It probably doesn't need to be said that the presence of local filmmakers in this year's edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival (opening tonight) is most pronounced in the documentary section. You should be well aware by now that the Bay Area is one of the world capitals of nonfiction filmmaking; even still, you might be astonished at the number of docs produced here year in and year out. Of this year's output, no fewer than six feature-length documentaries made the SFIFF cut.
It's no surprise that all but one adopt a social-issue (or social justice, if you prefer) orientation, for that's the characteristic that distinguishes Bay Area documentary makers. The lone outlier, Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine's Something Ventured (Get Movie Showtimes), a bouncy history of the Northern California marriage of venture capitalists and technological innovators/entrepreneurs, isn't intent on changing the world so much as saluting a generation of men (and a lone woman) who did.
"Better This World"
The most ambiguous, and therefore most interesting, doc I previewed is Better This World (Get Movie Showtimes), Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway's sobering look at two idealistic young Texans arrested for possessing Molotov cocktails in Minneapolis during the 2008 Republican National Convention. Their defense attorney and the filmmakers contend, more persuasively than do the lads, that the activist who enlisted the defendants -- an FBI informant, it turns out -- pushed and prodded them into actions they would not have otherwise undertaken.
This isn't as clear-cut a case of, ahem, overzealousness as the FBI's nefarious COINTELPRO campaign of infiltrating and sabotaging antiwar groups in the 1960s. Consequently, we (liberals, that is) are denied both self-righteous outrage and cathartic satisfaction. In lieu of a moral lightning rod, we're given a sobering warning: The permanent "war on terror" has invested the DAs and administrators of the Federal justice system with absolute power and shocking hubris. Trespass at your own risk.
"Crime After Crime"
Conversely, Yoav Potash's exposé of California-style justice, Crime After Crime (Get Movie Showtimes) is determined to serve up a sympathetic victim and an oily villain for our red-meat pleasure. Deborah Peagler should have received, at most, a six-year term for manslaughter for her part in the murder of the man who abused her for years and pimped her out. She had already served 20 years when a pair of East Bay attorneys took on her case, inspired by a law that grants new voice and rights to abused women. Los Angeles County DA Steve Cooley (last year's Republican candidate for state attorney general) agreed to a deal, then reneged without cause or justification, callously dooming Peagler to additional prison time.
Peagler is, by definition, a reactive figure, while her lawyers are proactive, so Potash uses the attorneys to propel the narrative. However, he doesn't sufficiently immerse us in their lives (we never see their spouses, for example) to make them memorable characters in their own right. We respond to them as our well-meaning, highly committed surrogates, but that's it. Most viewers won't mind, for the final reels are effectively structured and crafted to move and, yes, infuriate. I expect I'm in the minority, but I would have been just as outraged by a newspaper story.
Both films will assuredly come up in conversation at The Social Justice Documentary, a salon led by S.F. State professor and documentary maven Bill Nichols Monday, April 25 at 8:30pm at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas.
On a lighter note, the often irreverent Something Ventured is a crisply paced, interview-driven, personality-rich chronicle of the rise of Silicon Valley from Fairchild Computer to Genentech, with stops at Intel, Atari, Apple and Cisco Systems. It's not a full-mouth wet kiss, nor does it give free rein to the egomania palpably nibbling at the edges of every frame (no mean feat given all the multi-millionaires on display).
For all its craftsmanship, wit, energy and smarts, Something Ventured has something of the aura of a commissioned film. One gets that impression not from what's onscreen but what's omitted: the ethics and consequences of capitalism, IPOs as the yellow brick road for get-rich-quick types, stock market bubbles, the environmental impact of technology and the social and community responsibilities of big companies. It will be interesting to see how this film plays to general audiences -- as a well-deserved tribute to bright, gutsy visionaries or a representative scrapbook of the American oligarchy -- in the current economic climate.
The other Bay Area docs in the SFIFF, in case you're wondering, are Lynn Hershman's !Women Art Revolution, (Read Jonathan Kiefer's review); Jennifer Newsom Siebel's Miss Representation, which was unavailable for preview; and American Teacher, produced by Dave Eggers and directed by Vanessa Roth.
The San Francisco International Film Festival runs Thursday, April 21 through Thursday, May 5, 2011 at the Sundance Kabuki, Viz and Castro Theaters in San Francisco and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For tickets and information visit fest11.sffs.org.