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Controversy and Politics: It Wouldn't Be the San Francisco International Film Festival without Them

By Margarita Landazuri

From 'Boxers and Ballerinas.' Courtesy of San Francisco International Film Festival

Documentaries were front and center at the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival, which ran from April 21 to May 5, and included 35 documentary features, an award to BBC documentarian Adam Curtis, two films from French filmmaker and photojournalist Raymond Depardon and the latest from Rivers and Tides (2002) director Thomas Riedelsheimer.

Curtis received the festival's Persistence of Vision Award, which honors lifetime achievement in documentaries and short films. The premise of his latest three-part BBC series, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear (2004), is, according to Curtis, that "much of the reporting of the war on terror has been simplified and distorted" by journalists and politicians. The series details the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1940s and '50s, led by Egyptian theorist Sayyid Qutb, whose ideas fueled the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks. A parallel story examines the growth of the neo-conservative movement in US politics.

But Curtis adamantly refuses to be categorized as a "political" filmmaker. "There is a great tradition the BBC has had, to critically analyze the way those in charge portray reality to us," he asserts "And really, I'm working within that tradition. They are not political films." Maybe not, but they are persuasive, and they are controversial, and that may be why no US network, including PBS, has been willing to air the programs.

Equally controversial was another well-researched film dealing with a political topic, producer-director Ellen Perry's The Fall of Fujimori (Prod.: Stephen Moffitt), the bizarre saga of Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, who swept into office in 1992 and, a decade later, fled the country amid charges of murder and corruption. The film is gripping from the start, as Fujimori, in exile in Japan , sits down for an interview. But this is no fawning apologia. Perry has done her homework, and all sides are presented, including that of Fujimori's ex-wife, who eventually divorced him, denounced him and ran against him.

The film's press release calls The Fall of Fujimori a "character-driven political thriller." And like a good thriller, it lets audiences draw their own conclusions. One audience member accused the filmmakers of being "seduced" by their access to Fujimori. Another offered this observation: The current president of Peru has a six percent approval rating; Fujimori, even in exile and disgrace, has one of 30 to 40 percent. He recently announced he would return to Peru to face charges, and he intends to run for president in 2006.

The volatile political situation between the US and Cuba also fueled charges of partisanship against Boxers and Ballerinas (Prod.: Nick Shumaker), a remarkably assured first feature by directors Mike Cahill and Brit Marling. The film profiles two young boxers and two student ballerinas. One dancer and one fighter live in Cuba , and their training is funded by the state; the other two, Cuban emigrés in Miami, struggle to launch their careers. The film neatly juggles its four stories, and the characters are compelling. Less effective are the too-obvious symbolism of soaring birds and brutal cockfights, and the clumsily inserted information about a 1976 sabotage of a Cuban airplane over Barbados, which interrupt the flow of the personal stories. When a woman in the audience accused the filmmakers of anti-Castro bias, they replied that at a previous screening, they'd been accused of the opposite.

Another of the festival's recurring themes was a pastoral one--documentaries about people who work on the land. Raymond Depardon's Profils Paysans: Le Quotidien (2004; Prod.: Claudine Nougaret) looks at the lives of farmers in Depardon's native village, continuing the story he began in Profils Paysans: L'Approche (2001). The taciturn farmers open up to Depardon about their efforts to keep their family farms going in spite of financial hardships and the encroachment of multinational conglomerates. The result is a spare, elegant, moving tribute to a rapidly vanishing way of life. (Depardon's latest film, 10th District Court: Moments of Trials, also screened at the festival.)

A similarly elegiac tone suffuses Swiss filmmaker Erich Langjahr's Shepherds' Journey into the Third Millennium, which follows the lives of shepherds in the Swiss Alps over several seasons, as they practice one of the world's oldest professions. Visually hypnotic, often to the point of tedium, with a dense, layered sound mix, the film is a meditation on the challenges of nature.

Taggart Siegel's The Real Dirt on Farmer John (Prod.: Teri Lang) deals with similar issues, but Illinois farmer John Peterson is a sharp contrast to Langjahr's and Depardon's austere shepherds and farmers. Peterson struggles to hang onto the family farm, and to his identity as an artist and nonconformist, despite the disapproval of the community. From its coy title to its opening shots of Peterson aboard a tractor, wearing a feather boa, the film is meant to be engaging--and it is. But it suffers from a muddled narrative voice. Siegel and Peterson are longtime friends, and Siegel has documented Peterson's life for much of that period, but Siegel's involvement is never made clear in the film. And Peterson himself provides much of the film's narration, based on his journals, further clouding the viewpoint. The Real Dirt on Farmer John was one of the hits of the festival, winning the Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Documentary. (Siegel lives and works in the Bay Area.)

The viewpoint of another film with San Francisco connections, producer-director Ralph Arlyck's Following Sean (Prod.: Malcolm Pullinger), is more precisely focused. As a student filmmaker living in Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s, Arlyck made an award-winning short about his four-year old neighbor, Sean Farrell, the child of counterculture parents. Following Sean catches up with Sean and his family more than 30 years later, and Arlyck himself re-examines his life since those Haight-Ashbury days, in a way that enriches the film and Sean's story. Following Sean is a film of depth and complexity, quiet and reflective and wise.

Three years ago, the festival helped launch Rivers and Tides, German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer's acclaimed documentary about the work and process of nature artists Andy Goldsworthy. Riedelsheimer returned this year with his latest, Touch the Sound, a profile of classical percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Glennie is 80 percent deaf, and like most deaf people, she senses"touches"sound with her entire body. The beauty of Touch the Sound is that it shares that sensory experience; not only do viewers touch the sound, they see it as well. "I, as a visual person, tried to make a film telling people, 'Don't look so much; listen more,'" says Riedelsheimer. "It was very challenging to find images that do not translate sound one to one, but add another level to sound. This concept of finding images for sound--or seeing sound, feeling images--was the starting point for the film."

After two stunning portraits of artists, Riedelsheimer is wary of doing another. As he explains, "On the other hand, I know that my way of filmmaking at the moment is even more going away from the normal way of looking at things, and working more in an essayistic style, poetic style, and trying to make a film like a poem, an artwork in itself."


Margarita Landazuri is a San Francisco-based writer and producer.