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The Golden Film Gate: San Francisco Fest Strong on International Docs

By Margarita Landazuri

From Nitzan Gilady's 'Satmar Custody.' Courtesy of San Francisco International Film Festival

Like most film festivals, the San Francisco International Film Festival reflects the character of the city itself-sophisticated, eclectic, politically aware—and more than a little self-absorbed. Nothing demonstrates those characteristics like the documentaries in the 2004 festival, which took place in April.

The festival has always had a strong documentary component, including both local and international filmmakers. This year, it featured 26 films from around the world, and most were very well-attended.

San Francisco is hotbed of progressive politics, and one film that's been making the festival circuit, Jehane Noujaim's Control Room (Hani Salama, Rosadel Varela, Abdullah Shleifer, prods.), a look at how Arab satellite network Al-Jazeera covered the Iraq war, was well-received. So was the Canadian indictment of international corporate greed and irresponsibility, Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott's The Corporation (Achbar, Bart Simpson, prods.). The heavily-promoted Super Size Me, a funny/scary account of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's month-long diet of nothing but McDonald's fast food, was a sellout, and looks to be this year's mainstream hit.

Audience reaction was also strong for Paola di Florio's Home of the Brave (Nancy Dickenson, prod.), an examination of the death of Viola Liuzzo, a Detroit housewife and the only white woman to be killed in the civil rights struggle in Alabama in the 1960s. The film looks at how the tragedy affected Liuzzo's family, and many in the audience wept when Liuzzo's daughter spoke eloquently after the screening about how the film helped her find her mother again.

The major competitive element of the festival is the Golden Gate Awards, which honor documentary, experimental and short works. The Golden Gate Award winner for Bay Area documentary, Lexi Leban and Lidia Szajko's Girl Trouble, will be seen on PBS this year. Shot on video, the film is visually stylish and emotionally compelling as it follows three teenage girls caught up in the juvenile justice system over a period of four years.

The winner of the feature documentary award was Israeli filmmaker Yoav Shamir's Checkpoint (Amit Breuer, Edna and Elinor Kowarsky, prods.). Shamir took his video camera to various road blocks and crossing points in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, recording, over a two-year period, the interactions between Israeli border guards and Palestinians trying to cross, over a period of two years. He shot it in classic vérité style, which only increases the tension. Does the youth who's asked to lift his shirt have explosives strapped to his body? Will the soldier shoot? Every situation is fraught. Communication is difficult, and not just because of the language barrier. The soldiers are young, callow and often arbitrary in their decisions about whom they'll let pass. The Palestinians are bewildered, hostile, frightened or defiant. The exchanges between the two sides often have a through-the-looking-glass surrealism. A man who passed through a checkpoint an hour earlier is refused re-entry. He reminds the guards that he had asked if he could return, and was told he had been promised re-entry. "You could then, you can't now," a guard says. Finally, the guards let him through, deliberately looking the other way. "Try not to make me look bad," the young soldier says to the camera. "Blame the higher-ups, not me." 

The lack of information given to the audience in another Israeli film, Nitzan Gilady's In Satmar Custody, is more problematic. A Yemeni Jewish couple and their children are brought to the United States by members of the Hassidic Satmar sect. The death of a daughter, and their own ignorance and inability to communicate, cause the couple to lose custody of their other children to the Satmars. Gilady shot the film over a period of three years with a hidden camera. With little identification of who's who, it's often difficult to tell what's going on. Gilady, himself a Yemenite Jew, admittedly brings his own prejudices against the anti-Zionist Satmars to the film. But the often mysterious goings-on are intentional, he told the audience at a screening. "It's seen through [the couple's] eyes. This is not a 60 Minutes film where we have all the facts."

Dame la Mano (Pieter van Huystee, prod.), the latest from Peruvian-born Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, had its US premiere at the festival. Cuban exiles and devotees of authentic Afro-Cuban rumba gather at a Union City, New Jersey, club to dance their troubles away. The film is suffused with the subjects' loneliness and loss, kept at bay by dance. The most memorable moments are not the musical sequences, which tend to be overlong and self-indulgent, but the quiet ones when the subjects are living their daily lives and sharing their memories. There's Rafaela, a buxom 62-year old, dancing around the kitchen as she cooks the food her son peddles to immigrant factory workers. A ride-along in the Bronx with Lisandro, a musician and cab driver, recalls Honigmann's Metal and Melancholy. Lisandro talks about how street life energizes his music. "The rumba flows through our veins...Havana is like a tattoo you can't get rid of," he says.

The winner of the festival's audience award was Amanda Micheli's Double Dare (Karen Johnson, Danielle Renfrew, prods.), a lively, if superficial, look at the lives of two stuntwomen—an American veteran from a multi-generational family of stunt doubles, and a New Zealand newcomer who got her start doubling for Lucy Lawless in the television series, Xena: Warrior Princess and gets her first feature job performing Uma Thurman's stunts in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill. The film does not probe very deeply into what drives these women, but it does a good job of showing the perils and pleasures of their profession.

Another audience favorite was The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. For more than a decade, Mark Bittner, a self-described "dharma bum," has cared for a flock of feral, cherry-headed conures living in the dense urban gardens of San Francisco's Telegraph Hill. How the parrots changed Bittner's life is an inspiring, well-told story. The film has everything a good movie should have: drama, comedy, suspense, heartbreak and even romance. One giddy audience member gushed to Bittner and filmmaker Judy Irving, "I know it's a little early, but I predict this will be the feel-good movie of the festival!"

Another piece of San Francisco Bay Area folklore received a more polarized audience reaction. Robert Stone's Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (the title was changed from Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army at the insistence of Miramax, which is releasing J.M. Barrie's Neverland, a biography of the Peter Pan author, in late June) is a detailed account of the SLA's reign of terror in the 1970s, from the murder of Oakland School Superintendent Marcus Foster, through the kidnapping of heiress Hearst, the group's fiery destruction in a Los Angeles fire, and the capture and conviction of Hearst.

Since many of the SLA's exploits happened in and around San Francisco, and were covered extensively by the local media, many in the audience knew the subject as intimately as the filmmaker did. And although many found the film absorbing in its immediacy, and thorough in detailing how the SLA manipulated the media, others questioned what Stone chose to omit. One question everyone wanted answered was why Patricia Hearst hadn't been interviewed. "She's already told her story," Stone replied, adding that she had been in the audience when the film screened at Sundance and liked it. The only SLA members included in the film were Russell Little, who was jailed in connection with the Foster murder, and did not participate in any of the other actions; and Michael Bortin, who didn't join the group until later. (Stone said William Harris was helpful, but felt he could not participate because of his legal situation.) Stone dismissed a challenge by one audience member about why the film didn't mention that Donald DeFreeze, (aka Cinque), had been a police informant. Even 30 years later, the left remains factionalized, and feelings still run deep.

Less controversial was the marvelous Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed (Shola Lynch, prod./dir.; Phil Bertelsen, prod.). The story of the New York congresswoman's quixotic quest for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination was a big audience favorite—especially when Bay Area political icons appeared, like the firebrand ex-congressman from Berkeley, Ron Dellums, and current congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland, then a single mother and college student. Hoots erupted when former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown (in 1972 a powerful state assemblyman) electrified the convention during a battle over contested delegates, demanding, "Give me back my delegation!"  "That's Willie," someone laughed. "It's his delegation!"


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