Transit Docs - SFFILM at 62
The SFFILM Festival played at several San Francisco Bay Area venues from April 10-23. At 62 years, it’s the longest-running film festival in the Americas, and this year's edition screened almost as many documentary features (40) as narratives (46), showing the gradual creep of the nonfiction form toward filmfest dominance. Doing post-festival reports on them can be a little anticlimactic, since many of them have been released into theaters or on Netflix and are not shiny new phenomena. But they also have a chance to live in my memory for a few weeks, and some bubble up more insistently than others.
This year, the ones that keep bubbling up have the theme of transit: people compelled to move from one place to another, looking for a new home. Hassan Fazili's Midnight Traveler won SFFILM's McBaine Documentary Feature Award and received a $10,000 cash prize. This powerful document, shot on three mobile phones, is a home (or homeless) movie on the run, self-described as "a story of a journey to the edge of hell." Fazili, his filmmaker wife, Fatima Hussaini, and their two young daughters were threatened with death by the Taliban for their media work. When over a year's worth of asylum applications yield no help, they make their exodus from Tajikistan (where they fled from their native Afghanistan), hoping to take final shelter in Germany. Over three years they travel through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, suffering in squalid refugee camps, terrified by their own smugglers and enduring street violence by people who associate them with ISIS. In the midst of their desperate circumstances are two little girls learning how to ride bicycles, making snowmen and teaching each other how to write. The incongruity is unsettling—because the family is unsettled.
Another unsettled Afghan family is the subject of Aboozar Amini's haunting observational documentary Kabul, City in the Wind. Bus driver, hash smoker and survivor of a suicide bombing that killed 100 people, Abas plans to leave town to avoid some "bad people," urging his teenage son Afshin to take over as head of the household and protect his mother and little brothers in his absence. Living high up on a windy, dusty hillside, the family descends steep steps to reach the town below. Little brother Benjamin sings songs of war, describes his nightmares and names all the military ordnance carried by the helicopters that frequently pass overhead. The boys have been aged by the trauma of war and bombings, but their children's spirit turns them loose to frolic through a graveyard and roll giant snowballs in the bitter cold.
There have been numerous documentaries about refugee camps, but the unusual setting for Karim Aïnouz's Central Airport THF is a historic airport in Berlin that ceased operations in 2008. Since 2015 it has served as an enormous emergency shelter for asylum seekers. Over the course of a year, as 18-year-old Ibrahim from Syria undergoes the process of achieving refugee status and applying for a German passport, he reminisces about his homeland and family and chats with other applicants. We see how even a clean, humane way station is a hell of waiting and inertia. Even the meager recreational activities, and especially the fireworks celebrations, remind Ibrahim of what he's lost in war.
In modern Iceland, forced migrants include non-humans—the legendary trolls and elves that flourish unseen by most in nature. Or so seer/troll-whisperer Ragnhildur Jonsdottir would have you believe in San Francisco documentarian Sara Dosa's enviro-fable The Seer and the Unseen, which won the McBaine Bay Area Documentary Feature Award and a $5,000 cash prize. Beautifully respectful and without judgment, Dosa observes Ragga as she monitors the construction of a road through a lava field outside Reykjavik. Overbuilding of roads was just one factor that led to Iceland's 2008 economic collapse, and Ragga is determined to preserve a sacred elf chapel among the volcanic rocks. To that end, she joins protesters in lying in the path of earthmovers and trying to convince builders to move a major boulder holding the chapel away from the planned road. At an early point in this persuasive documentary, I grew tired of the smirking, skeptical voice in my own head and surrendered to Ragga's love of the silent (to me) creatures and their pro-environmental example. After all, how are elves less tangible or more invisible than the lost money, credit and trust evaporated by runaway capitalism? Here, as in other countries, displaced creatures are just a symptom of humans' greed and chauvinism.
Another San Francisco documentarian, Tom Shepard, screened his Unsettled: Seeking Refuge in America to enthusiastic crowds. An IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund grantee, Unsettled profiles four LGBT persecuted refugees and asylum seekers from Angola, Congo and Syria and tracks their new lives in the sanctuary city. It's a vivid reminder that being gay is illegal in 70 countries and even punishable by death in four. And even if being gay in San Francisco is not an arrestable offense, being gay, foreign, poor and alone is tough and criminalized—as seen in the grueling but uplifting story of HIV-positive gender-nonconforming Junior, who is dumped by his rich boyfriend and finds himself homeless.
A less desperate gay immigrant story, Hao Wu's short film All in My Family (Netflix), treats with tender humor his efforts to persuade his homophobic Chinese parents that he and his Asian-American partner can raise their two surrogate-born children.
SFFILM hosted documentaries that are unique and uncategorizable. Jacqueline Olive's Always in Season, another IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund grantee, examines the phenomenon of Black lynching reenactments. Before you look away in disgust, consider the value of re-staging these acts of white-supremacist terrorism: carefully researched and presented once a year at the actual site of the crimes, these performances educate the public and stir the memories of those who might actually have a connection to still-living perpetrators and bring some kind of justice to the victims and their survivors.
Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov's Honeyland, which was lavished with Sundance awards, also drew admiration here for its uncompromising gaze at a Macedonian beekeeper, apparently the last in her profession, who climbs forbidding mountain crags to poke around in bee nests and affectionately cares for her immobile mother. When a rowdy nomadic family moves in next door and eyes her bees with short-term interest, we watch a peaceful, sustainable lifestyle descend into chaos.
After getting a taste of Colombia's indigenous Wayuu culture in the recent drama Birds of Passage, I was glad to see a wider portrayal in César Alejandro Jaimes and Juan Pablo Polanco's Lapü. Those familiar with Colombia know how the Wayuu suffer from hunger and malnutrition, lack of medical care and corruption among their own greedy administrators, but this film is about something completely different. It's a story about a young woman who undergoes a traditional ritual to appease the restless spirit of her cousin, who hanged herself. The ritual involves many rules about sleeping and eating, and then the woman has to exhume her cousin's remains, clean her bones and rebury them. In between these tasks, her departed cousin is in the room quietly talking with her, as if there's no distinction between the living and the dead. It's a lovely and haunting film—is it a re-telling or are we actually witnessing it? It's this middle passage that fascinates the documentary filmgoer, I think—an examination of the subject in transit, always moving and always searching.
Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.