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The 1997 San Francisco International Film Festival

By Jasmine Dellal

Two older women smile while sitting in beach chairs near the ocean, from Heddy Honigmann's 'Amor Natural'.

Happy 40th birthday to the oldest film festival in the Americas.

Documentaries at the 1997 San Francisco International Film Festival (April 24-May 8) were a mixed bag in every way but one: quality. From politics to frivolity and philosophy to sex, there were amazingly few bloopers on the screen. That's not to say that I wasn't disconcerted at times, but only because the genres are blurring to the point that some program notes seemed to be inviting me into a documentary that turned out to be fiction, or vice versa. Robert Flaherty would've been amazed! These days, he'd have the option of screening Nanook of the North as reality-based fiction or dramatically crafted reality.

Gone is the era of either information or entertainment; now they are expected to fit into the same vessel. So, it's no surprise that today's documentaries often eschew objectivity/didacticism and the Voice of God or fly-on-the-wall approach. But they can still seem disarmingly controlled. One instance of this was the magically real Bliss, a beautiful Russian meditation on life in the middle of poverty stricken nowhere: was it hypnotic despite or because of the fact that many people had to wait until the end credits to find out whether they were watching fact or fiction? The flip side of the coin was a host of very effective dramas that used non-professional actors to play themselves in their own environ­ments, living lives that had often been only slightly altered by the director's script. (In the Czech film Marian, institutionalized Gypsies play institutionalized Gypsies. In Pizzicata , south Italian peasants play south Italian peasants; etc.)

San Francisco copes well with the blur because this festival has the virtue of giving documentaries the same showcase and the same hype as other films. The SFIFF fills downtown theaters with a loyal following, beyond the red-eyed regulars, who trust programmers enough to line up for pieces they might not even bother to watch on P.O.V. a couple of months later. And my own (very unscientific) survey suggests that they leave the screening feeling that they made a good choice.

One lady sitting next to me during Colors Straight Up said she'd been expecting a "real film." Instead, she was treated to Michele Ohayon's uplifting docu­mentary about a successful grass­roots program to help troubled kids by training them to work together and eventually perform "Watts Side Story" on stage. Afterwards, the director and some of the film "stars" received a standing ovation before answering audience questions (several of which were about how to start similar acting programs). This tear-jerker is one of those rare films that might actually make a difference, by spreading the word about an effort that works. The lady next to me wasn't at all dismayed not to have seen what she'd expected. What's more, she'd taken two weeks off her travel agency job so that she could catch 50 other films during the festival. Just as impressive is the fact that so many independent films are made at all! This year, there were 192 films on offer, includ­ing classics from past years and 37 documentaries. What with low/no-funding, changing political climate and new production formats, it's a triumph just to complete a film/video, let alone get an audience for it. From first-timers to old hands, almost every filmmaker I spoke to could remember a moment of doubt about reaching "The End."

For Colors Straight Up, Ohayon and her producer spent the first six months being rejected by the Ford Foundation, NEA and other major funders. They began to wonder if they had a movie at all, so they dug into their own pockets and borrowed from friends to shoot for a day and make a promo. That brought in $50,000 from CPB for development, but they also stretched it to cover much of the early production. Continuing like this, and begging for copious in-kind donations, the film's production took 2 1/2 years and post-production was another year ("we decided to cut it like a fiction film and [editor] Edgar Burcksen agreed to work for half his rate"). It took a total of four years to win the battle, but Ohayon says she's so burned out that she'Il never make a film this way again. It received the Golden Spire in the Arts section of the Golden Gate Awards, the non-fiction competition affiliated with this festival.

Wonderland is one of those rare creatures that was complet­ed according to schedule (more or less) by a director who said the process "wasn't at all grueling." In 1995, John O'Hagan went to the New York suburb of Levittown, to research a fiction film for his Master's thesis at NYU. He began by requesting information over the bowling alley intercom. To his surprise, the town's original residents lined up to tell him about their lives: from the allocation of identical houses in alphabetical order, to wife swap­ping, to dog-walking and psychology; and from karaoke to red satin sheets and ice sculpture. O'Hagan realized that these people didn't need fictionalizing—just two years later, his documentary opened at Sundance and then showed to packed houses here. In a style reminiscent of Frederick Wiseman documenting an institution, O'Hagan walks a fine line between observation and mockery. The result is very funny, but it's too easy to say that we're laughing at the eccentricities of Levittowners. In their identical homes, the more we see of their differences the more they seem the same. With their idiosyncrasies, they are just like each other, just like all of us. This is a truly masterful portrayal of human nature. Festivalgoers voted it winner of Entertainment Weekly's Audience Award for Best Documentary.

Another student project that beat out much of the competi­tion was Jesse's Gone, made by Michael Smith while on a shoe­string budget at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. It took more than three years for Smith to produce this moving story of what's left behind after one black man kills another in a drive­ by shooting. After a sold out screening, Smith said he'd always had access to student equipment so his biggest hurdle wasn't production funds, but rent and the inevitable learning curve ("the style developed because when I began, I didn't know how to edit two shots together"). A few days later, Smith received the top local award, a Golden Spire for Bay Area Documentary.

Other Golden Gate Award recipients worth seeing include: The Ad and the Ego, Harold Boihem's searingly fast-paced critique of the ad industry (Golden Spire, Media and Society); Isaac Julien's intellectual and personable profile of Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask (Certificate of Merit, Biography); Green Chimneys, a heart-rending trip to a rural treatment center for inner city kids, directed with sensitive understatement by Constance Marks (Silver Spire, Current Events); and the Oscar nominated uplifting portrait of Mandela by Jo Menell and Angus Gibson (Silver Spire, Biography), which was feted with an introduction by Mayor Willie Brown and the best party of the festival.

This year's Golden Gate Awards competition honored the documentary trend towards personal storytelling with a brand new category: First Person Documentary. These are a very hit­-and-miss affair. Back in January, when I was one of the jurors for this category, we'd had to wade through more than 50 hours of entries, including a slew of uninspired home videos about the maker's pet or pet relative, to find the success stories where filmmakers examine their navels and discover something more inspiring than the grime that usually gathers there. The goodies included a point-of­-view piece from a young Bosnian refugee in Germany, and a Jewish grand-mother in a Miami gated society battling to accept the rising price of bananas and the homosexuality of her beloved grandson. Not all winners screen in the festival. The lucky three from this category all focused on filial relationships:

In Six O'Clock News, Ross McElwee uses his newborn son as motivation to pay a personal visit to unsuspecting subjects of local news broadcasts. The result is a witty video essay debunking the sensationalism and pack mentality of quick-snap journalism. Australian director Rivka Hartman finds very dark humor in a complex portrait of her mother, The Miniskirted Dynamo. This highly polished film somehow extracts laughter from us as it conveys Hartman's recognition of her mother's success as a pioneer (in child-rearing techniques) versus her deep hatred for her mother’s iron hand and other failures as a parent who ended in suicide.

Humor is much more free flowing, self-deprecating and "Jewish" in Nobody's Business, the continuation of Alan Berliner's quest to find the larger meaning of his own family. Berliner's father, Oscar, is such an unwilling subject that his reticence becomes fodder for an on-screen Berliner battle. "I'm just an ordinary guy. My life is nothing," says the stubborn father to the stubborn son. "It proves nothing! The answer is no, zero, no, next question!" But the stubborner son wins. Using creative cinematic devices to mark the passing of time and a lack of change, this poignant portrait ultimately shows that the time that is life cannot amount to nothing, and that the spurious notion of "family" necessarily adds resonance to the life of a relative. What is more, Berliner fils managed to enhance the meaning of his father's life with this film. His father first saw Nobody's Business in New York with an audience of 1,100 people who, to his great sur­prise, gave him a standing ovation. Alan Berliner is proud to report that his father later confessed it had been the happiest night of his life. Now he enjoys status as a mini-star at his local senior center.

Berliner, the filmmaker, prides himself on being stubborn. Even after two successful family-based films, Family Album (1987) and Intimate Stranger (1992), he says it was difficult to fund this project because a film about a father who did nothing is not a sexy sell . Fundraising began in 1993 and he was rejected for two years running by The Independent Television Service. Third time lucky: in l995 ITVS gave him full backing. The dollars came with a one-year deadline which Berliner stuck to, "because it was so emotionally arduous to confront my father every day, that I was desperate to get out of the editing room."

Moving away from the first person, but sticking with humor, O Amor Natural is a hilarious summer sex comedy of the least expected kind. Director Heddy Honigmann turns the deceptively simple notion of a book review into an intimate portrait of Brazil, a poet and the relationship between men and women. After the death of poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade, who is a household name in Brazil, his unknown erotica is published in a posthumous volume (from which this film takes its name). Honigmann's genius may lie in her conceptual decision to convey poetry without any dissolves, fades, slo-mo's or classic imagination devices. Instead, she lugs the book around and asks strangers in bars, marketplaces, a racetrack and their backyards to read poems-about orgasms, vulva, the member, the ass ("Who cares what's on the other side?"). And perhaps what catches the audience off guard is that most of Honigmann's interviewees are well into their 70's and totally unabashed about discussing the carnality of what one would assume are their most intimate moments. One elderly woman, sensing that the young filmmaker is embarrassed by such frank enjoyment of an explicitly sexual poem, says, "We're old. We're not dead." Jean Rouch would be well supported in his theory about the camera enabling people to reveal what would otherwise be avoided.

In Paperheads, interviewees reveal their world almost despite themselves. Profound insight is provided by the skillful juxtaposition of elements by Slovak director Dusan Hanak. After 25 years of making films that were banned before being seen, Hanak dedicated four years to this unique history of Czech communism. With a full dose of irony, Paperheads conveys the absurd poetry of people coping under a regime that has robbed them of freedom. Power and the citizen confront each other head­ on in an intricately woven collage of: pristine archival images, propaganda films, modern testimonies (culled from 360 inter­views) and paper mache May Day parade masks that dance through labor camp ruins in grotesque parody of communist politicians only recently ousted. Hanak combines these motifs with precise timing and a post-modern editing style reminiscent of David Lynch's surrealist moments. He says that he was always trying to inject some documentary facts into his fiction, and in this documentary he tried to use a little fiction in such a way that the viewer is not aware of it.

This was one of the festival's most complex and rewarding documentaries, but in the face of such obvious barriers to life, let alone production, it seems absurd to ask about the filmmaking process. l needn't have worried. "At the risk of sounding cliched," Hanak replies, "there were great problems facing filmmakers before 1989; and with the new system there are also big problems: mainly money, because we are no longer state funded."

However different the styles, subjects, formats and homeland of filmmakers nowadays, many of them face the same practical problems. I think all indies might agree that Robert Flaherty's times gave him one huge advantage: guaranteed funding!

JASMINE DELLAL is an independent filmmaker currently in post-production on a documentary about American Rom (Gypsies).