Now Playing! Doc and Silent Film Fests Jumpstart Summer

Still from 'Rodents of Unusual Size.' (Courtesy of Tilapia Films)

A wee confession: In a typical week, one series or event stands out as the top choice for the Now Playing! slot. Not infrequently, however, your proprietor must choose between two (or more) equally alluring programs. I face just such a dilemma this week, with a pair of uniquely different festivals commanding our attention.

San Francisco Silent Film Festival (May 30–June 3 at the Castro) offers one classy yet accessible homage after another to an often-devalued and still-underrated epoch in global moviemaking. Brought back to life via flawless restorations and inspired live accompaniment, every single program and film is special in a different way. From the familiar (The Man Who Laughs on opening night, the effervescent Wilder-Siodmak-Zinneman-Ulmer collaboration People on Sunday, Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler on closing night) to the revelatory (the Carl Theodor Dreyer comedy (!) Master of the House, Yasujiro Ozu’s masterly and touching An Inn in Tokyo, the U.S. premiere of the restored German assimilation fable The Ancient Law), you can’t miss at the SFSFF.

Still from 'Adios Amor.'
Still from 'Adios Amor.' (Courtesy of SF DocFest)

The San Francisco Documentary Festival (May 31–June 14 at the Roxie, Brava and New People Cinemas) likewise delivers the thrill of discovery. Explorations of contemporary subcultures and tunnel-vision outsiders can feel, as with some films from the 1920s and '30s, like visits to other planets. Local filmmakers Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s seductive immersion in Louisiana’s ecology, culture and people, Rodents of Unusual Size, receives its San Francisco premiere just as the nutria has unexpectedly emerged as a California threat. Another Bay Area filmmaker, Laurie Coyle, poignantly probes our state’s legacy of migrant workers and political activism with Adios Amor—The Search for Maria Moreno.

DocFest wouldn’t be DocFest without a portrait or two of an artist on her or his own wavelength. Trisha Ziff’s Witkin & Witkin dives into the thickets with photographer Joel-Peter and painter Jerome, identical twins who haven’t spoken to each other in years. Another filmmaker whose subjects create and inhabit their own realities, Penny Lane, receives the festival’s Non-Fiction Vanguard Award before a screening of her empathetic new film, The Pain of Others, about the self-diagnosed skin condition Morgellons. Lane’s specialty is weaving found footage—White House home movies, industrial and educational films, images created for the internet—into fresh tapestries. Grab a thread, any thread, at DocFest or the S.F. Silent Film Festival.

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