SF DocFest Moves from Fall to Summer

This year the 12th annual San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, or SF DocFest, moved to a summer slot from its usual festival-packed November home, and was able to stake its umbrella on an uncluttered beach. Of its 38 features and 25 shorts, I saw 18, mostly on DVD screener and not at DocFest's flagship venue Roxie Theatre or
shorter-term satellites scattered across the Bay Area, as far south as Santa Cruz. Here are a dozen standouts.

The vast majority of DocFest's films are American, but the international films stood out
in ways both good and awful. Irish filmmaker Nick Ryan's debut feature, The Summit, less than gracefully cuts between the 2008 disaster that befell climbers descending Pakistan's K2 summit,
in which 11 mountaineers died within 48 hours, and the reminiscences of Walter Bonatti, who climbed K2 in a controversial 1954 bid by Italians. Interviews with surviving climbers, cut alongside re-enactments, expose crevasse-wide differences among the recollections. Attributing the sole Irish climber (and first-ever Irish summiter) Gerard McDonnell's death to heroic efforts to help the stranded only adds another Rashômonesque facet to the events. But the muddled narrative, despite its interruptions, still evokes the mystery and fascination K2 holds for highly competitive climbers.

Another intriguing topic derailed by clumsy execution is Vienna-based German director Timo Novotny's Trains of Thoughts, a contemplative look at the subway systems of Vienna, New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Moscow. One of the strengths of the film is the trippy electronica soundtrack by Soda Surfers, but its great weakness is the on-screen banter of riders that
doesn't lend much insight into the public yet solitary nature of underground transit. Gorgeous footage of the world's great subway systems is squandered on a series of tired voiceover generalizations, most conspicuously about Asian societies. But the film ends magically with Moscow's Soviet-era underground, which mimics a grand palace to glorify Stalin and impress foreigners.

 

From Timo Novotny's Trains of Thoughts

 

Meanwhile, clear linear storytelling only exposes the colossal waste of time that is Fuck for Forest, a Polish-German production by Michal Marczak. This barely watchable film traces the efforts of the eponymous Norwegian neo-hippie nonprofit based in Berlin to help a victimized South American rainforest community. Their fundraising is unorthodox, to put it mildly: The organization charges a membership fee to view sex videos on its website. Because of skepticism by intermediary bodies like the Rainforest Foundation Fund, FFF is forced to deliver money to the communities in person. Here their lack of preparation or the slightest bit of research into the rainforest community's needs becomes glaringly obvious. The only reward of this film is seeing this group of narcissistic clowns get its richly deserved comeuppance.

Of the non-US productions, Las Mujeres del Pasajero (The Women of the Passenger) is the shortest, subtlest and most compelling. As they strip beds, clean bathtubs and
take breaks, we get to know four chambermaids working in what the Japanese would call a "love hotel": rooms rented out on an hourly basis for sex, with food service. But Patricia Correa and Valentina Mac-Pherson's film is set in Santiago, Chile, and the maids are a bit less inhibited in revealing their thoughts as they handle vomit-stained sheets and wipe cocaine dust from the nightstand. We learn in an unsensationalized and disarmingly cheerful way about their own love lives as they speculate about those of their (never seen) "passengers."

 

From Patrica Correa and Valentina MacPherson's Las Mujeres del Pasajero (The Women of the Passenger)

 

A film that, surprisingly for its subject, reveals less about the role of sex in a woman's life is San Francisco-based Simone Jude's Public Sex, Private Lives, at its world premiere at DocFest. In this warmly engaging look at the lives of three women who perform in bondage films, Lorelei Lee reluctantly prepares to testify in support of a filmmaker on trial by the Department of Justice for obscenity for films in which Lorelei has appeared. Bondage film director Princess Donna, still in mourning for her father, is nonplussed when her widowed mother herself expresses an interest in the world of BDSM. And Isis Love, criticized for her decision to be a single mother while working as a porn actress, risks losing her little boy to Child Protective Services for the slightest misstep. In these vignettes sex is less a vital force than a complication in one's hectic nonsexual life.

The price of being a sex icon is lifelong ostracism in Mark Mori's Bettie Page Reveals All, an ultimately melancholy story told in the legendary pinup model's own voice shortly before she died at 85. Behind the images of her joyous, innocent sexuality is a history of abuse, mental illness and government and Christian-fundamentalist harassment. Being a devout Christian was both a solace and a curse for this woman, whose choice of livelihood saddled her with a brief shelf life but
eternal cult notoriety. Despite its amateurish treatment, Bettie Page's glorious portfolio here outshines her darker existence.

This year's DocFest paid tribute to Tom Joslin, who documented his partner Mark Massi's and his own death from AIDS in the eye-opening, award-winning 1993 film Silverlake Life: The View from Here. As part of that retrospective we were treated to a look at Joslin's 1976 Blackstar: Autobiography of a Close Friend, an intimate, early video diary of the couple, dramatizing Joslin's
preoccupation with coming out to his family and their dislike of Mark, and Mark's own questioning of Tom's choices in love and work.

 

From Tom Joslin's Blackstar: Autobiography of a Close Friend

 

Of all the adoption documentaries I've seen—the transnational adoption documentary has become a perennial subgenre in recent years—Bryan Tucker's Closure comes close to being the most moving. Twentysomething African-American Angela was raised from infancy in a loving, middle-class white family in Bellingham, Washington, in a closed adoption-i.e., contact information for the birth parents is sealed by the agency. As a baby Angela was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia, or tight extremities, that would prevent her ever being able to walk-but instead she became an athlete. That same kind of miraculous reversal informs the circumstances under which she locates her long-estranged birth parents and large extended family in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Shot and directed by Angela's Caucasian husband, Tucker, the film explores the mixed-race aspects
of adoption in a warmly sensitive way. A few disturbing details, such as drug addiction and the reason the birth mother's sister is angry at her, are mentioned so briefly that they risk going unnoticed. Perhaps Tucker decided not to weigh this film down with even heavier issues, but it could have supported it.

Three animal-themed docs ranged from the exciting to the unpleasantly weird. Emily Wick's Life with Alex, despite its clumsy production values, tells the fascinating story of Dr. Irene Pepperberg and Alex, the African Grey parrot whose ability to think and communicate with humans was limited only by his death at 31. Amazing footage proves that Alex used concepts like zero and phonemes and actually tutored other birds. Amy Finkel's Furever, on the other hand, is more
about humans who are unable to say goodbye to their pet dogs and cats and spend thousands of dollars preserving their corpses through mummification or taxidermy in lifelike poses. There's a healthier relationship between human and animal in Bill Yahraus' Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart, about Mexican-American female horse ballet teams. These competitive teams of beautifully costumed precision riders are irresistible to watch. But one major flaw of this film is the near-omission of the subject of the horses the women ride. Aside from one rider's worry about
her horse's first trip in a trailer, there's no discussion of the intimacy between horse and rider or the way the horse intuits the thrilling maneuvers we see.

HBO broadcast the final two docs in my report ahead of my deadline, so since they weren't handing out screeners to reviewers I opted to watch them on TV. The British-Russian Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin's engrossing account of Katia, Nadia and Masha, the three young women in colorful balaclavas who were detained for disrupting church services and rudely performing on the altar of Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral in February 2012. Their targeting of Vladimir Putin and his determination to make an example of them has made them international stars, and this film shows what the young women are up against. Surprisingly, despite the harsh treatment meted out to them, we're able to hear their own words to the press as they undergo trial. In perhaps the most frightening scene, members of the ultra-Orthodox Carriers of the Cross translate the group's name as "deranged vaginas" and regret it's not the old days, when they would have been burned as witches. The bearded, longhaired Carriers look so much like Hell's Angels that I paused the program to make sure I didn't see tattoos on them. They and the church, the justice system and Putin himself prove the necessity for dissident art collectives like Pussy Riot, and we hope this isn't the last documentary about Russia's punk activism.

Finally, HBO recently aired perhaps the finest film in this year's SF DocFest: Dawn Porter's Gideon's Army, an exhausting and moving profile of three African-American public defenders who represent the indigent accused in the South. As films like American Violet have shown, poor people are targeted for prosecution and guilty pleas. The idealistic lawyers try to balance college-loan debt, poverty, staggering caseloads, heart-breaking personal histories and even the threat of murder to honor the 1963 Supreme Court decision, named for drifter and thief Clarence Earl Gideon, guaranteeing legal representation for the poorest of suspects.

 

Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film, women's studies and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.