Now Playing! SF DocFest’s Escapist Blast of Weird Americana

Still from 'Riplist.' (SF DocFest)

To fulfill my undergraduate rhetoric requirement many years ago, I chose a course on satire. Around the fourth week our assignment was to pick up the current copy of National Lampoon, which provoked a brouhaha over a house ad touting a contest to predict the date of 76-year-old former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower’s death.

A little over half the students in the class were from Chicago and its suburbs while the other half were from small towns and rural hamlets, mirroring the enrollment at this large public university in downstate Illinois. Several students from the latter demographic angrily criticized the promotion (the prize was a year’s subscription, if memory serves) for unforgivable bad taste and appalling immorality. No disputing the first charge, but I didn’t see how venturing a guess could remotely influence or hasten a random stranger’s demise.

Your position on this crucial existential debate will determine your enjoyment of Mike Scholtz’s Riplist, a wry, intelligent sliver of singular American weirdness. Structured around their 2017 draft of potentially dearly departed celebrities in the coming year, the film queries seven unpretentious, self-aware Minnesotans about their obsession and competition, and the stigma of participating in a death pool. I chuckled practically nonstop through Riplist, which may be an indication of how much (or how little) I’ve matured since college.

Still from 'Truth or Consequences.' (SF DocFest)

Welcome to SF DocFest, the beloved annual compendium of odd, unusual nonfiction films from every nook and corner of our bizarro country and beyond. Waving off the pedigreed, high-profile docs that premiere at Sundance, get theatrical releases (or these days, national virtual releases) and chart a course for the Academy Awards, SF DocFest’s programmers opt for poignant, intimate works that miss the mainstream by dint of their iconoclasm and/or lack of a marketing hook.

Bumped by the pandemic from its June residency at the Roxie, SF DocFest plants its flag online from Sept. 3 through 20 with a program encompassing 25 features, nearly two-dozen short films and a plethora of streaming Q&As.

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Truth or Consequences, Hannah Jayanti’s introspective lost-in-America postcard that’s toasted with the festival’s centerpiece slot, epitomizes the ethos of DocFest: A unique point of view well off the beaten path, leisurely paced and quietly revelatory. Jayanti shows us a handful of scavengers and survivors stuck in the sun-blistered perma-limbo of the titular New Mexico town, luring us into a web of detritus, entropy and failure. Bill Frisell’s lovely lonesome-cowboy guitar picking fills in the melancholic open spaces, and you half expect a tumbleweed to blow by. It’s a strangely entrancing film to get lost in.

The producer of Truth or Consequences, Sara Archambault, is this year’s recipient of the fest’s Non-Fiction Vanguard Award. Like most champions of independent artists, Archambault has zero name recognition among the public, but anything she works on is deserving of attention.

Still from 'For the Love of Rutland.' (SF DocFest)

The economic prospects aren’t much brighter at the other end of the continent, in old-line Vermont, where Jennifer Maytorena Taylor shot the patient and engrossing For the Love of Rutland. (Disclosure: Taylor and I worked together on the KQED show Independent View several years ago.)

Taylor’s work examines American resistance to diversity, and one deduces that what drew her to Rutland was the mayor’s unilateral 2016 decision to accept 100 Syrian refugees—and the fault lines it exposed between hardline anti-immigrants and those who imagined how motivated newcomers could help rejuvenate a waning former manufacturing town with an opioid problem.

It turned out that just two Syrian families had resettled in Rutland when a new president squashed immigration from “Muslim countries.” So the veteran San Francisco filmmaker had to pivot, and she shifted her focus to a white mother fighting to keeping her family together in the face of chronic poverty and scant opportunity. Taylor came away with a moving, cliché-resistant portrait of the working poor that, miraculously, leaves us believing in the persistence and possibility of community.

Still from 'Roy's World: Barry Gifford's Chicago.' (SF DocFest)

Berkeley author Barry Gifford is best-known for his Sailor and Lula novels that inspired the films Wild at Heart and Perdita Durango. His voluminous writings include the Roy chronicles, a slew of autobiographical short stories detailing a boy’s coming of age in Chicago in the 1950s. It was a corrupt, racist town (what’s changed, you say?), as real as it gets, and Gifford nails it in unadorned sentences that, en masse, convey Roy’s expanding horizons.

Rob Christopher’s altogether wonderful Roy’s World: Barry Gifford’s Chicago spoke to me as an expatriate who grew up on the same streets in the same world, albeit a few years later. But any urbanite whose childhood and adolescence preceded the digital age will have the same reaction, for Gifford’s writing (flawlessly read by the perfectly cast trio of Willem Dafoe, Lili Taylor and Matt Dillon) and the plethora of archival footage connect us to tangible, physical objects: a used Buick with tattered seats, a snowstorm, a sand-filled ashtray in a hotel lobby, a newsstand, a back porch, an alley with a reflecting pool of rainwater.

Roy’s World isn’t about the writing process so much as the stories themselves—the experiences they evoke and delineate. Maintaining the effect that we’re sharing Roy’s life and not Adult Barry’s, the filmmaker keeps Gifford off-camera until the very end. Jason Adasiewicz’s original jazz score neatly sets the mood and the place, adding another bittersweet layer of pleasure.

Still from 'Unlocking the Doors of Cinema.' (SF DocFest)

The Syrian film director Mohammad Malas warmly expounds at length on his philosophy and working methods in Unlocking the Doors of Cinema. Essentially unknown in the Bay Area outside of Arab film cognoscenti, Malas is the lone speaker in this one-hour doc, guiding us through a singular career that took off with the 1987 narrative debut Dreams of the City.

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“My lifelong journey with cinema,” Malas tells us, “is one of rebellion against despotism, overcoming obstacles, telling stories no one dares to tell.” That’s a pretty good mantra for SF DocFest.