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San Francisco International Film Festival: Utopias, Journeys and Alt Realities

By Margarita Landazuri

Among the events with the biggest buzz at the San Francisco International Film Festival were centered around documentaries, with Brazilian director-producer Walter Salles presenting his work-in-progress, In Search of On the Road; Sam Green's live presentation of Utopia in Four Movements; and Joan Rivers attending the closing night screening of the documentary of her life, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's Joan Rivers--A Piece of Work.

Salles, who was honored this year with the festival's Founder's Directing Award, got his start in documentaries. When he was tapped by producer Francis Coppola to make the film version of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Salles began his research by re-tracing Kerouac's epic journey and interviewing people who inspired the novel's characters. The filmmaker amassed hundreds of hours of Super-8 and mini-DV material, including over 100 hours of interviews with such Beat Generationluminaries as Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Carolyn Cassady. Exclusively for the festival, Salles winnowed down some of the material into a one-hour documentary that festival head Graham Leggat called "an open-ended exploratory meditation." That's an apt description for Salles' compendium of road trips, interviews, musings on the appeal of road movies, and a fascinating casting call/reading from On the Road by actors such as Ashley Judd and Russell Crowe. As for the future of the film version of On the Road,  Salles joked, "You've heard of the Sisyphus myth?" Today's economic realities make funding difficult, and it's unclearwhether the film will ever happen. In Search of On the Road will not be finished until production starts on On the Road, or until the project is abandoned. "I've thought of ending [the documentary] with the clap" of the dramatic film beginning, said Salles. "If it doesn't happen, I'd like it to reflect on what the book meant."


Black and white image of a forest. From Walter Salles' work-in-progress documentary, In Seach of On the Road. Courtesy of San Francisco International Film Festival.
From Walter Salles' work-in-progress documentary, In Seach of On the Road. Courtesy of San Francisco International Film Festival



Another a work-in-progress was Sam Green and Dave Cerf's Utopia in Four Movements, billed as "a live documentary" that Green presented on stage with his own narration, accompanied by sound effects and music. The work examines the utopian impulse in the 20th century, from the attempt to gain acceptance for Esperanto as a universal language and way of life, to an American political refugee living in the socialist society of Cuba. The film looks at the world'slargest shopping mall in China, now eerily deserted, a would-be happy place that's trying to be a cross between Disneyland and Las Vegas. And as a coda, Utopia in Four Movements shows forensic anthropologists excavating mass graves and hoping to identify the victims and re-bury them.Green calls their work hopeful, and the film itself is a hopeful act in a dystopian time. The live element evolved from presentations Green would do while he was looking for funding for the film, and he found that it added something to the experience. "Watching something about utopia, and doing it all together with a lot of people in the same room creates an energy that's inspiring," he explained.


From Sam Green and Dave Cerf's Utopia in Four Movements. Courtesy of San Francisco International Film Festival
From Sam Green and Dave Cerf's Utopia in Four Movements. Courtesy of San Francisco International Film Festival


There was no lack of inspiring energy at the festival, including the robust 80-year old Japanese inventor in Danish director Kaspar Astrup Schröder's The Invention of Dr. NakaMats. A genuine eccentric, NakaMats claims to have over 3,000 inventions to his credit, including the floppy disk. He says he thinks better when he's deprived of oxygen, so he invented a notepad and pen that he could use underwater during his daily swim. He photographs every meal he eats, plans to live to be 144, and has figured out the 55 best foods to eat in order for him to reach that age. Apress release from the producer calls The Invention of Dr. NakaMats "madcap fun," promises "nonstop laughs" and describes Nakamats as "utterly fantabulous." But Nakamats is too self-aware to be dismissed so lightly. Schröder says that when the project began, NakaMats gave him a long list of what they would shoot. He's shown as a tough negotiator in business, and such a total control freak that in one scene in which his children bring him a birthday present, he doesn't like the way they do it, so he sends them back out to do it again. "Normal isn't my style," he says.

The elderly husband and wife of Constantin and Elena are the antithesis of NakaMats, living a quiet life in a Romanian village. He farms. She weaves. Seasons change. They joke and reminisce, friends and family visit, nothing much happens. But the film builds an intimacy that is warm and comforting. It's like spending a year with your grandparents, which is exactly what 25-year old director Andrei Dascalescu, the couple's grandson, did. Dascalescu, who worked as an assistant to editor Walter Murch on Francis Coppola's Youth Without Youth (2007), achieved the couple's ease in front of the camera with a direct cinema technique. "The rhythm of their life is better presented without moving the camera," he explained. "That, I felt, was a more honest approach."

A complex approach was called for in Jeff Malmberg's Marwencol, one of the most rivetingprofiles of the festival. Badly beaten in a bar fight and left brain-damaged, Mark Hogancamp saved his sanity and restored his health by creating his own universe--a miniature World War II Belgian town populated by counterparts of his friends and acquaintances. The characters are played by costumed Barbie and GI Joe dolls. "This is how I work out patience," he says. "This is how I work out dexterity. I create my own therapy." But Marwencol also gave him an emotional outlet. The town's hero, an American GI, is Hogan's own alter ego. "Everyone wishes they had a double who could do things they could never do," Hogancamp says. His doppelganger falls in love, has sex, marries, kills bad guys. The way Malmberg shoots the village mimics how Hogancamp sees it, up close and real. But the outside world intrudes, when his work is discovered by New York's art world, and he's invited to the city for a gallery show. How Hogancamp handles the event provides the film's climax.

Alternate realities are also the focus of Life 2.0, Jason Spingarn-Koff's look at peopleobsessed with the online world of Second Life, created by Linden Labs. To them, Second Life is a real community, and the people who live there are real, even when they're very different from their real-world selves--like the man whose avatar is an 11-year old girl. He eventually reveals a secret about his past that may explain that choice. A man and woman, both married, commit "emotional adultery" which escalates into a meeting, and the real thing. A Linden executive says, "The virtual world can only succeed if it's ungoverned," and adds, "It's safer than the real world." Not really. Lives are turned upside down. Real-liferelationships are destroyed. These people are addicts, and while you may root for them to make it in the real world, you're not surprised when they don't.


From Jason Singham-Koff's Life 2.0. Courtesy of San Francisco International Film Festival
From Jason Singham-Koff's Life 2.0. Courtesy of San Francisco International Film Festival



The real world was very much a part of the documentary lineup at the festival. Russian Lessons examines the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia. As soon as the conflict broke out, directors Olga Konskaya and Andrei Nekrasov headed for the war zone, each approaching in a different direction, since Russia was tightly controlling the borders. Russians and longtime human rights activists, they were skeptical about the information the Russian government was putting out. The result is pro-Georgian, a long and detailed look at the history and politics behind the war. "We did not set out to make an objective TV report," Nekrasov said. "What was important to us was to look at the culture of our country that encourages people to pursue that imperial greed." Nekrasov is no longer permitted to work in his native country.

Circumventing government opposition to their project was also a major preoccupation for Andrew Thompson and Lucy Bailey, directors of Mugabe and the White African. They hadto smuggle in their equipment, arriving in Zimbabwe through different borders. For a climactic hospital scene, they gift-wrapped their gear, and one crew member walked in using his boom as a crutch.

Zimbabwe has a policy of taking land from longtime white owners and redistributing it to black farmers. But the way it's distributed is based on cronyism. The film documents a white farmer's court battle to keep his farm in Zimbabwe, against the background of President Robert Mugabe's corrupt regime. Mugabe and the White African is structured like a legal thriller, with the outcome uncertain until the end. In spite of the hopeful ending, Bailey's update on the case and the family was less optimistic.

Presumed Guilty, the festival's Golden Gate Award winner for Bay Area Feature Documentary, is also a tale of legalinjustice. Lawyer and co-director Roberto Hernandez and fellow attorney and producer Layda Negrete took on the case of Antonio Zuñiga, who was convicted of shooting and killing a Mexico City gang member, although he didn't know the victim, was nowhere near the crime scene, and had no gunpowder residue on his hands. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The genius strategy thateventually got the case overturned was simple: The filmmakers took cameras into the courtroom during the appeals process. The case exposed the corruption of a justice system that has a 95 percent conviction rate, and in which suspects are presumed guilty even when they're proven innocent. Like many of the documentaries, Presumed Guilty, which Geoffrey Smith co-directed, advocated for change. Unlike most of them, the film was actually instrumental in causing it.

Margarita Landazuri is a San Francisco-based writer.