San Francisco Fest Makes its Mission District Debut
This year's San Francisco International Film Festival was all about transformation. The festival left its longtime home base at the Sundance Kabuki multiplex in the centrally located Fillmore District and moved to the uber-hip Mission District. The hub of the festival was a newly restored and multiplexed 1920s movie palace, transformed into the latest Alamo Drafthouse, a Texas chain that features beer, cocktails and gourmet snacks served by a wait staff. Three other nearby theaters, the Roxie, the Victoria (also refurbished) and the Castro, rounded out the festival venues. The hope was to attract new, young and adventurous audiences from the tech community who live in the area and frequent its trendy bars and restaurants.
Serendipitously, some of the festival's best documentaries were also about transformation, from a transgender Mississippi grandmother to a North Korean family that is not as it seems, to a famous Hollywood stuntman directing his first feature film.
One of the most dramatic and visible transitions happens in Salero. The Salar del Uyuni in Bolivia is the world's largest salt flat, seen from the air as a glittering expanse of white. Moises is a salero, one of the last of his breed, who harvests the precious resource. "The Salar is my life," he says in the film. "It's the most unique landscape in the world." But it won't be around much longer. The Salar sits on top of a huge lithium deposit, and the Bolivian president wants to develop it. Director Mike Plunkett's beautiful and poetic film captures the precise moment in time when the Salar becomes the hub of a lithium extraction, putting an end to Moises' way of life and to one of the world's most stunning landscapes.
No Home Movie, Belgian avant-garde filmmaker Chantal Akerman's final film, documents the physical decline of her beloved mother over a period of several years. Akerman uses a series of Skype and in-person conversations with her mother, interspersed with the filmmaker's characteristic, extended, indeterminate shots of seemingly unrelated images: a lone tree buffeted by winds, a chaotic shot from a car driving over a desert landscape, a rainy city street corner, shot from an apartment window. From early conversations, when Akerman persuades her mother to talk about her family's escape from the Nazis, each session feels more and more urgent. They linger over repeated goodbyes, reluctant to hang up. Akerman urges her mother to eat. There is a steady shot of her as she struggles to breathe. Viewers may not be able to parse all the images, but they can't help but be moved by them—and by the knowledge that Akerman committed suicide last year.
Ukrainian filmmaker Vitali Mansky was commissioned by the North Korean government presumably to document a day in the life of a typical Pyongyang family, but there is nothing typical about the film he made, Under the Sun. By keeping the camera rolling before and after calling "action" and "cut," he shows how officials transformed an ordinary father, mother and daughter to conform to the government's rigid ideal of life under the repressive regime. The film crew was accompanied throughout filming by government officials who provided scripts and directed family members on how to behave. The father was a journalist, but the script makes him an engineer. The mother works in a cafeteria, but in the film she works at a milk factory so both parents can talk about how productivity has increased in their respective work places, thanks to the nation's latest Glorious Leader. The family is shown as living in a spare but tastefully appointed, sleekly modern apartment, but a surreptitious shot through their apartment window shows that they actually live in a typical drab, crumbling high-rise apartment block. Sometimes the official version comes off as unintentionally comic, as in the glorious excess of a national festival, with thousands of dancers in traditional dress, or when an old soldier covered in medals drones on about defeating American "cowards," presumably during the Korean War. He refuses to stick to the script the government official gave him, and ignores the repeated interruptions. Meanwhile, the camera focuses on a young girl nearly falling asleep with boredom. A British newspaper reports that Korean officials tried to prevent screenings of the film, and that the film has caused a "diplomatic row" between North Korea and Russia.
In Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer's IDA Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund grantee Check It, a group of gay and transgender black teens in Washington, DC, fight back against bullying by gangs by using the bullies' own tactics against them, forming their own gang. Then they try to transform their own lives once again when they struggle to find a way out of violence with the help of a gay youth counselor and other supportive adults. A "fashion camp" could give some of them a way into a career path. For one of them, boxing offers a possible direction. But giving up the protection and camaraderie of a gang life isn't easy, and not all of them succeed.
Being different is never easy. But being different in a Mississippi trailer park is even tougher. British filmmaker Moby Longinotto (The Joneses) began filming the Jones family long after patriarch Jerry Jones realized he was transgender and had a sex change, transforming himself into matriarch Jheri Jones. Long estranged from her three sons and now in her 70s, the flamboyant Jheri lives in a mobile home with two of them, Brad and Trevor, and has also reconciled with her third son. But Jheri's grandchildren, who only know her as Grandma, don't know she was Grandpa as well. And now Trevor has come out as gay, with Jheri's full support. Jheri is relieved—she thought he was going to tell her he was also transgender. Through it all, Jheri stays upbeat and fabulous, and provides plenty of unconditional love and support for all of her brood.
Festival programmer Rachel Rosen introduced the closing night film, Jesse Moss' The Bandit, by declaring that Smokey and the Bandit, the subject of Moss' film, "blazed a trail for populist cinema"—or, as less classy people might call it, "redneck movies." The Bandit is a very entertaining tribute to the late legendary stuntman Hal Needham and to the enormously popular Smokey and the Bandit, with which Needham made a successful transition from stuntman to action director. Moss' doc also pays tribute to Needham's longtime friendship with star Burt Reynolds. Needham, who had been performing stunts for Reynolds for years, came up with the idea for Smokey and pitched the idea to Universal. They refused to even consider Needham until Reynolds, then a top box office attraction, agreed to star in the film only if Needham directed. The film became a big hit, and the two men went on to make five more films together. But The Bandit implies that in spite of his success, Needham never achieved the one transformation he wanted most—to have the kind of fame and adulation that his friend Reynolds achieved so easily.
Margarita Landazuri is co-editor and writer for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and writes for the Turner Classic Movies website.