The idea that I could watch every film included in the full length and short form categories for this year's SF Documentary Film Festival was a fool's errand, of which my editors gently reminded me. But oh, was it tempting to try! This year's entries take up topics ranging from the ironic and pointedly humorous (How to Sharpen Pencils) to the heartbreaking (The Sum Total of Our Memories), with a range of riches in between. Taken as a whole, the diversity of the festival's entries attest to the healthy state of documentary filmmaking as both an artistic and social practice. If you have the time and the means, do yourself a favor and see these picks and as many of the other films included in the festival as possible. It will be time well spent.
Spark: A Burning Man Story
Spark: A Burning Man Story
(Thu, June 6, 7pm)
Full disclosure: I am the last person in the known universe who would attend Burning Man. So, it was ironic that someone with NO interest in what the Playa has to offer would review a film made about the 27-year-old celebration. I expected to hear much of the usual euphoric post-festival ramblings about how much one's life changes after a week in the desert, and there is some of that included in the film. But for the most part, Spark is an honest, at times brutal, discussion of how difficult it is to organize, manage, and execute an event that draws participants from around the world. That task falls to the people of the Black Rock Arts Foundation who are captured negotiating Burning Man's most hotly debated issue -- the lottery system. In 2012, the lottery was implemented to make access to the event more egalitarian. Despite best efforts, large blocks of tickets were purchased by or somehow found their way into the hands of much-loathed scalpers, and many veteran "Burners" were unable to attend. Since then, the challenge of scaling up efficiently and ethically while retaining event's founding spirit has preoccupied Burning Man organizers. The filmmakers don't present solutions, but show how those tasked with finding solutions navigate challenging terrain in thoughtful and pragmatic ways.
Without film or photographic footage of Burning Man, which is difficult to come by considering there is a strict "no filming" policy on the Playa, the movie could have been a dull slog. But there is footage of the festival, which presents Burning Man as a revelatory experience, and attendees as the boundary pushing, neon-and-feather-boa-wearing, radically self-reliant revelers that they are. Seeing this film is the closest I will ever come to participating in Burning Man, and I am thankful for it.
(Sat, June 15, 9pm; Fri, June 21, 7pm)
In August 2008, a group of mountaineers from around the globe ascended K2, the second highest peak in the world. By all accounts, the conditions that determine how difficult the trek would be were wholly manageable: the weather was ideal, blue skies for as far as the eye could see; the climbers were in good spirits and good health, which is no minor accomplishment given the incredibly challenging physical test that is mountain climbing. The hikers, representing Ireland, South Korea, Spain, and Italy, were climbing in the name of national pride, bragging rights, and to meet long-held personal goals of summiting the notoriously dangerous peak. So, with these favorable factors in place, how did thirteen out of twenty four hikers die or vanish in the course of two days?
That is the question at the center of director Nick Ryan's film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. Listening to accounts provided by the hikers who survived, the Sherpas who guided them, and the friends and family members left to mourn the dead, a unified story is impossible to settle on. What emerges instead, through the familiar modes of re-enactment and interviews and to no one's surprise, is that careful preparation, years of experience, limitless wealth, and ideal weather conditions are no guarantee against tragedy. Also revealed are the impossible choices endangered hikers face while on the mountain: most pointedly, to go back for the wounded or disoriented and risk death or, as the harsh unwritten rules of the mountain demand, to leave them for dead. Interviews with climbers who survived the 2008 incident are smartly supplemented by a conversation with Martin Bonnati, who was among the first to reach the summit in 1954 and lived for years without acknowledgement of his accomplishment by the Italian government. From Bonnati's triumphant moment atop K2 nearly 60 years ago until now, the fascination with seeing the world from its highest point and testing one's physical and mental capacities in order to cheat death remains constant. Nick Ryan shows us the high price of that obsession in this engaging film.
(Sat, June 8, 3pm; Thu, June 13, 9pm; Sat, June 22, 7pm)
As a prospective adoptive parent, I was both excited and terrified of watching this film. Closure tells the story of Angela, a young woman searching for her birth family twenty five years after her adoption records were sealed. Using the connective power of Facebook, Angela works with the scant information she has about her biological parents to piece together her extended family tree. Her journey is a family affair (pun intended), one involving her adoptive parents and siblings and her husband, all of whom staunchly support her search. The story involves travel to and from her home in Seattle to points throughout the southern United States, encountering siblings who never knew of her existence, parents who have been estranged from one another since she was conceived, and a boisterous extended family thrilled to count her among their number.
Throughout the film, director Bryan Tucker, Angela's husband, touches on fraught issues that form the core of adoption discussions historic and contemporary, including race, class, and the often-contradictory effects of nature vs. nurture. Tucker's triumph as a director comes in the weaving of these issues into Angela's story with compassion and obvious concern for his subjects as their uncertain future unfolds.
And You Belong
(Sat, June 8, 7pm; Tue, June 11, 9pm; Sun, June 16, 5pm)
"Loud" and "raunchy" are terms one could use to describe Scream Club, the rap act formed by Sarah Adorable and Cindy Wonderful in 2002. Sarah and Cindy became fast friends and partners who set out to make music unlike anything they, or we for that matter, have ever heard. "Inspired" could also describe the duo, which didn't consider their gender or sexual orientation as impediments to their goal of world domination through music. There are several important themes that underscore this film, most interesting among them are performance as an assertive, liberating, and vital act, and the realization that fame is not as important as the effort put forth to realize a goal.
Running for Jim
Honorable Mentions: Full Length Category
Running for Jim: Jim Tracy, the most decorated high school cross country coach in California history was diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, in 2010. This moving film details his relationship with generations of track athletes from San Francisco's University High School, and how a community rallied to support a beloved member in his time of need. (Fri, June 7, 7pm; Sun, June 9, 3pm; Mon, June 10, 7pm) The Mayor portrays the lives of several senior citizens in their assisted living facility in Dallas. The topics that preoccupy us as we age -- love, sex, companionship, aging, and death -- are all addressed as we watch Sam Berger, our ribald protagonist, called "The Mayor" because he knows everything that goes on at the facility. Through Sam and a colorful cast of characters, we see that aging does not bring resolution to life's questions, but rather more patience with life's inherent mysteries. (Fri, June 7, 5pm; Sat, June 8, 5pm; Sat, June 22, 3pm) Public Sex, Private Lives, filmed partially on location at The Armory in San Francisco, follows three women at work in the sex industry. From the outset, the stereotypical notion that sex workers are emotionally damaged and unfit for any other kind of work is blasted, as is the false association that sex workers' professional and private lives are one and the same. The film neither condemns nor glamorizes the sex industry and those who work in it, and that is its great strength. (Sat, June 8, 9pm; Wed, June 12, 9pm; Sat, June 15, 7pm)
Honorable Mentions: Short Form Category
The Kids of 5114 features several children born from a single sperm donor. As they traverse the tenuous passage from childhood to adulthood, they find comfort, acceptance, and even more questions about how families are formed and sustained. The Sum Total of Our Memories considers the toll that Alzheimer's disease takes on a person's life and relationships. This short film is driven by passionate, fearless advocacy for life after diagnosis, and the hope that those afflicted will not surrender prematurely to a disease deemed "the long goodbye." How to Sharpen Pencils is David Reece's hilarious take on artisanal pencil sharpening. In a short demonstration, Reece show us the tools of his trade and how the special service he offers will vastly improve your life. A timely film for hipsters and the people who hate them.
The 12th SF Documentary Festival runs June 6-23, 2013 at venues in San Francisco, Oakland, Palo Alto and Santa Cruz. For tickets and information, visit sfindie.com.