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Now Playing! Strong Offerings from Bay Area Filmmakers Shine at SFFILM

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Still from Tom Shepard's 'Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America.' (Courtesy of SFFILM)

With Scouts’ Honor (2001, about a Petaluma teen’s challenge to the Boy Scouts of America’s anti-gay policy) and Knocking (2006, which detailed the contributions of Jehovah’s Witnesses to U.S. civil rights), Bay Area documentary filmmaker Tom Shepard enrolled viewers in the causes of people they didn’t necessarily identify with or even like. Shepard works similar magic in Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America (April 17 at the Victoria in San Francisco and April 18 at the Grand Lake in Oakland), tracking the San Francisco travails of four LGBTQ refugees from Angola, Syria and the Congo.

Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America receives its world premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival, which launches Wednesday, April 10 and rolls through April 23. It’s the last rodeo hereabouts for executive director Noah Cowan, the doggedly low-key Toronto film-industry vet whose signature contribution in San Francisco was building a stable, high-level grant program for filmmakers.

I expect Cowan will be eager to introduce the SFFILM screenings of Bay Area films, whatever their funding sources, including Michael Tolajian’s portrait of San Quentin’s basketball team, Q Ball (April 11 at the Castro, with executive producer Kevin Durant in the house). Armistead Maupin takes the stage to open the festival with Netflix’s updated Tales of the City, and another familiar name, Jennifer Siebel Newsom (a.k.a. the First Lady of California) returns to the festival with her latest probing doc, The Great American Lie (April 15 and 16), which consults and profiles those working to convert the myth of the American dream into reality for the many people stymied from climbing the ladder.

Still from Kathleen Quillian's 'Confidence Game.'
Still from Kathleen Quillian’s ‘Confidence Game.’ (Courtesy of SFFILM)

Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You) will pack the Victoria April 13 for the annual State of Cinema address, while Ai Weiwei: Yours Truly (inspired by the artist’s 2015 installation at Alcatraz, which included a letter-writing campaign to prisoners of conscience around the globe) performs the same feat the next night at the Castro.


Claude Jarman, former child actor (The Yearling) and director of the festival from the late 1960s to 1980, is feted with a screening of Intruder in the Dust from 1949 (April 20). On a different plane, Sara Dosa’s new doc, The Seer and the Unseen (April 13, 17 and 19), hangs out with an Icelandic elf whisperer (my words, not hers). New work by Kathleen Quillian, Jonn Herschend and other local experimental filmmakers and animators is sprinkled throughout the numerous shorts programs. Believe it or not, this isn’t the complete list of local artists in SFFILM. Dig into the program, and discover for yourself.

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