Every attendee of a major league-sized film festival has a distinct experience, because each gets a different, limited grip on the elephant. (The exceptions are those obsessive, privileged souls with the time, stamina and money to see two or three dozen movies in 15 days. Envy them.) That said, my preview of a host of San Francisco International Film Festival selections suggests an exceptionally challenging and rewarding lineup. Don't read "challenging" as "artsy and inaccessible," but rather as a signal that the programming honchos haven't shied away from the brutal realities, uncertain futures and tough questions ricocheting and echoing around the globe.
Such heavy thoughts are tabled on opening night, when the sponsors and glitterati are plied with drinks and a feel-good movie. Micmacs, the latest assemblage of mismatched Gallic bric-a-brac from Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie), involves a gang of cheerful outcasts who orchestrate a war between two rival armaments manufacturers. The absurd machinations and permutations generate no emotional impact, partly because the plot's set-up is absurdly, unnecessarily convoluted and partly because none of the characters (or actors) make much of an impression. The movie does evoke, to its detriment, fond memories of Mad magazine's Spy vs. Spy. Micmacs opens theatrically June 11.
"Soul Kitchen" by Fatih Akin
The movies of border-hopping, culture-melding German director Fatih Akin (Head On, The Edge of Heaven) boast the best soundtracks of any filmmaker working today. (Yes, I'm familiar with Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme.) Soul Kitchen provides further evidence of Akin's exceptional ear, with a rockin' mix tape anchoring a rambunctious, rowdy tale. Set in and around a roadside restaurant in Akin's native Hamburg, the movie juggles slacker drama and social farce to largely entertaining effect, but overstays its welcome by a good 10 minutes' worth of shenanigans. The film, which received a special jury prize at Venice last fall, is also scheduled to open after the festival.
"Russian Lessons" by Konskaya and Nekrasov
On the documentary side, it's difficult to imagine a gutsier, more determined example of investigative journalism than Olga Konskaya and Andrei Nekrasov's harrowing Russian Lessons. When war broke out between Russia and Georgia in 2008, the St. Petersburg duo trekked to the scene to record what was really happening (as opposed to what Vladimir Putin told the world). Their images from the front lines are raw and shocking, and essential. The filmmakers subsequently return to their offices and, watching Russian authorities revise history before their eyes on television, compile visual evidence to debunk the lies. Russian Lessons is invaluable for obvious reasons, but an American viewer watches and yearns for even one journalist with Konskaya and Nekrasov's courage and integrity.
"14-18" by Jean-Francois Dellasus
Russian Lessons grabs us with its handheld urgency, but it's a challenge to viscerally depict distant history rendered in black-and-white archival footage. In 14-18: The Noise and the Fury, Jean-Francois Dellasus adds color tinting and a wry, acerbic (and fictional) narrator to make World War I relevant to the YouTube generation. It may well be an effective approach for younger moviegoers (and television viewers -- it was made for French TV), but personally, I have no problem connecting with B&W images. To the contrary, I feel their weight as artifacts, and respond to their grit and poignancy. I encourage you to check out 14-18 and examine your own response.
Speaking of real wars reshaped and reimagined for the screen, Lebanon delivers in spades for those hankering for another stomach-churning war movie -- or rather, war-is-pointless movie -- since The Hurt Locker. Set entirely in a dank, smelly tank on the first day of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, director Samuel Maoz's debut feature (winner of the Golden Lion at Venice) is a semi-autobiographical, ultra-intense portrait of untrained, inexperienced and ill-equipped soldiers sent out into the world with massive firepower. Like Beaufort and Waltz With Bashir, the previous Israeli films about the war, Lebanon exposes the country's absentee leadership as distant, disembodied voices on the radio. Maoz is slated to attend the festival, in anticipation of the film's August theatrical release.
Skipping across the border to a different neighboring country, Arab-Canadian filmmaker Ruba Nadda delivers a dud with Cairo Time, the slight, languid tale of an American woman -- a UN diplomat's wife -- at loose ends in the capital. Both the passive central character and Patricia Clarkson's performance evaporate off the screen before our eyes, leaving nothing but ephemeral snapshots of Cairo. The film aims to be evocative but is fatally underwritten; even as a travelogue, it's barely worth the time. But the director and star are scheduled to be on hand for the fest screenings; Cairo Time also has a date with theaters later this year.
"Utopia in Four Movements" by Sam Green
Ace local documentary maker Sam Green (The Weather Underground) has been attracted for a long time to expressions of idealism. (If Obama's Presidential campaign comes to mind, you need to think bigger, and smaller.) Esperanto, a time capsule buried in 1939, an enormous (and failed) shopping mall in an out-of-the-way Chinese city -- these endeavors reflect the human yearning for connection, community, peace and immortality. Green hosts and narrates Utopia in Four Movements in person with live musical accompaniment from sound artists Dave Cerf and the Quavers (from Brooklyn), infusing the normally passive filmgoing experience with a welcome and profoundly amusing immediacy.
On my way out the door to catch yet another movie, let me leave you with a few more recommendations: The dreamy, autobiographical reenacted documentary Port of Memory from Palestine; the marvelous and mysterious Iranian parable The White Meadows; the quirky American-artist portrait Marwencol (U.S.) and the righteously indignant documentary Presumed Guilty from Mexico. Pick any one, or pick another film altogether. But by all means experience the festival.
The San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 22 through May 6, 2010, at the Castro Theatre, Clay Theare and Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit sffs.org or call (925) 866-9559.