Editor's note: Our tag-team take on the SFIFF begins today with Michael Fox's post and Jonathan Kiefer's comment (supplemented, hopefully, by your comments), with Kiefer posting and Fox commenting tomorrow. Both critics will return with an additional post next week at the festival midpoint. In addition, you can follow them on Twitter throughout the festival.
For a good many years, the S.F. International Film Festival displayed what might be called casual indifference to the output of local filmmakers. Whatever Bay Area work was shown -- the occasional documentary and a goodly number of experimental shorts -- typically emerged from the Golden Gate Awards competition; darned few local films were specifically invited and programmed. It was a source of no little frustration and bitterness in the film community, I can tell you.
The outlook brightened considerably in recent years with the SFIFF's introduction of a "Cinema By The Bay" sidebar, and this year's program fairly brims with feature-length local work. A watchful observer may guess that the SFIFF was embarrassed in recent years by the Mill Valley Film Festival's enthusiastic, void-filling embrace of Bay Area filmmakers (notably Rob Nilsson). Said observer might also factor in that the S.F. Film Society (the fest's parent organization) assumed several of the functions and dozens of the members of the Film Arts Foundation (of blessed memory) since the last SFIFF. The SF Film Society, naturally, wants to serve that constituency more prominently through the festival (and, not incidentally, keep those renewal memberships rolling in).
The most visible indicator of the festival's focus on Bay Area filmmakers is the opening night selection, Peter Bratt's La Mission. Set and shot in the Mission District, the film (which premiered at Sundance but wasn't previewed for critics here) follows the struggle of a macho father (Benjamin Bratt) to deal with the realization that his son is gay. The real find among the local work, however, is My Suicide, David Lee Miller's relentless, visual-idea-crammed look at the malaise -- nay, epidemic -- of high-school nihilism and image overload in the upper-crust suburbs.
An equally introspective but decidedly slower pace drives Everything Strange and New (another Sundance entry), Frazer Bradshaw's haunting street-level, Oakland-set portrait of a married father of two going through either a late identity crisis or an early midlife crisis. Marin director Jonathan Parker trekked to New York to shoot (untitled), a satiric but less-than-involving look at art, ambition and commerce that stars the vibrant Marley Shelton as a shrewd gallery owner and the profoundly limited Adam Goldberg as a resentful new-music composer.
A certified highlight on the Bay Area documentary side is Al Más Allá, Lourdes Portillo's delicious tongue-in-cheek exposé of the hubris, ego and cluelessness of (some) documentary makers. The 43-minute hoot screens as part of the Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award presentation to the veteran director of such works as Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo and Senorita Extraviada. Christopher Felver's eagerly anticipated Ferlinghetti wasn't available for preview, but we can tell you that it opens May 1 at the Roxie following its world premiere (and three screenings) at the festival.
We'll also recommend, sight unseen, the latest work by some key members of the internationally renowned Bay Area doc community. Allie Light and Irving Saraf's intimate Empress Hotel ventures into the Tenderloin to profile the until-recently-homeless tenants at a residential hotel. Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider's eye- and ear-opening Speaking In Tongues spotlights multilingual teaching programs in S.F. schools, pointing the way toward the next stage in the U.S.'s immigration-assimilation tradition. Another facet of 21st-century America is exposed in Jennifer Maytorena Taylor's New Muslim Cool, which follows native Puerto Rican and Muslim convert Hamza Pérez on his new path as a hip-hop artist and activist. Finally, first-time Berkeley filmmaker Yun Suh supplies the obligatory sample of transnational political consciousness with City of Borders, which probes for rays of light in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli feud at Jerusalem's sole gay bar.
On the non-local films that I have seen, all but one of which will open theatrically in the weeks after the festival, the overtly disturbing Z32 is not to be missed. Z32 considers an Israeli revenge mission through a freighted conversation between a young soldier and his girlfriend. Director Avi Mograbi, who intersperses his film with semi-surreal musical interludes, is expected to attend, and his post-show Q&As should be unusually pointed. In Modern Life, longtime French photographer and doc maker Raymond Depardon revisits -- no doubt for the last time -- a handful of (mostly older) farmers he's known and shot for years. Depardon is interested in individuals, not social issues, and takes a meditative approach in lieu of a taut narrative, litany of injustices and indignant POV.
The Gallic domestic drama Summer Hours contemplates the changing of the old guard and the role of culture and memory in contemporary civilization, but I can name two dozen French directors who would have brought more pathos, insight and emotion to the material than the oddly detached Olivier Assayas. The deadpan Argentine slacker farce The Paranoids is remarkable solely for Daniel Hendler's nuanced hangdog performance, the only thing holding the viewer's interest as the minutes go by. British TV-satire veteran Armando Iannucci serves up a heaping helping of good, nasty fun with In the Loop, which uses a callow cabinet minister as the entry point to the backstage machinations on both sides of the pond accompanying the run-up to a war very much like the one in Iraq. And Duncan Jones (David Bowie's son) takes the claustrophobic-astronaut flick for a clever and largely satisfying spin in Moon, abetted by a curiously adept performance by Sam Rockwell.
The San Francisco International Film Festival runs Thursday, April 23 through Thursday, May 7, 2009 at the Castro Theatre, Sundance Kabuki Cinemas and Clay Theatre in San Francisco, and the Pacific Film Archive Theatre in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit sffs.org.