Sometime in the early '90s, the programmers at the S.F. International Film Festival had a eureka moment. They recognized the educated Bay Area population's hunger for frank, up-close dispatches from other countries, and assiduously tapped into it. No doubt this demand for documentaries from abroad had something to do with cable news' shift from behind-the-scenes reporting to surface-level infotainment; whatever the cause, the SFIFF smartly answered the call. Fast forward to the present: U.S. television news has deteriorated even further, and the festival's lineup of international documentaries has become arguably the most consistently popular section of the program.
A trio of films from Iraq, South Africa and Israel illustrates both the reach and the sociopolitical philosophy of the SFIFF, which begins Thursday, April 19 and continues through May 3 in San Francisco and Berkeley. The valuable yet frustrating verité doc In My Mother's Arms, by the Iraqi brothers Atia and Mohamed Jabarah al-Daradji, reminds us that life goes on even if Baghdad has fallen off the radar of U.S. news directors and citizens.
The focus is a no-frills orphanage independently operated on a permanent shoestring by a good-looking, chain-smoking fellow named Husham. A heroic iconoclast waging a perpetual uphill battle, Husham is more devoted to the 30-plus boys under his care than he is to his wife and children. While we can't help but admire his unwavering commitment and good intentions, it becomes increasingly clear that the lack of resources and professional staff limits the extent of his help to shelter, food and tough love.
That's far from insignificant, of course, but what the children crave -- especially the two whom the filmmakers highlight, a talented teenage high-diver and a relentlessly bullied younger boy -- is a therapeutic framework for dealing with their loss, grief, self-identity and self-worth. A record of a tiny sliver of postwar nation-building, In My Mother's Arms (screening Thurs., April 26 and Sun., April 29 at the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas in San Francisco and Wed., May 2 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley) offers little sense of progress and no resolution. And yet, somehow, we come away with a smidgen of hope for Iraq, whether it's justified or not.
The individual consequences of immense forces is also the underlying theme of Benjamin Kahlmeyer's patient and generous portrait of a Pretoria family, Meanwhile in Mamelodi. The German director journeyed to South Africa in 2010 with the aim of depicting the lives of people whom the hordes of tourists -- as well as the international TV crews and journalists -- attending and covering the World Cup matches would never see or meet. (Hence the "meanwhile" of the title.) Fortunately, Kahlmeyer eschews heavy-handed global messages in favor of a character-oriented approach that satisfyingly insinuates us into his subject's lives.
The Mtsweni family lives in Third World conditions, but they aren't blighted by poverty. The hardworking father owns a store and makes a decent living selling drinks and cigarettes (one or two at a time, never a whole pack). His teenage daughter is a talented soccer player but has begun to figure out that neither sports nor young motherhood will provide the life she wants. Through interviews and voice-over, we are given access to the father's goals and dreams for his children; the filmmaker's observant camera, meanwhile, conveys both the difficulties and satisfactions of everyday life.
Unforced yet beautifully paced, Meanwhile in Mamelodi (playing Monday, April 30 and Wednesday, May 2 in San Francisco and Thursday, May 3 in Berkeley) never drops the focus from its everyday, workaday protagonists. It's a humanistic point of view that some would say is the essence of political filmmaking. You'll get no argument from me.
The damning Israeli film The Law in These Parts (screening Wed., Apr. 25 in Berkeley and Sun., April 29 and Tues., May 1 in San Francisco) is the most explicitly political, and carefully conceptualized, of the three films. Seeking a fresh way to speak about the occupation of the territories, and the gradual, insidious damage it's wreaked on his country's morality and soul, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz (The Inner Tour) dredges up the historical record to force a collision between the dry abstractions of legal decisions and on-the-ground reality.
The filmmaker asks a number of retired military lawyers and judges, and even a former Supreme Court justice, to revisit rulings they made and consider, if they'd be so kind, the pressures they faced, the compromises they embraced and the consequences of their decisions. A precise, unyielding interviewer, Alexandrowicz is after nothing less than their acknowledgement that, one step at a time over 40 years, the Israeli military justice system codified and thus condoned the systematic denial of the Palestinians' rights.
The Law in These Parts -- an inspired title that invokes the "peacemaker" (i.e., gun-enforced) justice of old-school American Westerns and applies it to government sanctioned, court-ordered, by-the-book crimes -- never loses sight of who the real victims are in this ongoing debacle. A few lawyers, or peace activists, may lose sleep; the Palestinians lose much, much more. The empathy we feel watching In My Mother's Arms and Meanwhile in Mamelodi is supplanted midway through The Law in These Parts by a rising fury. Come to think of it, that's the prevailing emotion I experience during the evening news.
The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival runs Thursday, April 19-Thursday, May 3, 2012 at the Sundance Kabuki, Film Society Cinema and Castro Theaters in San Francisco and the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. For more information, visit festival.sffs.org.