A film festival necessarily tries to be many things to many people, and the 60th San Francisco International Film Festival looks to be a shrewd mix of party favors, art-house standbys, conversation pieces, and mysterious objects (The Human Surge being this year’s whatzit par excellence).
As always, the festival offers up a bulletin of auteur cinema, with new works by mainstays like Cristi Puiu (Sieranevada), Bertrand Bonello (Nocturama), João Pedro Rodrigues (The Ornithologist), James Gray (The Lost City of Z), Hong Sang-soo (Yourself and Yours), and the Dardenne brothers (The Unknown Girl), as well as ascendant figures like Alex Ross Perry (Golden Exits), Matías Piñeiro (Hermia & Helena), and Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats).
That list, like the “Masters” section writ large, is glaringly male, but several festival finds are directed by women. By the Time it Gets Dark, Anocha Suwichakornpong’s follow-up to Mundane History (2010), ripples out from the question of how to represent the long-repressed Thammasat University Massacre of 1976. What begins as a Bergman-esque psychodrama of a young filmmaker interviewing an erstwhile activist wanders off course partway through, slipping the bonds of past and future, self and other, human and animal. The many mutations of Suwichakornpong’s film suggest a view history itself as shape-shifter.
Similarly prismatic is Bad mama, who cares, Brigid McCaffrey’s quietly astonishing portrait of the geologist Ren Lallatin at home in the desert. An inventive film for an inventive subject, Bad mama, who cares dissolves body, work, environment, and a carousel of color into a gestalt of lived experience and everyday science fiction. The result is simultaneously dense, with more visual ideas crammed into its eleven minutes than a clutch of features, and serenely speculative.
Bad mama, who cares shows as part of SFFILM’s dedicated experimental program (“Who Cares. Who Sees: Experimental Shorts”), but several other worthwhile shorts are scattered throughout the festival. Bonnie “Prince” Billy and Bitchin Bajas perform a free musical interpretation of local artist Jerome Hiler’s luminous and rarely screened 16mm films.
Robert Nelson’s imperishable The Great Blondino (1967) anchors a program curated by Guy Maddin celebrating local film distributor Canyon Cinema’s 50th anniversary. (The Canadian filmmaker aims to make his mark on San Francisco movie lore with The Green Fog, an originally commissioned surrealist spin on Vertigo (1958), and the festival's closing event.)
“Shorts 4: New Visions” is another strong program, with fine new works by Ephraim Asili and Ana Vaz, and keep your eyes peeled for Lois Patiño’s Fajir (playing with The Challenge) and Jem Cohen’s sketches of New York and Inauguration Day playing alongside his charming if wispy World Without End (No Reported Incidents).
As in year’s past, several of the festival’s true wild cards are slotted as documentaries. The Challenge almost feels like a musical in its precisely choreographed depiction of Qatar’s gilded heirs. The young men gravitate towards symbols of power and speed, whether falcons, gold-plated motorcycles, or Lamborghinis (the latter with a lightly leashed cheetah riding shotgun). Italian director Yuri Ancarani himself gets great metaphoric mileage out of the falcons as they are auctioned, groomed, hooded, tracked, and flown. He cuts between different set-pieces as if building towards a climax, but by the time The Challenge arrives at an actual competition it’s been drained of all tension, leaving only a spectacle of men without women, games without risk, society without a public sphere.
Half a world away, Joshua Bonnetta and J.P. Sniadecki’s El mar la mar offers a radically porous survey of the Sonoran desert. The U.S.-Mexico border is, to put it mildly, an over-determined location, but El mar la mar’s immersive style radiates a desire to see and hear for oneself. Landscape is only half the equation, as Bonnetta and Sniadecki incorporate a chorus of voices addressing the borderlands and its crossings. They speak without being introduced, questioned, credentialed, or even pictured -- a formal choice which, among other things, makes it difficult to slot their accounts into prefab political categories. Indeed, El mar la mar is the rare topical documentary that pricks the sympathetic imagination without recourse to didactic exposition or a goal-oriented protagonist.
SFFILM’s documentary selection could use a few more rolls of the dice like these, though even a conventionally structured film like The Force is likely to stir lively public comment in the current political environment. Accordingly, SFFILM’s canniest move may be the presentation of Whose Streets?, a documentary forged from Ferguson’s unrest, as a free outdoor screening at Hayes Valey's PROXY. These days, one could do worse for a raison d’être than packing a public square.
The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival takes place April 5-19, 2017 at various Bay Area theaters. For tickets and more information, click here.