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Now Playing! SF DocFest’s Gallery of Everyday Portraits

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Sly Stone in a still from Questlove's new film 'Summer of Soul.'  (Courtesy of Mass Distraction Media)

Thomas Carlyle, one of the 19th century’s deep thinkers, explained the history of the world as the legacy of “great men”—heroes and leaders. A 20th century innovation, documentary filmmaking, proffered its own version of the “great man theory” through its pervasive, influential offshoot: educational films.

Our schools have evolved beyond the view that Christopher Columbus and Abraham Lincoln spun the globe on its axis, and Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison switched on human progress. Likewise, nonfiction filmmakers have discovered that the world is full of impactful, fascinating people whose names will never make it into history books.

Famous people needn’t fret: Netflix is here to produce a movie about every platinum-selling pop chanteuse and steely tech entrepreneur of this century. However, SF DocFest (which begins today and runs through June 20 online and at the Roxie), has specialized in portraits of everyday heroes, out-of-the-mainstream artists and eccentric legends in their own minds since its launch 20 years ago. If there’s a more colorful festival on the Bay Area film calendar, I can’t think of it.

Take Anton: Circling Home, Dennis Mohr, Morgan Schmidt-Feng and Katy Swailes’s scintillating TV-hour profile of 80-something Dutch émigré, artist and East Village pigeon-keeper Anton van Dalen. A vital, candid compendium of action, wisdom and regrets, the film reminds us that immigrants and artists are the lifeblood of cities, as well as the foundation that gentrification is built atop.

Closer to home, Debra A. Wilson’s The Lucky Ones opens a window into the life of a devoted Oakland married couple diagnosed with schizophrenia. This endearing 25-minute slice of lives conveys Timothy and Alexander’s ability to navigate daily life—even when confronted with a bedbug invasion that would test anyone’s equilibrium.


Nick Lyell’s False Alarm revisits the imminent incoming missile warning blasted to cellphones in Hawaii one otherwise calm Saturday morning in January 2018 through the life-altering memories of ordinary people. The talking heads articulate the visceral terror of the moment as well as the deep-dish existential questions about instant annihilation, botched leadership (great men!) and permanent war they didn’t anticipate would hijack their plans for the weekend and beyond.

This year’s DocFest Vanguard Award recipient, Keith Maitland (director of 2016’s Tower), presents his wrenching chronicle of the intersection of the rich and the non-famous, Dear Mr. Brody. Shortly after Michael Brody, Jr., turned 21 in 1969, the oleomargarine heir announced he was giving away his fortune. The letters inspired by that declaration, and Brody’s bizarre behavior, fuel the narrative.

There are a few big(ger) names to be found in the DocFest program, like the chart-topping musicians who played the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival and pepper Questlove’s found-footage opus and DocFest opener Summer of Soul (. . . Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised). Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers, another Sundance triumph and DocFest’s Centerpiece film, takes us deep into the imaginative world of L.A. brothers Russell and Ron Mael.

But the heart and soul—the tofu and potatoes, if you will—of DocFest are the everyday people whose curious pursuits and improbable stories have become the stuff of movies. This suggests an existential question: Once you are the subject of a film, are you no longer “ordinary”?

Correction: This story originally misidentified the director of The Lucky Ones as Henry Maudlin. Maudlin is the producer; Debra A. Wilson is the director. 

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