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Now Playing! SF Indiefest Lives on the Edge

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Still of 'Girl in Golden Gate Park.' (Courtesy of SF Indiefest)

The studios postponed the vast majority of their 2020 releases to 2021 in order to maximize box office revenue, and in so doing largely abandoned this year’s Oscar statuettes to the independents. There are many ways to define “independent,” of course, and in normal times very few of them translate to movies with unhurried narratives and without matinee idols—like First Cow and Nomadland—on the dais reaping the big end-of-ceremony awards. So let’s celebrate the independents.

SF Indiefest
Feb. 4–21

Now in its 23rd edition, SF Indiefest started before the digital revolution removed the barriers to feature filmmaking. In those days, there were far more weirder, grittier films and far fewer sophisticated, polished films. The festival’s current programmers are gatekeepers in the best sense, in that they’re acutely sensitive to the soul-deadening effects of the gentrification of indie film. In other words, SF Indiefest retains its edge.

Take Girl in Golden Gate Park, S.F. writer-director JP Allen’s scintillating puzzle film and one of three world premieres in the festival. Two Asian American women (Kim Jiang Dubaniewicz and Erin Mae-Ling Stuart) with trust issues cross paths in and around the titular urban refuge, where the scenery (and Daniel Teixeira-Gomes’ lush cinematography) provides camouflage and cover. Allen makes enigmas wrapped in mysteries, with every frame a clue and a handful (don’t blink!) providing answers. The title is both.

Allen, like every other Indiefest filmmaker, anticipates audiences experiencing his film on the big screen not too far down the road. I’ll wait til then to say more about Girl in Golden Gate Park, but don’t deny yourself the movie’s pleasures now.

Still from ‘Una Great Movie.’ (Courtesy of SF Indiefest)

L.A. multi-hyphenate Jennifer Sharp delivers a delicious takedown of Hollywood and some unexpected south-of-the-border social commentary with Una Great Movie, a seriocomic riff on the conflict between authentic and commercial storytelling. A Black screenwriter trying to break into the business is overwhelmed by conflicting advice on how to “improve” her screenplay in order to sell it.


The heart of the film, though is the story on the page—a Black woman goes to Mexico to find an old flame, accompanied by a female friend—which comes to life as a movie within the movie. The accomplishment of Una Great Movie isn’t its familiar (though funny) digs at the movie business’ fickleness and superficiality, but how the viewer is instantly entwined in the “fictional” story every time Sharp cuts back to Mexico. Somebody give Jennifer Sharp a greenlight on her next script or, better yet, a TV show about a Black woman working at a major studio, now.

Indiefest programmers look beyond California, of course, and even include several features from outside the U.S. But if your interest is Bay Area filmmakers and/or Bay Area stories, there’s plenty to check out. Oakland filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes is feted with the Vanguard Award and the inclusion of his documentary/fiction saga 499, which takes us on a historical tour of the exploitation of Mexico up to the present with a 16th-century conquistador as our guide.

Still from ‘499.’ (Courtesy of SF Indiefest)

Twenty years after Irving Norman’s death, Ray Day of Half Moon Bay examines the life and legacy of the overlooked Western Addition artist in his wonderfully titled documentary, Truth Be Told: Irving Norman and the Human Predicament. Dr. Jill Cornell Tarter, the Berkeley astronomer perennially trying to detect extraterrestrials (and the model for Jodie Foster’s character in Contact) is one of the long-term visionaries profiled in David Licata’s A Life’s Work. San Franciscan and MSNBC anchor Richard Liu’s Sky Blossom: Diaries of the Next Greatest Generation spotlights another group toiling out of sight, the many young people serving as caregivers to veterans and service members.

My standard festival advice holds for the SF Indiefest program: Pick something, anything, that sounds intriguing, and go with it.

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