The fall film festival season is in full stride, even if stepping out to a theater isn’t part of the routine. The streamers and virtual cinemas, meanwhile, continue to drop new releases at a pace that challenges even the most dedicated film lover. “Are you keeping up?” has supplanted “Are you holding up?” as the number one question for those fortunate enough to be unharmed by the pandemic.
The S.F. Dance Film Festival is in full swing (and modern and jazz and tap and ballet). Of all the arts, I’ve found dance to be the most reliable spirit-lifter. (Election polls are also providing a tonic, but they don’t count as an art form.)
The short film programs provide quick bursts of inspiration and levitation, from the Bay Area showcase to the globe-trotting “Dance Goes On” collection. There’s a program for every mood, spanning the ethereal transportation of “Seriously Screendance” and the edge of eroticism of “After Dark.”
The SFDFF has compiled a wealth of feature films, including the biographies Merely Marvelous: The Dancing Genius of Gwen Verdon and Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back. For a more avant-garde (though accessible) evening, hop to England for Revisor, Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite and writer Jonathon Young’s neurotic and witty, paranoid and jittery interpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s The Government Inspector. Filmed on a London stage for the BBC, this unmistakably original theater/movement piece nods to Metropolis, the Marx Brothers, the Ministry of Silly Walks and more classically trained dance practitioners.
Until relatively recently it was considered wrong, if not obscene, for documentarians to make aesthetically attractive films about desperate social problems. The argument went something like this: It is exploitative to find beauty in—or craft art from—suffering. At the very least, it’s counterproductive to the filmmaker’s presumed goals of provoking change or eliciting pity.
Over time, the condescension implicit in such an attitude became more and more clear. I was put in mind of that now-rejected point of view by Garrett Bradley’s Time, a shimmering, time-shifting black-and-white (self-)portrait of Fox Rich, a Louisianan who did a year in prison for driving her husband and nephew to stick up a credit union some 20 years ago. Rob Rich received a 60-year sentence, perhaps because he had the audacity to decline a plea bargain, probably because he was Black.
Rob might also have had a lousy lawyer, and/or it wasn’t his first offense. Time, or rather Fox, doesn’t tell us. She doesn’t give us much information of any kind, which makes some sense for a film that is primarily about absence. But it also contributes to our sense that Fox, a fiercely strong woman who has tirelessly spearheaded Rob’s appeals and parole requests in the face of rejection, disrespect and indifference, is controlling and protective of her public image.
That control also reveals itself in the home videos Fox shot of her six children across 20 years. This lady ran a tight, loving, middle-class ship, propelling her kids to confidence and success. The camera (in her phone) was her scrapbook, witness, confidant, lifeline. The phone also connects her with Rob in prison, of course, though only by voice.
Time blends the personal documentary, social-issue filmmaking (albeit obliquely, because it relies on our awareness of the unjust, disproportionate incarceration of Black men rather than making the case) and art filmmaking. The generic and innocuous title only hits home in a late-game montage of Fox’s smartphone footage of her and the children across time. They live, they laugh, they grow up—and Rob has missed all of it.
3rd i has trimmed its annual expansive, border-crossing fete at the Castro (and beyond) to five online shows over three days. But the entire program is free, eliminating barriers to entry and encouraging those who’ve never seen a film from, say, India, Pakistan or South Africa (!).
The latter country is the setting for Avie Luthra’s acclaimed 2011 drama, Lucky, about the friendship between an orphan and an older Indian woman. The festival also dips into the vault for the 2003 romantic drama Road to Ladakh starring Irrfan Khan, who went on to international stardom and died of cancer in April.
Those with an ear for new voices won’t miss the programs devoted to a pair of rising talents. The queer Pakistani American writer, director and actress Fawzia Mirza screens several of her short films, ranging from comedy to documentary, followed by a Q&A. SETI X, the L.A.-born progenitor of South Asian American Hip-Hop, delivers a rousing history of this lesser-known arena of cultural identity via videos, music, performance and a Q&A. Turn on, tune in.
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