Pssst... We've Got the Best Hidden Gems at SFFILM This Year

A scene from Sandi Tan's 'Shirkers.' (Courtesy of SFFILM)

With the San Francisco International Film Festival’s usual crush of marquee events and big-ticket premieres — many of them highlighted in KQED's hot ticket roundup — some of the festival’s best films can get lost in the limelight.

To be sure, this year features a scruffier slate of special events than usual: Guy Maddin promises an eccentric take on the typically staid “State of Cinema” address; a suitably chaotic tribute is set for Oddball Films legend Stephen Parr; and San Francisco’s 16mm poet laureate, Nathaniel Dorsky, wins a well-deserved Persistence of Vision Award.

As always, though, many of the festival’s discoveries require digging deeper into the program guide. Here are a handful of under-the-radar highlights:

A scene from Alee People's 'Decoy.'
A scene from Alee People's 'Decoy.' (Courtesy of SFFILM)

‘Decoy’

April 8, 6pm at BAMPFA / April 11, 6:30pm at Roxie Theater
 

A Rubik’s Cube of a film, and a shot in the arm, Alee Peoples’ Decoy anchors a fine program of recent experimental films selected by curators Kathy Geritz and Vanessa O’Neill. Stimulated by Angela Davis’s remark that “Walls turned sideways are bridges,” Peoples makes like a structural anthropologist and free-associates different figures of these opposed concepts, wall and bridge. In so doing, the film grapples with meaning rather than grasping for it, subjecting the insanities and inanities of the political imagination to a fierce form of play. While not as immediately comic as her earlier pieces, Decoy is every bit as nimble in its generative juxtapositions and tactile effects. The program also features two lyrical shorts by Paul Clipson, a beloved Bay Area filmmaker who died last month.

A scene from Sasha Waters Freyer's 'Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable.'
A scene from Sasha Waters Freyer's 'Garry Winogrand: All Things Are Photographable.' (Courtesy of SFFILM)

‘Garry Winogrand: All Things are Photographable’

April 14, 8pm at SFMOMA / April 15, 1pm at BAMPFA
 

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This documentary profile of the seminal street photographer was directed by noted experimental filmmaker Sasha Waters Freyer, and her rhythmic editing is marvelously responsive to the elusive snap of a Winogrand. The American Experience format has its limitations, to be sure, but Freyer’s doc resists hagiography and comes spiked with surprises like a series of animations by Kelly Gallagher (an intervention that, along with the large number of female curators and photographers addressing Winogrand’s legacy, offers welcome balance in sorting out the photographer’s sexual politics). The SFMOMA screening will be followed by a conversation between Freyer and one of the film’s liveliest speakers, Geoff Dyer. Shutterbugs will be duly inspired to get to work.

A scene from Lee Anne Schmitt's 'Purge This Land.'
A scene from Lee Anne Schmitt's 'Purge This Land.' (Courtesy of SFFILM)

‘Purge This Land’

April 10, 6pm at YBCA / April 11, 6:30pm at BAMPFA / April 14, 5:30pm at YBCA
 

Lee Anne Schmitt’s contemplative study of America’s history of racial violence sits uneasily, and pointedly, at the intersection of personal essay and historical documentation. Dedicated to her young son, and scored by her partner Jeff Parker, the intimacy of Purge This Land’s reckoning flows from Schmitt’s position as a white woman with a biracial child. The film covers a lot of literal ground, cataloging the historical sites of race riots, slave auctions, and police actions in the unadorned documentary style of forbearers like James Benning, John Gianvito, and her own excellent California Company Town (2008). Freely drawing upon geographic and temporal coincidence, the overall effect is to suggest a land that offers no refuge from racial violence.

A few days after seeing Purge This Land, I’m left wondering why it relies so heavily on well-known incidences of racial violence rather than exhuming unwritten histories; what its streamlined account of John Brown loses in excluding his religiosity; and what exactly it suggests we make of the knowledge of what happened at a particular site. These are productive questions, to be sure, indicative of a film doing its work.

A scene from Hope Tucker's 'Atomkraftwerk Zwentendorf.'
A scene from Hope Tucker's 'Atomkraftwerk Zwentendorf.' (Courtesy of SFFILM)

‘Atomkraftwerk Zwentendorf’

April 7, 7:30pm at Roxie Theater / April 16, 4:30pm at Roxie Theater
 

The fourth of six shorts programs (“New Visions”) features pieces by Kevin Jerome Everson, Jem Cohen, and this strikingly lucid work of documentary by Hope Tucker. Part of her ongoing Obituary Project, Tucker’s film finds an ambiguous monument in the decommissioned Zwentendorf Nuclear Power Plant. It was never operational, having been voted closed in a 1978 referendum following years of construction and protest. Incorporating archival footage and her own field recordings, Tucker uses the Austrian site as a meditation on various forms of power. While innocuous as a stage set, the site is shadowed by disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. The sci-fi flavor of Tucker’s film finally owes as much to her delineation of these alternate realities as to Zwentendorf’s inscrutable gadgetry.

A scene from Hong Sang-soo's 'Claire's Camera.'
A scene from Hong Sang-soo's 'Claire's Camera.' (Courtesy of SFFILM)

‘Claire’s Camera’

April 7, 3:30pm at YBCA / April 9, 4pm at SFMOMA / April 12, 8:30pm at YBCA
 

The fact that Claire’s Camera — one of two films Hong Sang-soo films unveiled at Cannes, where it’s also set — is so plainly off-the-cuff only drives home the acuity of the South Korean auteur’s style: He approaches film narrative as a kind of music, all theme and variation, melody and motif. The roundelay here turns on a characteristic love triangle here enlivened by Isabelle Huppert’s titular sprite. The scenes between her and the Korean trio play in halted English, and it’s one measure of Hong’s genius that he sees dramatic possibility in such comically mundane circumstances. Huppert’s photographer says she takes pictures because people are different afterwards, and that little koan ripples throughout this disarmingly transparent movie.
 

Other highlights? What about a trio of docs fresh off Sundance raves (Shirkers, Minding the Gap, and Hale County This Morning, This Evening), recovering transcendentalist Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, or art-rockers Blonde Redhead thrashing it out to Yasujiro Ozu’s delicate coming-of-age comedy, I Was Born, But... (1932)? That last could well prove a miscalculation, but my curiosity is piqued. Such is festival season.

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The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival takes place April 4-17 in various Bay Area theaters. For tickets and more information, click here.

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