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.