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The Docs of San Francisco: SFFILM Fest Presents a Robust Slate of Nonfiction

By Frako Loden

From Simon Lereng Wilmost's 'The Distant Barking of Dogs,' which won the McBaine Documentary Feature Award at SFFILM Festival. Courtesy of SFFILM

SFFILM Festival, or the 61st edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival, has pulled up its stakes for another year. During the festival I found myself billeted at the South of Market venues for the documentaries: SFMOMA, more than any other, and the Children's Creativity Museum theater and occasional trips out to the Castro Theatre for crowd-pleasers and big events. My friend and fellow film writer Michael Hawley noted that roughly 40 percent of all feature films in this year's festival were documentaries, an increase over the year before.

Press screenings kicked off with Alexandra Cuerdo's Ulam: Main Dish, a film on diasporic Filipino cuisine that induced stomach growls and the conviction that Pilipinx has joined the global high-end food movement. Ulam is one of five films getting its world premiere as part of the festival's second Launch initiative, enjoying a special push for global distribution. The five films, all documentaries, are described by SFFILM Executive Director Noah Cowan as "representing the values of our city and region."

Another Launch-supported film is Matthew Testa's The Human Element. It recalls a previous environmental-catastrophe film, Jeff Orlowski's Chasing Ice (2012), which also featured the life and work of nature photographer James Balog, but this considerably expands Balog's scope both in his personal life and the range of natural elements he photographs. Balog's premise is that to the four traditional elements of water, air, fire and earth, we should add humans, since we have had such a profound impact on those others and we are the only element with free choice. Balog's mission is to bear witness to the conflict between humans and nature by documenting the environmental destruction we have wrought during our relatively brief Anthropocene, or geological age of human activity. Like Chasing Ice and Orlowski's 2017 Chasing Coral, The Human Element is another wrenching trip through impending catastrophe on several fronts: sea-level rise in Icelandic glaciers; polluted air from burning fossil fuels and how it has created a generation of asthmatic children; the emergence of the megafire, a recent phenomenon we know too well in Northern California; and, finally, the toxins we have brought up from the earth, like the coal that Balog's own grandfather mined until his death from a mine accident. The suggestions for economic recovery in former coal towns, such as barbering school or installing solar cells on flattened mountaintops, don't leave as powerful an impression as the nightmare images of crabs swimming in people's yards or fires that wipe out 5,000 acres in a day.

Alyssa Fedele and Zachary Fink's The Rescue List is another beneficiary of the Launch initiative, a warm and engaging documentary about a Ghanaian organization that rescues boys sold into fishing slavery on Lake Volta by their impoverished parents. The Challenging Heights safehouse/school feeds, educates and counsels the boys for about a year, and releases them to home on the proviso that their families will not let them go off with strangers again. The film opens with the adult Kwame, himself enslaved when he was a child, approaching fishing boys in a skiff. When he discovers that the supervising boy claims they are brothers but can't name them, Kwame takes one by force. The taken one, crying in fear, gradually learns that he's been freed, but he still agonizes over the friends he left behind. The boys are ordered to dive to untangle nets, but they sometimes get tangled up themselves and drown. Twenty thousand such children are enslaved, some as early as age three working into adulthood, and Challenging Heights methodically rescues as many as it can. The film follows three of the boys as a team of workers locates their families, negotiates with them and village chiefs, and carefully repatriates them. It's a little hard to comprehend how the organization can have rescued a thousand boys and monitored them for two years post-release without government funding, but this film makes you want to believe.

Denali Tiller's Tre Maison Dasan is another Launch film that brings the idea of rescuing boys of color home to our own country. Tiller's debut film focuses on three boys, one of whose parents is in jail. (We're told that one out of 14 children has an incarcerated parent.) The Rhode Island corrections system's special program allows the children to visit their parents for two hours on a weekend, unaccompanied by another adult but allowing access to the camera. We see a lot of love on these visits, but it's not enough to sustain the boys in the often overwhelming world outside. They have to forgive their incarcerated parent for their absence while dealing with a parent deeply flawed in their presence. Ordinary rites of passage such as Valentine's Day, Boy Scout camping trips and the frustrations of puberty take on great significance through the eyes of a child whose mother or father has an uncertain future in the criminal justice system.

The title of Nathaniel Kahn's documentary about today's art marketplace, The Price of Everything, alludes to Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic as "a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." Easy target Jeff Koons embodies that definition with his warehouse full of restorers in the background, while the mostly forgotten abstract painter Larry Poons quietly continues his work in the countryside. In between are currently hot artists such as Njideka Akunyili Crosby and Marilyn Minter, who puzzle over their current success among buyers and collectors, and the decline in interest of once-hot Damien Hirst. Perhaps most interesting is Sotheby's fine arts chair Amy Cappellazzo, who gives tips on promoting a work of art as the perfect product for her rich clients to buy.

The Price of Everything makes a passing reference to the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat going for millions, prompting the reminder that his Untitled's record-breaking sale at $110.5 million last year put him "in the same league as Francis Bacon and Pablo Picasso," according to art dealer Jeffrey Deitch. Sara Driver's brilliant Boom for Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat takes us way back to the days before Basquiat sold a single painting—when he was still a curious series of smartly critical wall scribblings in the Lower East Side of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and a vital presence in the music, art and street scenes of New York City. Driver manages to evoke this fertile and tumultuous world for this West Coaster struggling to make sense of it all through the pages of the Village Voice.

Basquiat began and ended his brief career as an enigma, unable to speak for himself in all the documentaries, biopics and transactions that apotheosized him after his death at 27. In great contrast is A Thousand Thoughts – A Live Documentary by Sam Green and Kronos Quartet, a hybrid slide show/video presentation with live narration by the director and live performances by Kronos themselves, a West Coast musical entity that has been active in various forms since 1973. A musical act this rich, wide-ranging and influential demands this kind of meta presentation, where the physical and screen presences of the musicians compel us to ponder the "real time" of performance and memory. The film, for which Joe Bini is also credited as director, won the Audience Award for Best Documentary.

Sam Green (left) performing with the Kronos Quartet in his and Joe Bini's 'A Thousand Thoughts.' Courtesy of SFFILM

Documentary's ability to memorialize tragic or unrealized events from the past was shown in two contrasting works at the festival. David Sington and Heather Walsh's Mercury 13 is a fond, wistful recollection of 13 white American women who were given a chance to qualify as NASA astronauts but never made it into space. At first encouraged by a visionary male researcher who championed them and the urgency of competition with the Soviet Union, NASA shut down the program despite findings that showed women were better psychological and physical candidates for space travel than men. They just never had a chance against the prevailing sexist attitudes of the time that regarded monthly periods as a liability and the unhelpful comments of "space god" John Glenn. Archival footage of the women and their unquenched desire for high-altitude travel even in old age give only faint glimmers of how the world might have been changed by female astronauts in the early 1960s.

In vivid contrast, Robert Greene follows up his exciting Kate Plays Christine with Bisbee '17, another film that reenacts a suppressed past tragedy as a way of understanding it. Here the subject is not the life and death of single newscaster Christine Chubbuck but an atrocity involving thousands of people. On a hot summer day in 1917, a sheriff in Bisbee, Arizona, deputized 2,000 men to forcibly load 1,300 striking copper miners, 90 percent of them foreign-born and supported by the IWW, into railcars and deliver them to the New Mexico border, leaving them to fend for themselves in the desert without food or water. Nobody was punished for the Bisbee Deportation, which is still a sore subject in the town. Today, tourists can ride the "Deportation Express" to learn about the incident. Greene notes also that nearby Tombstone, last year proclaimed "America's Second Amendment City" by its mayor, glorifies its violent past in staged shootouts at the OK Corral. In a process reminiscent of Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet and even Rithy Panh's S21: The Khmer Rouge Death Machine, locals reenact the tragedy. The resulting "performance" is powerfully cathartic for a community that has not come to terms with the evil in its past.

Mila Turajlic's The Other Side of Everything had the strongest buzz around me during the festival and justified all the awards it's been winning. The Serbian filmmaker's direct subjects are her mother, Srbijanka Turajlic, a major player in Yugoslavia's democracy movement, and the stately Belgrade apartment building where her family lived and which was partitioned by the state into rental units when the country went Communist. The locked-off parts of the flat reflect the unopened doors to the past that the daughter forces open one by one, revealing the pained core where the familial and the political meet.

Hal Ashby was a brilliant film editor (Oscar winner for In the Heat of the Night) who went on to direct unforgettable films from the 1970s such as Harold and Maude, The Last Detail, Bound for Glory and Being There. But making his films was a struggle for the fiercely independent Ashby, who despised authority in an era when classic Hollywood was corporatizing and a film artist like Ashby was staying up all night working, fueled by weed. He hated lies and was baffled by negotiation by doubletalk. He was fully aware of his own privilege as a white American male, but his insistence on telling stories about underrepresented heroes, whether people of color or advanced age or disability, or simply people as they truly are, got him marginalized as well. Norman Jewison, his mentor and friend to whom he wrote affectionate and ranting letters that are quoted here, wishes Ashby had a happier "third act" in this excellent biography. But Amy Scott's Hal serves as a splendid tribute to this filmmaker who loved and nurtured his actors and cinematographers.

Seeing Hal just before seeing Amy Adrion's Half the Picture was a good preparation for what followed. Early in his career, Ashby happened to catch the eye of director Norman Jewison and was invited to edit In the Heat of the Night, for which he won an Oscar in 1968. He was a Palme d'Or nominee at Cannes all through the 1970s. Of course he fought like any other filmmaker to get great assignments and recognition, but the happy results came within just a couple of years. This rarely happened in the careers of the women in Half the Picture, who describe setback after setback in their struggle to make the films they want. After a series of astonishing statistics about the paucity of women filmmakers in Hollywood, this outstanding documentary lets the women—black, white, Latina, Asian, old, young, gay, straight—speak for themselves about the implicit and explicit racism and sexism of the industry. Allowing so many different voices enables a truly nuanced look at what's wrong, what needs to be fixed and how to fix it.

Erika Cohn's The Judge won the McBaine Bay Area Documentary Feature Award. It brings some perspective to the ingrained sexism of other cultures, in this case the administration of shari'a law in divorce and family courts of the Palestinian Authority. In Ramallah we follow Kholoud Faqih, the first female shari'a judge, as she goes from designing the first women's judge uniform to raising four kids to hearing and ruling on tough cases involving women. How to administer justice amid the competing claims of multiple wives? How to judge spousal abuse when a husband's sexual assault isn't considered rape? Judge Kholoud makes her way through uncharted territory as she uses her power to mentor new judges and bring shari'a law into the 21st century.

From Erika Cohn's 'The Judge.' Courtesy of SFFILM

In the unforgettable The Distant Barking of Dogs, directed by Danish documentarist Simon Lereng Wilmont, who shot in a Ukrainian village just one mile from the frontlines of the conflict with Russia, a grandmother tries to keep life normal for her two grandsons, Oleg and Yarik. Oleg's mother is dead, and Yarik's mother is called to the side of her soldier husband, whom Yarik dislikes. Being normal boys, the cousins want to play, but their idyllic summer—a dip in the river, pillow fights in the dappled sun—is soon punctuated by the sounds of shelling. Grandmother measures her year by the seasons of war: the harvest ceasefire, the beginning-of-school-year ceasefire, the Easter ceasefire. Yet hope blossoms again, she insists, like greens ready to be pickled in a jar. When Grandmother's own health declines and the boys take up with a teen holding a gun, our own growing sense of apprehension follows the boys around like the shadows of death. The Distant Barking of Dogs won the McBaine Documentary Feature Award.

For an hour we watch in black and white as a handful of people and animals do mysterious chores with a wordless purposefulness. These chores involve tall metal structures, makeshift rafts, horse-drawn carts, livestock shelters and mills improvised from car parts. Finally as a snowstorm closes in, a couple prepares an unappetizing meal of meat wrapped in leaves, exchanging a few unsubtitled words as their dog looks on. Is Carcasse, directed by Icelandic and French filmmakers Gústav Geir Bollason and Clémentine Roy, a documentary? Why not, if we remember one element of the form as a concentrated look at creatures doing things whose intelligibility may or may not become clearer in the watching? Without obvious indicators of time, place or purpose, we are set free to make sense or nonsense of this world: It's a remote post-apocalyptic island in which the survivors are refashioning new technology from old. It's a utopia where humans and animals work together in greater harmony than before. Or with a little digging, we learn that this is one of the filmmakers' several "projects on entropy in relation to landscape." Whether things fall apart or come together in satisfying ways, our own world-view tinkers with the elements we find here.

German documentarists Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck give us The Cleaners, a chilling look at a handful of workers who stare into computer screens in a highrise in Metro Manila and say, "Ignore . . . delete . . . ignore . . . ignore . . . delete . . . delete." They are content moderators, or contract workers, outsourced by social media companies (Google, Facebook, YouTube) with the task of deciding which still images and videos should be allowed on those platforms. Required to "hit" 25,000 pictures a day and not allowed more than three "mistakes" per month, some specialize in viewing livestreams of people harming themselves or videos of beheadings—one woman says she has seen hundreds of them. The psychological toll on these workers is only one problem. Another is the consequence of allowing people with almost no contextual knowledge to censor material that should be available to the world for aesthetic, free-speech and humanitarian reasons. As long as companies like Facebook continue to insist that they are not media companies while arbitrarily deciding what kind of images the world should see, they won't be held accountable for the fake news, hate speech and terrorist-recruiting that clog the Internet. One content moderator pulls up the iconic photograph of Kim Phuc, the naked little Vietnamese girl running down the road with napalm burns. He says that, according to the guidelines he's been furnished (nude minor), this image would be banned from the platform he is monitoring, stripped of the power it previously had to help end the Vietnam War.

British filmmaker Tim Wardle's Three Identical Strangers raises more questions than it answers, in the way a good doc should. Wardle's feature debut about the surprise reunion of separated-at-birth triplets in their 19th year initially revels in the stranger-than-fiction revelations and fun of seeing three cute young guys discovering that, despite their being adopted by three very different couples, they had so many things in common. But then we turn to the adoptive parents, who were so angry at not being told about the boys' origins that they visited the enigmatic Louise Wise Adoption Agency and came away mystified and suspicious. Next we follow the efforts of journalists to uncover what was really going on with the regular visits of psychologists to the adoptees for testing and videotaping, leaving us with disturbing insights into the unauthorized surveillance of unsuspecting Americans. It's a fascinating story that will fuel some passionate post-film arguments.


Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film, women's studies and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.