Now Playing! SFFILM Festival Returns With Crime, Futurism, Sexual Revolutions and More

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John Boyage in Chase Palmer's directorial debut, 'Naked Singularity,' which opens the 2021 SFFILM festival.
John Boyage in Chase Palmer's directorial debut, 'Naked Singularity,' which opens the 2021 SFFILM festival. (Courtesy SFFILM)

SFFILM
Apr. 9-18
Online and Drive-in at Fort Mason Center

One tune could serve as the unofficial anthem of this year's SFFILM Festival: "Happy Survival," the bluesy pop song that Nigerian twin brothers Arie and Chuko Esiri picked to play over the end credits of their engrossing 2019 feature debut, Eyimofe (This Is My Desire). A ’70s hit for Ifeanyi Eddie Okwedy & His Maymores Dance Band, it provides a perfect coda, rueful yet upbeat, to the Esiris’ naturalistic, slice-of-lives saga of persistence and compromise—and speaks now, as the arts slowly reopen, for all of us on the verge of making it through the pandemic.

In the turbulent wake of the cancellation of the 2020 SFFILM festival and arrivals of new Executive Director Anne Lai and Director of Programming Jessie Fairbanks, the festival returns in what is, necessarily, a transition year. The smaller-than-usual program of just 45 feature films (including 20 documentaries), buttressed with a slew of shorts, is available through the pandemic-era combo of a streaming platform and several physical screenings at the Fort Mason Drive-In.

Consequently, it’s best to view the 2021 SFFILM Festival as a welcome spring fling rather than the annual d-e-e-e-e-p dive into global cinema. The cream of Cannes, Venice, Toronto and other festivals has already trickled out to virtual cinemas or is being held by distributors until theaters fully reopen. The inclusion of 15 world premieres and 15 North American debuts (along with five U.S. premieres) suggests, however, that SFFILM found plenty of films primed to begin their post-pandemic lives.

One of those world premieres is the Opening Night selection, Naked Singularity (pictured above), a crime thriller starring John Boyega as a public defender with a noir hero’s opportunistic streak. Chase Palmer adapted Sergio De La Pava’s ambitious novel for his feature directorial debut.

A scene from Pete Nicks' 'Homeroom.'
A scene from Pete Nicks' 'Homeroom.' (Courtesy SFFILM)

As always, plenty of titles that debuted at Sundance make their way to the Bay. Oakland filmmaker Peter Nicks presents his engaging study of Oakland High School student activists, Homeroom, and receives the George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award. Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It (screening ahead of its June theatrical release and subsequent American Masters broadcast) recasts the EGOT winner as a determined victor over racism and misogyny, with its social-justice message leavened by its subject’s irrepressible spirit.

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Another well-known Bay Area figure thriving into his golden years, albeit far from the showbiz heat lamp, is the pragmatic seeker Stewart Brand. David Alvarado and Jason Susskind’s fascinating and provocative portrait, We Are as Gods, portrays the man behind The Whole Earth Catalog as the bridge between ’60s independent thinking and Internet-age possibilities.

Stewart Brand (foreground, left) is the subject of 'We Are As Gods.'
Stewart Brand (foreground, left) is the subject of 'We Are As Gods.' (Courtesy SFFILM)

For a younger man’s take on futurism, SFFILM gives us Dash Shaw’s color-drenched animated feature Cryptozoo, a violent sex- and profanity-laced eco-fable about erstwhile savior conservationists and evil military contractors crisscrossing the country in a battle over rare cryptids (i.e., unicorn, winged horse, centaur). Acid isn’t necessary for this Garden-of-Eden-gone-wrong film trip, but a chilled glass of chartreuse with a mandarin orange segment might make a good pairing. And you’ll have a drink in hand to toast Shaw, this year’s Persistence of Vision Award recipient, as he joins recent honorees Isaac Julien, Barbara Kopple, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Nathaniel Dorsky and Kim Longinotto.

Another way the festival has tapped in to Generations Y and Z in recent years is by celebrating up-and-coming actors and actresses. Vanessa Kirby, the Academy Award-nominated star of Netflix’s Pieces of a Woman, will receive the Impact Award. While the fest’s batting average at picking future household names hasn’t been great, Kirby is certainly well-positioned for stardom.

A still from 'Seyran Ates: Sex, Revolution & Islam,' playing at SFFILM.
A still from 'Seyran Ates: Sex, Revolution & Islam,' playing at SFFILM. (Courtesy SFFILM)

The Turkish-born, German-based lawyer and imam Seyran Ates doesn’t mind the spotlight, even if she must be protected by bodyguards or police wherever she goes. (Especially at the gender-neutral LGBTQ mosque she founded in Berlin.) The author of Islam Needs a Sexual Revolution lives with a fatwa, and a stream of online abuse, on account of her advocacy for gender equality.

Norwegian director Nefise Özkal Lorentzen’s sisterly profile, Seyran Ates: Sex, Revolution & Islam, gives the impression that its dedicated subject is well-known in Europe. Her profile is about to get a boost in the U.S. thanks to SFFILM’s North American premiere and the cascade of LGBTQ festival screenings to follow. Nonetheless, the soft-spoken Ates isn’t what you’d call a galvanizing personality—that is, a riveting film subject.

Ates is empathetic and effective in small groups and one-on-one, speaking with lesbian Muslims in China or to worshipers at her mosque. A woman of faith and tenacity, Ates is a scholar, a counselor, a rock. But she isn’t a firebrand, so set your expectations accordingly.

A still from 'This is My Desire,' playing at SFFILM.
A still from 'This is My Desire,' playing at SFFILM. (Courtesy SFFILM)

The protagonists of This Is My Desire are also everyday people, indistinguishable from the thousands thronging the streets, alleys and open-air markets of Lagos. A highlight of the festival, the film first follows Mofe (Jude Akuwudike), a mechanic at a printing factory who plans to emigrate to Spain until a family tragedy derails his dream. Further setbacks follow, but the Esiri brothers (who did their film studies in New York) aren’t interested in gritty nihilism and urban degradation but in Mofe’s resilience.

That’s not to say that the filmmakers aren’t attuned to the transactional nature of life. Everyone has a hand out or something to barter. While Mofe uses his ability to repair anything to rebound and rebuild, Rosa (Temi Ami-Williams) has less autonomy. A hairdresser and a bartender with sparkle and smarts, Rosa has her sights set on Italy but a pregnant teenage sister to look after. Like Mofe, she has no margin for error, for unexpected expenses, for fate.

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Refreshingly, the characters in This is My Desire don’t evince an iota of self-pity. They don’t complain. They don’t have the luxury of melodrama. There’s no time to lose. They weigh their options, calculate the costs of compromise, make a decision and go. Happy survival, indeed.