May 29, 2015

SFIFF Spotlights the Bay Area's Love-Hate Affair with the Tech Industry

Alex Gibney with Steve Jobs' wax likeness. Photo: Pamela Gentile. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

From a warts-and-all look at a Bay Area tech legend to a very personal meditation on life, love and history along one of the region's major highways, this year's San Francisco International Film Festival provided some memorable, only-in-San Francisco experiences as unique as the city itself.

Steve Jobs: The Man and the Machine was the opening night film, one of the few times in the festival's 58-year history that a documentary was the kickoff attraction. But as many in the tech-heavy audience avidly played with their iPhones before the lights went down, it seemed fitting that Alex Gibney's portrait of the late Apple icon should headline a festival in the city that is now ground zero for the tech industry. In his welcome speech, SFIFF Executive Director Noah Cowan acknowledged the huge impact of technology on the city and the Bay Area, and also touted a new feature: movie lovers can now stream a selection of festival films at home.

What can Gibney's film add to the discourse about Jobs? Gibney, who narrates, explains in the film's opening sequence. With striking images of the worldwide outpouring of grief at Jobs' death, the director wonders why so many people seemed so personally and emotionally affected by his passing. The film is not only an account of Jobs' life and career, but explores how his innovations have changed the way people relate to technology. Gibney's film pulls no punches, showing the Apple founder as cold, ruthless and demanding. Following the screening, a tech journalist commented that many people thought Jobs was "an asshole," and asked Gibney if he thought that was what made him successful. The director discounted that, and added, "I don't think many great leaders were as cruel as he was. I don't think that's necessary." Gibney says he asked for Apple's help with the project, but was told that the company "did not have the resources" to do so. At the festival's opening night party at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum at Fisherman's Wharf, Gibney was spotted taking a selfie with Jobs' wax likeness.

Left to right: Electronic Frontier Foundation Legal Director Cindy Cohn, 'Deep Web' director...and journalist/illustrator Susie Cagle. Photo: Pat Mazzera. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

Bay Area observers and defenders of Internet privacy added context to Alex Winter's Deep Web, which details the creation and downfall of the online black market website Silk Road. The film follows in real time the trial of the site's alleged creator, Ross Ulbricht, who was convicted of drug trafficking and other crimes. Like Ulbricht's defense, the film raises questions about Internet security and government surveillance, and those issues were also the topics of a panel discussion led by festival programmer Sean Uyehara, with Winter; journalist-illustrator Susie Cagle, who covered the trial for Forbes; and Electronic Frontier Foundation Legal Director Cindy Cohn. Cagle called the trial "weird" and "absurd theater." She claimed that it was about "simplifying ideas," and said that the jurors were drawn from among people who were not "technically knowledgeable." Cohn maintained that Ulbrecht's trial proved that "technologies capable of providing free spaces" on the Internet "were not only clamped down on, but hidden from us." The government's refusal to disclose how it obtained its evidence, she noted, is further proof that we are living in "a golden age of government surveillance, which has undermined our ability to have a private conversation."

One of the tech-related events that seemed the most promising, "An Evening with Nonny de la Peña," was a disappointment. De la Peña invented what she calls "immersive journalism," using virtual reality technology to immerse viewers in a documentary situation. Her latest work, Project Syria, puts viewers at an Aleppo street corner that comes under attack, and at a refugee camp. But she used an oddly retro PowerPoint presentation to present her cutting-edge concept, and offered no actual demonstration. To be fair, the program was never described as an actual VR event. It did include photos of such events at Sundance in 2012, Tribeca in 2014, and others, but it left the audience salivating to experience something similar. Even a video demonstration would have been useful to show the technique's impact. The presentation was impressive, however, and the audience discussion about the issues the concept raises was intense ("Orwellian"; "It's like the dawn of film again"), but it was unsatisfying. Audience members (at least this one) wanted to actually experience the virtual reality. But at least de la Peña left us with a tantalizing tease: Cardboard 3D viewers were handed out to audience members who answered a VR quiz correctly.

From Stanley Nelson's 'The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.' Photo: Pirkle Jones Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Another disappointment, through no fault of the excellent film or the filmmaker, was the discussion of Stanley Nelson's The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Nelson—who has made films about such important milestones of the African-American experience as the Freedom Riders, who integrated whites-only buses in the South; the Jonestown massacre; and the murder of Emmett Till—has now explored another black cultural movement, with roots in the Bay Area. The film itself is an unflinching look at the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party, its beginnings in Oakland, its accomplishments and failures, and the personalities of its leaders, told mostly by party members who lived through its tumultuous history. The screening was supposed to include a question and answer session with Nelson and surviving Panthers. Unfortunately, the previous film in the theater was delayed by a fire alarm during the screening, so Black Panthers started late and the Q&A after was abbreviated. About a dozen Panthers in the audience stood and were acknowledged, but did not participate in the post-film discussion. Still, it was evident from the lively and thoughtful questions that the Panthers can still elicit passion and controversy after almost 50 years.

The local complaint that gentrification prompted by San Francisco's tech boom has been disastrous for affordable housing was the jumping-off point for a special program, "Boomtown: Remaking San Francisco." It featured short documentaries, clips from works-in-progress, music and live storytelling to address the issue of how the city deals with change. The presentation was as quirky, varied, endearing and polarizing as San Francisco itself. Playing onscreen as the audience entered the theater was West Is San Francisco: A Symphony in Kodachrome, a 2011 short film featuring images of the city set to original music, and setting the scene for what was to follow. According to journalist Tim Redmond, who documented his findings with a slide show, San Francisco has been a boomtown from the start, and the cost of housing is the number-one issue in the lives of San Franciscans. Most of the other films and presentations expanded on those ideas, and on what is being lost, as the city's love-hate relationship with the tech industry impacts every aspect of life here.

From Jenni Olson's 'The Royal Road.' Photo: Sophia Constantinou. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society

A clip from Jenni Olson's just-completed second feature, The Royal Road, was one of the films sampled in "Boomtown." I had seen the entire documentary earlier, and it was one of my festival favorites. One of the most original examples of "only in San Francisco," it is lovely, meditative, intensely personal and a welcome contrast to the tech-related films I'd been seeing. The title refers to the 200-year old road, called El Camino Real, which connected Spain's Catholic missions in northern and southern California, and now has been mostly supplanted by freeways. Years in the making and narrated by Olson, a self-described "gender-dysphoric tomboy," The Royal Road uses her travels along El Camino as a jumping-off point for ruminations about romance, nostalgia, gender and sexual identity, Hollywood classics, Junipero Serra and the Spanish colonization of California, loss and change. In the discussion following the film, Olson commented that "living in San Francisco is like living on the set of Vertigo," and the city is as much a character in Olson's film as it was in Hitchcock's classic. Also like Hitchcock, Olson mostly avoids the standard tourist shots. Strikingly beautiful images of San Francisco in The Royal Road (lustrous 16-millimeter photography by Sophie Constantinou) include not a single familiar landmark. Shots are held much longer than in most films, without music or narration and with only ambient sound, allowing the viewer to get lost inside the images. In her introductory remarks, Olson told the audience, "I hope my films make room for you as a viewer." Although her San Francisco experience is not much like mine, her film absolutely did.


Margarita Landazuri is co-editor and writer for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and writes for the Turner Classic Movies website.