Still from Tommy Oliver's '40 Years a Prisoner.' (Courtesy of SFFILM)
The holidays offer the promise of surprise, in a variety and abundance of forms. That’s the promise of movies, too, all year ’round. Sometimes flicks fall short, of course. This week, though, brings a sleigh-full of unexpected, unpredictable films to unwrap and savor.
We take for granted that nonfiction is a huge chunk of mainstream programming, penetrating every corner of television. On the big screen, documentaries deliver a substantial chunk of arthouse revenue. Increasingly in recent years, the December awards chatter and hype has centered on documentaries.
The San Francisco Film Society created the Doc Stories program several years ago to insert itself into that year-end conversation. Documentaries had long been hugely popular at the S.F. International Film Festival (now called SFFILM), so it wasn’t a big financial risk. Beyond the public, though, Doc Stories was designed to tap into the nationally recognized Bay Area doc community—especially the many local members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, who vote for the Oscars.
The program has moved online this year, of course, and offers a convenient way for anyone to see highlights from the international festival circuit. Gianfranco Rosi (Fire at Sea) has a new verité work, Notturno, about the aftereffects of war on denizens of the Middle East. Viktor Kossakovsky (Aquarela) returns with another audio and visual treat, Ganda, centered on the titular sow and other animals on a Norwegian farm.
The 2013 film Let the Fire Burn recounted the Philadelphia police’s horrifying 1978 overreaction to the MOVE compound. Tommy Oliver’s 40 Years a Prisoner revisits those events through Mike Africa, Jr., who was born in prison to a MOVE couple jailed (with seven others) for the death of a policeman. Infuriating—the title is a riff on 12 Years a Slave—and galvanizing, Oliver’s film (which debuts Dec. 8 on HBO and HBO Max) justifiably adds fuel to the fire this time.
I encourage anyone interested in the state of the form and the art of documentary to tune in for Carrie Lozano’s Keynote Address on Thursday, Dec. 3 at 3:30pm. The East Bay filmmaker, journalist and professor is the new director of the Sundance Institute’s influential Documentary Film Program, and her perspective on the present and future of nonfiction is essential.
Opens Dec. 2
Roxie Theater, Smith Rafael Film Center (online)
The opening scene of David Osit’s quietly revealing portrait of Ramallah’s pragmatic mayor—following an introductory shot of Musa Hadid alone in a café sipping a coffee—is a boardroom discussion about the city’s brand campaign. Mayor Musa, as his constituents call him, has little patience for this conversation; he’d rather be out inspecting schools or dealing with sewage dumps.
Identity—Palestinian identity—is an everyday issue, in a Christian Arab city surrounded by Israeli settlements and subject to arbitrary incursions by the Israeli army. Mayor Musa must juggle bureaucracy, advocacy and diplomacy with prudence rather than power; he can’t allow his righteous anger to flare too often.
Mayor climaxes with an extended sequence in which Musa is impotently confined to City Hall as Israeli soldiers roam downtown and fire tear gas at residents, capped by local youths throwing stones at the troops on their way out of town. Politics means something different to Musa than it does for the typical mayor, and his leadership and character are likewise on another level. (A free virtual Q&A with filmmaker David Osit takes place Monday, Dec. 7.)
Palestine lives in two programs included in the unusually but appropriately titled Arab Film Fest Collab, a joint venture of four Arab film and cultural organizations around the U.S. Writer-director Najwa Najjar’s opening night saga, Between Heaven and Earth, dramatizes the geographic, bureaucratic, political and personal hurdles a Palestinian couple encounters trying to get a divorce decree. A retrospective of Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour’s short films powerfully conveys the power of imagination to preserve one’s linked sense of self and place.
Memory is also the essential ingredient in Once Upon a Time in Beirut (1995), which imagines a pair of young women launched into the past through a film collector’s archival images of the Paris of the Middle East, as Lebanon’s capital was once known. This screening is a tribute to its prolific director, Jocelyne Saab, who died in 2019.
Kelly Gallagher, the third of five filmmakers receiving one-week shows curated by SFMOMA’s Rudolf Frieling and Gina Basso in conjunction with the Feminist Art Coalition, makes appropriately unsubtle films. They are also occasionally irreverent, and best of all, contagiously energetic. Her recently retitled 2009 undergraduate blitz, A Herstory of Women Filmmakers, (re)introduces a legion of women directors with collaged animation and Le Tigre and Bikini Kill grooves in 12 stirring, informative minutes you won’t regret or forget.
The series continues with Ja-Tovia Gary’s extraordinary The Giverny Document (Single Channel), streaming Dec. 9–15, and San Francisco artist and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson’s 2010 radical history documentary Women Art Revolution! (Dec. 16–22). No time to rest, indeed.
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