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Take It to the Bridge! San Francisco Fest Rocks with Docs

By Margarita Landazuri

Documentaries about musicians, families and artists provided some of the most captivating moments at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Anyone who's gotten chills listening to a woman's voice screaming "'s just a shot away" on the Rolling Stones song "Gimme Shelter" will want to see Twenty Feet from Stardom, Morgan Neville's wonderfully entertaining film about rock and soul background singers, to hear Merry Clayton's lively account of the recording session that produced that masterpiece. Clayton—one of the few background singers who briefly broke out of anonymity and had a recording career of her own—and the others featured in the film have sung with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Michael Jackson, Sting, and Bette Midler. Within the music community, these singers are superstars, and the film shows us why. After a festival screening, Clayton and Tata Vega treated fans to a mini-concert. Twenty Feet from Stardom won the festival's Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature.


From Morgan Neville's Twenty Feet from Stardom.Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society


Freda Kelly is not a musician, but as a teenage secretary in Liverpool in the early 1960s, she was one of the first Beatle fans, hanging out at the Cavern club where the band played, and getting to know the lads personally. At 17 she became their secretary, working for manager Brian Epstein and running the group's fan club. Kelly stayed with the Beatles until they disbanded, and has kept their secrets—and her own—for more than 50 years. She also kept in touch with their family members and friends, and when she was ready to tell her story, she chose director Ryan White, the nephew of a member of another Liverpool band of the era, the Merseybeats, to help her tell it. The result, Good Ol' Freda, is charming, affectionate, loyal and discreet, like Kelly herself. "I was a fan, and I'm still a fan," she says repeatedly. She proved it when a group of Beatlemaniacs in t-shirts and buttons surrounded her in the ladies' room after a screening, as she patiently answered questions and listened to fervent stories of pilgrimages to Liverpool. They're all family to her.

The tangled family story that Canadian director and actress Sarah Polley tells in her first documentary, Stories We Tell, is her own, and she tells it with the same artistry she brings to her narrative films. Wanting to learn more about the mother who died when Polley was 11, she interviews family members and discovers that memory is subjective, truth is elusive, and family ties are not just about genetics.

In Kim Longinotto's Salma, family ties are the ties that bind for a South Indian Tamil woman. Enduring years of imprisonment by her family and forced into marriage, Salma doesn't break. Instead, the experiences fuel her creative spirit, and she manages to publish her poetry and embark on a political career that at last allows her to be free. Amazingly, she remains connected to those who oppressed her.

In Rent a Family Inc., Ryuichi, a financially strapped Japanese man, runs an unusual side business—renting fake relatives to people anxious to save face in social or business situations. A woman hires an entire family for her wedding; Ryuichi plays the second husband of another woman negotiating child custody with her ex-husband. Meanwhile, Ryuichi's own marriage is falling apart, and his wife knows nothing of his business. The deadpan wit of director Kaspar Astrup Schröder's previous look at quirky Japanese society, The Inventions of Dr. Nakamats (2009), is missing here, and Rent a Family, Inc. just feels sad and oppressive.

Zachary Heinzerling's Cutie and the Boxer is an unflinching look at the complex relationship between Brooklyn-based Japanese artists Ushio Shinohara and Noriko, his wife of 40 years. The "boxer" of the title is Ushio, who found fame with paintings he created by donning boxing gloves, dipping them in paint and punching his canvases with Pollock-like splotches. Noriko, decades younger (she was a teenage aspiring artist when they met), raised their son and arranged their lives, continually worrying about money. Now, though, she's begun working again, pouring out her feelings about their turbulent union in a cartoon in which a pigtailed character, "Cutie," makes fun of her overbearing mate, "Bullie." Heinzerling spent several years filming the couple and gaining their trust, and the film is an intimate portrait of love, rivalry and artistic temperament.


From Zachary Heinzerling's Cutie and the Boxer. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society


The two Chinese artists profiled in Finnish director Mika Mattila's debut feature doc Chimeras are products of different eras. Wang Guangyi grew up during the Cultural Revolution, recalls his "starving artist" years in 1980s fondly, and is ambivalent about his wealth and fame-in 2008, his paintings earned $23 million at auction. His art shows contempt for the West, but he enjoys a Western-style rock-star success. A generation younger, photographer Liu Gang is the only child of working-class parents whose sole focus has been on helping him achieve goals. He seems well on his way with a gallery show, but is torn between his artistic goals and his personal life. His girlfriend is demanding a big wedding, and his cautious parents worry that his next project, an examination of China's "One Child" policy (of which he is a product), is too controversial.

In The Search for Emak Bakia, director Oskar Alegria uses a work of art—surrealist artist Man Ray's 1926 film Emak Bakia—as the starting point for his own whimsical, charmingly digressive artistic exploration. Ray reportedly worked on his film at a house called Emak Bakia (which means "Leave me alone" in the Basque language) somewhere near the French town of Biarritz. Alegria, who is Basque, set out to find that house. From the first image of sky and water upside down, the film grabs the imagination. Along the way, the filmmaker follows a dancing plastic glove, finds the grave of a clown, films dreaming pigs, and meets a Romanian princess. "I love the experience of cinema, and this film is full of experiences," Alegria says. Several screening attendees cited The Search for Emak Bakia as their favorite film of the festival. It was mine too.


From Oskar Alegria's The Search for Emak Bakia. Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society


The latter four films were among the nominees for the festival's Golden Gate Award for Documentary Feature, which went to Kalyanee Mam's A River Changes Course. Dan Krauss' The Kill Team, which won the award for Bay Area Documentary Feature, is told through a series of chilling interviews with four soldiers who were convicted of killing innocent civilians in Afghanistan. A portrait emerges of a sociopathic squadron leader who indoctrinated his men into a killing cult, and one of them describes his efforts to alert the military to what was going on.


From Dan Krauss' The Kill Team. Courtesyof San Francisco Film Society


Among other outstanding nominees for the top award were two films dealing with gay issues—P.J. Raval's Before You Know It, a look at the lives of three aging gay men, and Roger Ross Williams' God Loves Uganda, about how American Christian fundamentalist missionaries are helping to forge the government's anti-gay policies in Uganda. Shot almost entirely with dashboard cameras, Ilian Metev's Sofia's Last Ambulance follows the three-person team of one of the very few emergency ambulances left in the Bulgarian capital. And Jason Osder's Let the Fire Burn uses only archival footage to tell the complicated story of the escalating conflict between Philadelphia police and the activist Black Power group MOVE in the 1970s and '80s. The tensions exploded in 1985 with a fire that killed 11 people and destroyed 61 homes.


Margarita Landazuri works in TV news in San Francisco and writes for the Turner Classic Movies website and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.