Friday, April 25, 2008

SFIFF: the Sundance connection


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The 51st SF International Film Festival began last night, with a screening of Catherine Breillat's the Last Mistress at the Castro Theatre. Earlier tonight the festival expanded to its other venues, the PFA and the Kabuki, where it will stay for the next two weeks, drawing hardcore cinephiles and curious culture-watchers alike (the Clay and a few other venues broaden the festival's reach in the days to come.) The festival, more than any other film event of the Frisco Bay calendar year, feels like a party that the anyone in the city can join in, as long as they're willing to pay a $12.50 single-ticket admission price.

That price is a tad higher than most moviegoing around here will cost you, and with the elimination of matinee pricing this year there's all the more incentive for particularly active attendees to become a film society member (or, like me, a PFA member) to get a couple bucks lopped off each ticket price. However, all but a few specially-priced gala events will cost a non-member less than a ticket to, say, last year's Silent Film Festival, or an advance-sales ticket to a Sundance screening should you be in Utah when that festival rolls around. And, in fact, regular tickets cost less than certain screenings of non-festival fare at the Kabuki do, now that the theatre's been bought and made-over by the new Sundance Cinemas venture, with its amenities fees charged for assigning seats. While the SFIFF makes its home at the Kabuki, seats will not be assigned in advance and amenities fees will not be charged on top of the festival ticket price.

I've attended the Sundance Film Festival twice now; once as a member of the ticket-buying public, and once with a press pass that saved me a few hundred dollars in ticket costs. I have a press pass for the SFIFF too, but as usual I've purchased tickets to a certain few shows that I Absolutely Do Not Want To Miss (like Aditya Assarat's Wonderful Town), knowing that there is often greater demand for press tickets than there is supply. Though I honestly can only remember being shut out of a film once, for the Iranian film Iron Island, in the past five years that I've had a pass for the SFIFF, I don't like to take chances. Sundance is run differently; there's less incentive for press to buy advance tickets because their pass can be used to acquire a comp. ticket in any wait-list line.

Sundance is different from the SFIFF in many, many other ways, of course. For example, the programming at Sundance is far more AmerIndie-centric, leaving foreign films on the sidelines. Here's a good quote on the matter I recently found via the cinetrix, from former SFIFF director Peter Scarlet:
If you’re the maker of a foreign film and you accept an invitation to go to Sundance, it’s a little like getting a last-minute reservation at a trendy restaurant. You get a nice dish for you and your companion, you wear something sexy, but it turns out you’re seated at the tiny table right next to the restroom. I won’t even get into the aromas and whatnot.
It's a harsh statement, but there's certainly truth in it, as the lion's share of the attention at the Utah fest gets lavished upon homegrown productions. By contrast, the SFIFF and a good portion of its audience see foreign films, especially those directed by the world's master filmmakers, as a central piece of the festival mission. If not the core.

On my own trips to Sundance, I've attempted to swim against the tide and cover its foreign films with at least as much care and enthusiasm as the American offerings. One film I never quite got around to in my Sundance reports was the Jordanian documentary Recycle, which is also set to play at the SFIFF; an image from the film is featured on the cover of the festival's program guide. Recycle follows the routines of Abu Ammar, a resident of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's hometown of Zarqa. He drives his young son around the city, an industrial center in Jordan, picking up unused cardboard that he knows he can sell at a recycling center. It's a reminder that while recycling may still be seen as optional or even a luxury in opulent communities, the act becomes a necessity when poverty strikes. But Recycle's subject is not just recycling cardboard; he also saves notes to use in a book on religion he plans to write. He keeps sacks full of these paper scraps, and they're not the only evidence director Mahmoud al Massad presents that seems intended to make us wonder if Abu Ammar has been radicalized into a potentially dangerous fundamentalist along the lines of Zarqawi. Sometimes Al Massad's frustrating metaphor of a "recycled terrorist" seems at times heavy-handed and at other times vague, but the film is filled with enough sarcastic characters and absurd images, like a camel stand on the edge of town, or a cardboard eye becoming swallowed up by churning liquid at the recycling center, to make it much more than just a metaphor.

The other foreign films I saw at Sundance that also are set to play the SFIFF were all animated shorts that did not require subtitles: Madame Tutli-Putli from Canada and the Pearce Sisters and Yours Truly from the UK, which along with American Carson Mell's Chonto played a terrific Sundance shorts program that I reviewed here. As it features these four entires plus films by Kelly Sears, Stefan Mueller, Max Hattler and Aardman's Richard Goleszowski, I feel confident recommending the SFIFF shorts program the Human Kingdom. It plays tomorrow evening and Wednesday April 30th. I also enjoyed the Sundance screenings of a few short films playing on two other SFIFF shorts programs, for example the deservedly Oscar-nominated short documentary La Corona which plays the SFIFF as part of a program called the Feminine Mystique on April 28 and 29. Kelly Sears' the Drift and Leighton Pierce's Number One both play on Alternate Geographies; I intend to attend the program tomorrow, and I'll be glad to see them again, along with Bruce Conner's Cannes-bound Easter Morning, the highly-praised, much anticipated Observando El Cielo and more. That program plays again May 2nd.

Finally, a pair of American features I saw at Sundance will play SFIFF on the way to a wider release planned for this summer. Both films seem to brush up against the imaginary line between fiction and documentary, from either side of that electric fence. The fiction film, Ballast, uses non-professional actors all from the same Mississippi Delta region in which the film was shot, improvising dialogue to a predetermined scenario. The result is remarkably affecting and almost completely free from familiar character cliches. I spoke a bit more about the film with Robert Davis on his podcast here. The documentary, American Teen, in chronicling a year in the life of an Indiana high school, hand-picks four archetypal teenagers and follows them through their daily adventures, some of which seem quite possibly concocted by the teens just to add drama to their on-camera presence. I wrote a bit more about the film here.

Ballast and American Teen also provide an interesting case study for another issue that's been recently raised regarding the SF International Film Festival this year. The issue is that of digital projection vs. film projection, and has been extensively covered by Michael Guillen, who has provided a list of festival films expected to be screened using digital projection, gleaned from the Film On Film Foundation calendar; Guillen also interviewed Carl Martin from that group. The crux of the issue is that, for those of us who find something pleasurable, if perhaps somewhat ineffable, about the act of viewing a 35mm or 16mm film print, it's nice to know before we purchase a ticket to a screening and sit down to watch a film, whether the film we're about to watch is going to really be a physical film running though a mechanical projector, or else a digital projection. Likewise, those of us who are curious about the new frontiers of film distribution technology, and production technology with which it often though not always goes hand-in-hand, might like to know in advance what digital format a festival selection is being shown through as well.

Sundance, at least for the past two years, consistently marks the projection method, whether film or video, and what kind, in its program guide, but SFIFF does not. Thankfully, the Film On Film Foundation had the initiative to request that information from the festival, which was very helpful in agreeing to the request. The resulting list is pretty free of surprises; 1920's The Golem screened in a very nice-looking (if untinted) 35mm print for example, while Craig Baldwin's found-footage mash-up Mock Up On Mu will be shown digitally, as expected. It seems that most if not all of the films being projected digitally are the ones that were shot with digital cameras. I wrote about the way digital production and projection can open up a wider range of options for filmmakers and festival programmers in my SFIFF festival report three years ago (already a bit late to the issue). This year I feel confident saying that Ballast's pictoral virtues would be severely lessened if it were screened digitally instead of in 35mm, as is planned. Likewise, I can't imagine that American Teen could have been made as intimate as it is without the relatively unobtrusive presence of digital cameras. Everything has its place.

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