain village maintain their placid routines in the shadow of mortality. Finally, in Haiti, the post-earthquake invasion of a veritable army of international "helpers" -- like unwanted guests who won't leave -- freezes the country in a kind of arrested development.
These excerpts from the typically robust documentary program of the San Francisco International Film Festival, beginning tonight and continuing through May 9, 2013, upend the familiar function of documentaries as chronicles and exposés of overarching social problems. Instead, the filmmakers approach their subjects, and societies, from the oblique angles of an individual, or group of individuals. The viewer is asked to read between the lines (of dialogue), and extrapolate the bigger picture. It's fascinating fun, albeit more than a little unnerving, for those in the mood for an eye-opening challenge.
Rent a Family Inc.
Danish director Kaspar Astrup Schroder follows his oddball 2009 portrait, The Invention of Dr. Nakamats, with an even more intimate study of another autocratic Japanese male. Rent a Family Inc. (Friday, May 3 and Sunday, May 5 at the Kabuki and Tuesday, May 7 at the Pacific Film Archive) starts out as a bizarro view of Japan. In it, the obsession with rituals and "face" compels people to hire surrogate parents and relatives to fill out wedding parties and fulfill other functions. But the film quickly morphs into a disconcerting study of the compartmentalized owner of one such business, whose desperate suburban existence calls to mind narrative filmmaker Laurence Cantet's devastating 2001 masterpiece Time Out. We may not be sure what to take away from Rent a Family Inc. in regards to Japan, but we will not soon forget Ryuichi Ichinokawa. Indeed, we're so amazed by Ichinokawa's candid participation in the film that we half-expect him to be revealed as an actor.
British director Kim Longinotto also returns to the setting of her previous film, Pink Saris, to profile another Indian icon engaged in the uphill struggle for women's rights. The woman at the center of Salma (Thursday, May 2 at the Kabuki, Saturday, May 4 at the PFA. and Sunday, May 5 at the New People Cinema), like many Muslim women in South India, was pulled from school by her family once she reached puberty, and locked up until she agreed to marry the man they had chosen. After she'd been married for a few years, Salma enlisted her mother's help in getting her poems to a publisher. Longinotto presents scene after scene of Salma gently encouraging the women in her family to pursue more freedom and richer lives, but the romantic delusion of a heroic pioneer (which the filmmaker never subscribes to) is eclipsed by the painful realization that change is a long way off for the vast majority of Muslim women.
The one-of-a-kind verité doc Sofia's Last Ambulance (Saturday, April 27 and Friday, May 3 at the Kabuki, and Tuesday, April 30 at the PFA) uses dashboard-mounted cameras to capture the rhythms of crisis and downtime of a likable doctor, nurse and driver. Hamstrung by various artifacts of ancient infrastructure, the trio exemplifies the urban cliché of crusty public servants with hearts of gold and encourages us in the perennial hope that individuals of strong moral character can hold society together.
Sophia's Last Ambulance
The unadorned reality of Ilian Metev's Bulgarian slice of life is contradicted, and complemented by, the profoundly meditative and gorgeously photographed Inori (Saturday, May 4 and Tuesday, May 7 at the Kabuki and Wednesday, May 8 at the PFA). Mexican director Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio (Alamar) -- you may fruitfully ask what's up with the preponderance of filmmakers drawn to work outside their own countries -- treats us to one artful composition after another, assembling an infinitely pleasurable portrait of life in harmony with nature yet in danger of disappearing in a generation or two. One of the highlights of the 2013 SFIFF, Inori is a postcard from an alternate universe that paradoxically never feels out of reach.
Veteran Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck is the exception to my thesis that this year's contingent of doc filmmakers from abroad are more concerned with individuals than problems. A document of the unsuccessful rebuilding of Haiti in the years since the January 2011 earthquake, Fatal Assistance (Monday, May 6 at the PFA and Tuesday, May 7 and Wednesday, May 8 at the Kabuki) pieces together snippets of meetings, interviews and street life into a mosaic that provides the occasional insight but never coheres into a compelling narrative. Peck's arduous labor of love and loyalty is a lament more than an exposé, one that wants to convey how competing priorities, agendas, and constituencies (of NGOs and First World governments) frustrate the progress of well-meaning people.
However, what I got instead was that a massive logistical nightmare can't be smoothly and quickly addressed, no matter how many resources are brought to bear. (It would be interesting to contrast how the recovery from Hurricane Sandy is proceeding in the Northeast -- if it is indeed proceeding. No doubt we can look forward to that documentary in a year or two.) Cameo appearances of Bill Clinton and hands-on helper Sean Penn, along with former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier (who doesn't dirty his hands, any more than he did when his minions were torturing and killing), give Fatal Assistance a welcome frisson of charisma. The narration, meanwhile, aspires to the philosophical and poignant, evoking the personal and the individual amidst the larger forces.
The 56th San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 25 through May 9, 2013 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas and Castro Theatre in San Francisco and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For more information, visit festival.sffs.org.
All images courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.