The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival closed with the upbeat documentary Don't Stop Believin': Everyman's Journey, the real-life Cinderella story of a one-time homeless Manila orphan who becomes the new lead singer for the rock group Journey. Ramona S. Diaz's joyful and life-affirming film was a tonic after a devastating year for the festival. In August, Executive Director Graham Leggat died of cancer. In January, his successor, former studio executive, exhibitor and distributor Bingham Ray, suffered a fatal stroke after less than three months on the job. In spite of the tragedies, this year's festival was as eclectic as ever, with a strong slate of international documentaries that focused on issues, vibrant personalities and a strong sense of place.
All those elements combined in Harlan County, USA, Barbara Kopple's 1976 doc about striking coal miners in Kentucky, a film that still moves and inspires. Kopple received the festival's Persistence of Vision Award, previously bestowed on documentarians such as Lourdes Portillo, Errol Morris and Jon Else. The Golden Gate Award for Documentary Feature went to a film that explores a very specific place and finds its essence. Gonçalo Tocha's It's the Earth, Not the Moon is a look at life on a small, isolated Portuguese island over a period of several years. Tocha's goal was "to try to be everywhere at the same time," and the film is contemplative and hypnotic.
¡Vivan las Antipodasǃ is a quirkier exploration of place. Director Victor Kossakovsky elegantly answers every child's query, Where would you end up if you drilled all the way through the earth? The answer usually is, In the middle of the ocean, but dry land opposites do exist. They're called antipodes, and the film looks at four of them. It begins in the remote village of Entre Dos Rios, Argentina, where two brothers make a desultory living collecting fares from drivers crossing a tiny bridge. Then the camera literally turns upside down to show its antipode, bustling Shanghai. Antipodes in Russia and Patagonia, Hawaii and Botswana, and New Zealand and Spain have contrasts and surprising connections. The film is beautifully photographed, richly atmospheric and visually witty. Leaving the theater, one filmgoer said it was "like a religious experience."
The place in Paul Lacoste's Step Up to the Plate (Entre les Bras) is Michel Bras' eponymous, Michelin-starred restaurant in the village of Laguiole, in the Aubrac mountains of France. The film begins with Bras constructing his signature dish, a composed salad with dozens of ingredients, all of them native to the region. His meticulous attention to detail is immediately evident. Bras is handing over more responsibility to his son Sébastien, and the film follows them over the course of year, as the son struggles to prove himself and find his own way, and the father reluctantly lets go. Lacoste not only documents the transition, he also observes the region, the seasons, and how both inspire the food.
In Mamelodi, one of the poorest townships of Pretoria, South Africa, even the poor are hoping to reap the benefits of the 2010 World Cup being held in their country. Meanwhile in Mamelodi looks at the lives of one family there. Steven Mtsweni, who runs a ramshackle convenience store in Mamelodi, wants a better life for his family. Adolescent daughter Moskito plays soccer, and gets to attend one of the World Cup games. Director Benjamin Kahlmeyer met the Mtswenis while making a film about kids playing soccer in the township, and eventually gained their trust. The result is a candid and hopeful film that captures the excitement and energy surrounding the games, and the effect on the daily lives of Mamelodi's residents.
The winner of the Golden Gate Award for Bay Area Documentary, The Waiting Room, has a narrower focus--the place is the waiting room at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Director Peter Nicks made the film after hearing stories from his wife, who works at the hospital. Highland is a county-run facility that serves as the major trauma center for the area, and provides care for most of the county's uninsured patients. That dual mission is at the heart of the dilemma for the medical staff, torn between the urgent needs of emergency patients, and the long waits for care of the uninsured. In verité style, the film follows a variety of patients, from a young girl with strep throat, to a man with possible testicular cancer whose surgery was cancelled at another hospital because he lacked health insurance, to a carpet layer who can't work because of bone spurs. What emerges is a compelling real-life drama that puts faces on the contentious issue of health care.
Other issues-oriented films included Last Call at the Oasis, directed by Oscar winner Jessica Yu, a well-researched look at the vanishing supply of clean water worldwide. The film is dense with facts, building layer upon layer to make its case effectively. Israeli filmmaker Ra'Anan Alexandrowicz also builds an effective case in The Law in These Parts, denouncing the unequal Israeli justice system for Palestinians in the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Alexandrowicz constructs his case methodically, in a series of interviews with judges and prosecutors that are conducted like legal cross-examinations, and are devastatingly effective.
Several issue-oriented films packed an emotional wallop. Kirby Dick's The Invisible War, an exposé of widespread, unpunished rape suffered by women in the military, drew tears from the audience as the women told their stories, and gasps of disbelief at the conclusion. There were also tears during In My Mother's Arms, a poignant look at a private orphanage in Baghdad. Brothers Atia and Mohamed Jabarah Al-Daradji follow the founder, Husham Al-Dhbe, as he begs for funds, wrangles with bureaucrats, and tries to tend to the needs of his 32 traumatized wards. In a moment of inspiration, unable to afford therapists for the boys, he recruits the director of a children's theater troupe to work with them. But even as the children begin to open up, another crisis threatens their fragile haven.
There was laughter as well as tears watching Ethel, a loving tribute to the widow of Robert Kennedy from her filmmaker daughter, Rory, who interviewed not only her mother, but also her surviving siblings. "All of this introspection, I hate it!" the famously non-intellectual Ethel complains. But she reveals more of herself than she thinks, and displays the humor, strength and deep religious faith that sustained her through unimaginable tragedies.
Strong women were well represented in this year's festival documentaries. Matthew Akers' Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present follows performance artist Abramović as she prepares for a career retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art. How viewers feel about the film probably reflects how they feel about the artist and her work. As a MOMA curator wryly notes in the film, "Marina is never not performing."
Vogue editor and fashion curator Diana Vreeland was also constantly "on," and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, produced and co-directed by her granddaughter-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland, celebrates her singular style. "She had a mythlike sense of her life," the director says, describing Vreeland's stories as "faction," a combination of fact and fiction. Not that it matters. When Vreeland claims to have seen Lindbergh flying overhead, when she describes Buffalo Bill, whom she also claims to have to known, as "languid, plunging, wonderful!" or lets fly with quotes such as "I'm as practical as Bloomingdale's," the viewer can't help but laugh in delight. Vreeland had, to use one of her favorite words, "pizzazz."
Margarita Landazuri works in TV news in San Francisco and writes for the Turner Classic Movies website and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.