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The San Francisco International Film Festival or, Some Notes on the Economics of Form

By Elise Fried

A photo composition of a women and the reflection of a sunset on water, from 'Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern'  by Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher, a humorous, touching and poignant chronicle of financial crisis on Jordan's family farm in Iowa.

At least two of the films screened at the recent San Francisco International Film Festival—Round Eyes In the Middle Kingdom and Personal Belongings—raised for me some significant issues about the relationship between financing a film and the resulting form, particularly in the area of personal documentary.

A topic chosen by an independent filmmaker is one that not only personally interests the filmmaker but will be captivating enough to carry that interest over a number of years. While I know that a documentary's form is often a combination of fate and artistry, its form is most influenced by economic factors, specifically the methods of funding.

Let me focus on the personal documentary to make my point. The rise in the popularity of this form has been a combination of improved consumer technology and spending cuts by broadcasters in both the U.S. and Europe.

Three years ago, at the "Sunnyside of the Dock," in Marseilles, I sat in on a panel discussion in which the commissioning editors lamented the expense of documentary production compared to, say, game shows. They went so far as to suggest doing away with filmmakers altogether by simply providing Hi-8 cameras directly to archaeologists, scientists, explorers, those experts about whom the films would be made. Needless to say, the suggestion met with considerable out­rage from the audience. These commissioning editors were not attempting to offer us personal documentary as the newest and most exciting art form but, i n stead, as a formal approach foisted upon them by economic considerations.

For some, the "lucky result" has been a greater lattitude in expression; the acceptance of small format feature documentaries and some surprising theatrical successes (Jupiter's Wife, Hoop Dreams and Silverlake Lives come to mind).

Two years ago, when Sundance showcased the personal documentary and its history, it was clear that the form had burgeoned in direct proportion to the recognition that less and less money would be available to commission original works in the U.S. and Europe. Many filmmakers shoot on Hi-8 simply so that they can continue to be filmmakers! (And, many have done some wonderful work within these constraints.) For the filmmaker choosing to shoot on film, this decision may mean prolonged periods of time away from the production process, as additional money is raised, and many chances for complications to arise that can delay work on the film by month seven years. This is bound to affect the filmmaker's relation to the chosen subject, the enthusiasm for the project, the conflicting demands from each new funding source. Optimally, filmmakers need to be aware that each type of funding will affect the production process and ultimately influence the form of the film.

And here I am back at Ron Levaco's film. Round Eyes in the Middle Kingdom is a fairly traditional film in its sculpting. A half-seen literary narrator takes us back to a China during the early decades of the twentieth century, a place where the narrator lived as a boy within the White foreign enclave. When war broke out, the narrator's father fled from China, leaving behind his good friend, Israel Epstein, the subject of Levaco 's film. As Epstein' s life story is recounted, we're given a chance to reflect on the changes in Chinese history as they've made themselves known in the story of this one man. We wonder why Epstein remained in China after being tortured during the Cultural Revolution. How could this man maintain a love and devotion to a country that arbitrarily imprisoned him, only to release him to a position of influence and responsibility? The answer becomes Epstein's deep belief in the inherent justice of Chinese Communism, in greater good that transcended his own self-interest. It is this quality of Epstein's altruism that makes him—as film subject, and as human being—such a remarkable man.

What I found less than satisfying was the unasked question: Given China's recent moves toward Capitalist reform and economic incentives, how does Epstein feel about a country that seems to be betraying the principles that he suffered for? What could be seen as a glaring omission may in fact be evidence of a filmmaker having running out of time, money and enthusiasm for a project as events changed. Round Eyes in The Middle Kingdom took eight years to complete, an in­credibly long period to maintain the enthusiasm necessary for a topic while subjecting it to continual questioning.

Films made by consensus generally have a greater potential for feeling earthbound or leaden. The nature of funding a film partly by humanities grants, with their boards of advisory scholars, can encourage an interest in history that is stripped of controversy and peopled by dead folks. The present is more difficult for scholars to interpret and agree upon.

By contrast, another personal-historical film shown in San Francisco also took eight years to complete, was capable of successfully adapting to the twists and turns of fate and was entirely privately funded. This was Personal Belongings by Steve Bognar, a film about a son's search for his father's core self. We are taken along an eight-year ride with the filmmaker as he is forced periodically to change focus. The result was a Kingdom film of distinct freshness, an unexpected ending, a film that managed to rise above all sorts of difficulties, including the confiscation of crucial footage by the Hungarian police. If Bognar had ended the film with his father's return to Hungary, an obvious point of closure for an expatriate revolu­tionary, we would have been deprived of the more complex story: a man who is neither here nor there, who identifies with his native country and his family but is equally willing to forego both. The film becomes the story of a son searching for meaning in telling the biography of his father, a man who is on his own journey of self-discovery and transformation.

Levaco's and Bognar's works suggest that traditional funding sources want a film stripped of ambiguity, oversimplified from those nuances that suggest the unresolved, with conflicts intensi­fied when audience interest might demand. Life itself rarely conforms to these requirements. For films made from life—which is to say, the documentary—the further away the movement from hierarchic sources of funding to personal financing, the closer a film can be to the complex and personal statement that possessed the filmmaker in the first place.

Sometimes, how ever, life can throw you a clear and fascinating story laden with conflict and deep allusions. When this occurs, filmmakers approach television for funding. This is what happened to Frauke Sandig, who quit her cushy job at Deutsche Welt to make Oskar and Jack, a well-crafted, well-funded, traditionally-told documentary about twins separated at birth: ones became a Nazi sympathizer, the other a Trinidadian Jew. Despite their deeply differing socialization, the two have many of the o same personal habits, food preferences and—most important for the film—a strong desire to reclaim a childhood with their miss­ing half. Despite Frauke 's previous documentaries for Deutsche Welt, they were not interested in providing the funding for this film. Her professional experience cleared the paths necessary to secure funding from Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) within a few months. Her constraints, producing for an airdate, under a precise budget, within a limited number of shooting days and to a determined length, are inherent in the film we see; as is her talent.

The ideal, of course, would be a filmmaking project with the least amount of external production constraints, where the film is either privately funded or financed by cultural agencies with no commercial expectations, something more common to socialist government's than elsewhere. Such support of auteur work occurred for another film at the festival, my favorite documentary this year: Nicolas Humbert and Werner Penzel's Middle of the Moment. Because of the funding difficulties faced by their previous collaboration, and the ensuing critical acclaim of that film (Step Across the Border), WDR became embarrassed at not having been involved with it. This prompted them to uncondition ­ ally sponsor Humbert and Penzel 's next endeavor, Middle of the Moment. This is very rare, even in Germany.

Their film is about Nomads and, as the title implies, it is about finding the beauty of the moment. It is not even about the people who express this awareness, but it is meant to be an experiential journey about awareness for the audience. We watch as a Tuareg man casts his I-Ching by making lines in the sand. We don't know what he is doing and yet we do, intent on his patience and intensity. We watch a steel ring fall with increasing speed onto a concrete floor, hearing the steel and concrete touch faster and faster. How difficult it must be to express a quality that typically lies outside of the people experiencing it, waiting for it to enter them and then filming it... making clear the song not the singer, the attempt at communion, not the words spoken.

The filmmakers wanted to create more of what they found holy and worthwhile the world by filming it. They lived with both the Tuareg and the Cirque O for months before exposing their cameras; after two years of filming, they began editing with no predetermined structure. Their process infused the film with a sense of journey and searching that the best artists manage to keep a part of their lives. They were able to do this because they were talented, they were lucky, and... they were well-funded.

Like the title of Humbert and Penzel's film, every filmmaker is enmeshed in a process of questioning, aware of the story in the moment. For some, that story is loosely defined; for others it is self-imposed or shaped by funders who want something clear to synopsize for the marketers. Fitting these moments together can bring them to life, contextualized and made deeper or deadened by the fitting. When constraints allow, the process can be engaged and furthered; in the least fortunate circumstances fund­ing and marketing demand is often short-circuit this quest, forcing the simpler answers to be acceptable as dénouement for difficult questions.

A better world would be one that encouraged the very best telling of an idea. And yet, economic realities and time constraints are harsh, sometimes deadly to both films and filmmakers. I can only marvel at the ones who manage to abide in their own truth despite the odds.


ELISE FRIEND is taking a break from making documentaries. She recently had a painting and sculpture show in San Francisco and would welcome collaborative projects. E-mail:



The 39th offering of this festival (April 18-May 5, 1996) saw almost 70,000 attendees at the three-week long affair, with screenings in San Francisco, Berkeley and Larkspur. Audience awards for Best Feature Film and Best Documentary went respectively to Peter Bratt's Follow Me Home a road movie about four artists on their way to Washington, D.C., to paint a mural of the White House, and Troublesome Creek: A Midwestern by Jeanne Jordan and Steven Ascher, a humorous, touching and poignant chronicle of financial crisis on Jordan's family farm in Iowa. The "Golden Gate Awards " for Bay Area works were juried by actress Joan Chen, documentarians Marco Williams and Lourdes Portillo and Algerian journalist Azzedine Mabrouki. The Golden Spire for Best Bay Area Documentary was given to Rick Goldsmith's Tell the Truth and Run: George Seldes and the American Press. In the same category, the Silver Spire went to Ramona S. Diaz's Spirits Rising, a remarkable blending of history and the present, through the lives of Imelda Marcos and Corazon Aquino, demonstrating how history changes the roles available to women in the Philippines. Other Bay Area documentaries recognized were Will Parrinello 's Little Italy and Ron Levako's Round Eyes in the Middle Kingdom. The Golden Spire for Bay Area Short Works was awarded to Rachel Libert and Barbara Parker's Undertaker dealing with gun violence. The Silver Spire in this category; went to Joe Bini's Bottom Buck, with certificates of merit delivered to Ari Gold's Loot and Sanmel Ball's Zimbabwe Wheel. World premieres at the Festival included Arthur Penn's Inside, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Passion, Tiffanie DeBartolo's Dream For an Insomniac and Rob Nilsson's Chalk. Among the features screened, The African Child by Laurent Chevallier (Djembefola) was noteworthy for its combination of fiction and nonfiction in this story about a teenager's first encounter with a big city and the influence of his journey on his home village.