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Five Extremely Bay Area Things to See at the 2023 SFFILM Festival

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The 66th San Francisco International Film Festival is back for a fully in-person celebration of cinema, with 96 public programs spread across theaters in San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley, April 13–23. While there’s plenty to be excited about — numerous world premieres, a free screening of Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret (RSVPs required!), playwright Celine Song’s lovely looking Past Lives — we’re most proud of the strong Bay Area showing.

We’ve got feature films from local filmmakers, documentaries about our musical and political legends and the first four episodes of what’s sure to be the weirdest show on Amazon. Here’s your guide to five extremely Bay Area screenings to seek out when festival tickets go on sale to the general public this Friday, March 24 at 10 a.m.

Young Black man with short hair against blurry background
Young Stephen Curry in a still from Pete Nicks’ ‘Stephen Curry: Underrated.’ (Courtesy of SFFILM)

Stephen Curry: Underrated

April 13, 6:30 p.m. at Grand Lake Theater
April 13, 9:30 p.m. at Grand Lake Theater

It’s no surprise Pete Nicks’ latest documentary is this year’s opening night film. After focusing on a trio of Oakland institutions with The Waiting Room (Highland Hospital), The Force (the Oakland Police Department), and Homeroom (Oakland High School), he’s turned his lens on another kind of local icon: Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry. The film mingles the 2021–22 season (when Curry led the team to his fourth ring) with footage from his early days at Davidson College, along with off-court footage of everyday life for a routinely dismissed yet consistently impressive basketball superstar. Nicks and producer Ryan Coogler will be present at both screenings, and depending on how the rest of this rocky season goes, we may hope there are no Warriors in attendance.

Black-and-white photo of woman in striped shirt playing guitar in front of mic
A still from Miri Navasky, Maeve O’Boyle and Karen O’Connor’s ‘Joan Baez I Am A Noise.’ (Courtesy of SFFILM)

Joan Baez I Am a Noise

April 18, 5 p.m. at Castro Theatre

Joan Baez is an internationally acclaimed singer, songwriter and activist, but the Palo Alto High grad has always meant something special to the Bay. This documentary from directors Miri Navasky, Karen O’Connor and Maeve O’Boyle combines music, oral history and archival footage for a non-linear approach to the folk singer’s multi-faceted career. Interspersed with scenes from Baez’s 2018-2019 Fare Thee Well Tour is a narrative that traces her rise to stardom in her early 20s, collaborations with Bob Dylan and other formative relationships, and her prolific activism, beginning with anti-Vietnam War protests and carrying through to the fight for LGBTQ rights and the Occupy movement. Here, too, are more intimate, complex stories about her nuclear family, of which Baez is the last living member. The singer and longtime Woodside resident is expected to be in attendance alongside the film’s directors.

Black-and-white photo of two men and one Asian woman in front of blackboard covered in names
A still from Rooth Tang’s ‘Rally.’ (Courtesy of SFFILM)

Rally

April 21, 5:30 p.m. at CGV 3, San Francisco
April 23, 12 p.m. at BAMPFA

It’s high time for a Rose Pak documentary, especially given the divisive reputation of the late powerbroker — she preferred the title of “community organizer” — in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Director Rooth Tang covers Pak’s early days as an immigrant, San Francisco Chronicle journalist and activist before she assumed the role of “atypical kingmaker” and fierce advocate for the local Chinese communities. With that role came questions of her ties to the Chinese government, as well as accusations of corruption and bullying. Her impact on the local landscape (look no further than the finally open Central Subway, one of her causes) is part of a complex and necessary story about the inner workings of San Francisco politics.

Grid of nine stills of families on couches and at tables
Stills from W. Kamau Bell’s ‘1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed.’ (Courtesy of SFFILM)

1000% Me: Growing Up Mixed

April 22, 12 p.m. at BAMPFA

W. Kamau Bell brings a very personal story to the screen in this hourlong documentary. Starting with his own kids, Bell talks to Bay Area children growing up in mixed-race families, giving young people a chance to lead their own conversations about race. Billed as “tender,” “charming” and “timely,” 1000% Me does a rare thing at a moment when the entire country seems focused on the well-being of children: it lets them speak for themselves about the highs and lows of dealing with the outside forces that seek to define them. As a bonus, the film will be paired with two family-minded shorts: Creating Things, about filmmaker Bryan Simpson and his brother revisiting their father’s art; and Southern Afternoon, Tian Lan’s short drama about a Uyghur father who suspects his teenager has received a love letter, but first needs to decipher the Chinese characters.

A giant Black man with locs sits on front steps in purple outfit
A still from Boots Riley’s television show ‘I’m a Virgo.’ (Courtesy of SFFILM)

I’m a Virgo

April 23, 6 p.m. at CGV 3, San Francisco
April 23, 7:30 p.m. at CGV 2, San Francisco

When Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You had its California premiere as the SFFILM Festival’s 2018 centerpiece, one theater wasn’t big enough to contain the hometown enthusiasm: the film screened to boisterous, sold-out crowds on both sides of the Bay, at the Castro and Grand Lake theaters, on the same night.

I’m a Virgo, the Coup frontman-and-activist-turned-filmmaker’s first foray into streaming television, promises to be even bigger. It centers around a 13-foot-tall man named Cootie (Emmy winner Jharrel Jerome, When They See Us) who’s coming of age in Oakland, making friends and enemies, and learning about romance, revolution and sideshow stunts along the way. The series, which was shot in Oakland and New Orleans (dressed up as Oakland), garnered serious buzz at South By Southwest, but an SFFILM closing-night premiere is special in a different way — Riley has a long relationship with the organization, and was an SFFILM Filmmaker-In-Residence when he began developing his debut. He’ll be in attendance for a Q&A.

Young Black woman lays on hood of car leaning against windshield
A still from Savanah Leaf’s ‘Earth Mama,’ starring Tia Nomore. (Courtesy of SFFILM)

Briefly Noted

Earth Mama
April 14, 8 p.m. at BAMPFA
April 15, 6 p.m. at CGV 3

Directed by newcomer (and former Olympian) Savanah Leaf, this feature stars local musician Tia Nomore as a single mother in Oakland navigating the foster care system as she prepares for the birth of another child.

Mel Novikoff Award: Firelight Media and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution
April 15, 3:15 p.m. at CGV 2
This screening of Stanley Nelson’s incredible 2015 doc helps celebrate Firelight Media, founded by Nelson and Marcia Smith in 1998, which backs filmmakers of color through labs, fellowships and film funds.

Fremont
April 22, 3 p.m. at CGV 2
April 23, 3 p.m. at BAMPFA

Filmed in lush black and white, Babak Jalali’s narrative film centers on a former U.S. military translator who now lives in the title city’s Afghan community, writing fortune cookies and adjusting to life in the American suburbs.

Home is a Hotel
April 22, 12:45 p.m. at CGV 3
This documentary from Kevin Duncan Wong, Tod Sills and Kar Yin Tham visits the diverse residents of San Francisco’s cramped, noisy and often vermin-filled SROs. Not unhoused but not well-housed, the film’s participants show just how complicated the city’s housing situation really is.

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