Saturday, March 7, 2009

March (and April) of the Women Filmmakers

A week ago Thursday I passed a major milestone in my cinephilia: I saw Chantel Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles for the first time ever. It was screened in a newly-struck 35mm print from Janus, although reel two was sadly misplaced by another institution showing the film, and had to be sourced from a PAL DVD. The transition between film and video provided a fine lesson in the virtues of celluloid over everyday digital projection; though Jeanne Dielman is more of a narrative film than I had been led to believe, it's singularity derives from the way the narrative "events" of the film are conveyed through the subtle variance of repetition. Some of these subtleties are undoubtedly clouded over by the digital haze of even a superb DVD transfer. What's more, the way the film works as a light & motion study as well as a "story" is undeniably altered when the medium shifts. I don't think I have to tell you which of the two I found more visually glorious. For more about the film, I would like to call attention to a piece on the film written by SFMOMA projectionist Brecht Andersch, who was instrumental in facilitating the mid-screening media switches.

Andersch is also board chair of the Film on Film Foundation, which in addition to having a great blog on local film screenings that almost makes Hell On Frisco Bay feel obsolete (luckily this beat's big enough for more than one interest-drummer to cover), also presents screenings. As mentioned here before, their next event is this Sunday's Ida Lupino double-bill at the Pacific Film Archive, part of a series of actor-turned-auteur programs entitled the Film Gods Shot Back. The case of Ida Lupino is seemingly unique; if there was another woman directing feature films for Hollywood studios in the early 1950s, I'd love to learn her name because I'm certain I've never heard of her before. And it just so happens that this pairing of the Outrage in 16mm and the Bigamist in 35mm is occuring on International Women's Day. Check out Frako Loden's article on these two films at the Evening Class.

March and April might be considered International Women's Season at the PFA. Not only do we have the Lupino twofer, but a major retrospective by the so-called "grandmother of the French New Wave" Agnès Varda. For those like me who have seen landmark films like Vagabond and the Gleaners & I on DVD but never on the big screen, and/or have huge gaps in our experience with Varda's filmography, this series is a godsend. It began last night with La Pointe Courte and her most well-known film Cleo From 5 To 7, but thankfully most of the titles in the series play twice so there's another chance to see them both. Her latest documentary, the Beaches of Agnès, plays April 10th and 11th. I tried to see it at the Portland International Film Festival last month but was turned away for lack of available seats.

If that weren't enough, the PFA also is in the midst of a series entitled Women’s Cinema from Tangiers to Tehran, spotlighting filmmakers from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern Islamic countries. It covers relatively well-known names like Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) and Marziyeh Meshkini (the Day I Became a Woman - a must-see in case you didn't already know that) to little-known figures like Moufida Tlatli (the Silences of the Palace) and the recently-departed Randa Chahal Sabbag (the Kite). The series on essay films the Way of the Termite, curated by Jean-Pierre Gorin continues through the months and includes a trove of rarities, including two directed or co-directed by women, Akerman's Jeanne Dielman-prefiguring Je tu il elle and From Today Until Tomorrow by Danièle Huillet & Jean-Marie Straub. A set of Argentine Experimental Films that includes work by women and men was recently reported on by Jennifer MacMillan, who caught the touring program on its New York stop.

And of course, both the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (Mar. 12-22) and the San Francisco International Film Festival (April 23-May 7) both use the PFA as a venue this Spring and include women-directed films in their lineups. The SFIAAFF's full program is known and includes Jennifer Phang's lo-fi sci-fi Half-Life and Heiward Mak's Hong Kong delinquent film High Noon among others. The SFIFF has started announcing titles as well, though few as yet attached to venues. Its relaunched website has information on competition films, including new directors and documentary features. In the meantime a documentary on philosophers called Examined Life is currently playing on the SFFS Screen at the Kabuki Theatre. It's director Astra Taylor's follow-up to her 2005 film Zizek! (not to be confused with the following year's the Pervert's Guide to Cinema by Sophie Fiennes)

Though I move out out talking about PFA events, I'm going to hang on to the "women filmmakers" thread, as a number of Frisco Bay screening venues which have recently revealed new calendars have films directed by women among the more intriguing and/or recommendable upcoming options.

For instance, the program I'm most interested in catching at the Tiburon Film Festival (Mar. 19-26) is unquestionably Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues, an animated riff on both a tale from the Ramayana and songs from Annette Hanshaw. When last this film played publicly in Frisco (at the SF Film Society's animation festival in November) I hadn't yet been following Paley's blog and was still unaware that this particular intercultural mash-up was causing copyright consternation and that the film would almost certainly be blocked from a "normal" distribution. You have to find it at a film festival or another non-traditional screening venue if you want to see it projected in a big dark room with a bunch of strangers. March 20th provides such a chance in Marin County.

The Red Vic shows Jennifer Baichwal's terrific documentary that considers the aesthetic value of ecological devastation, Manufactured Landscapes, on March 15 & 16. Read my 2007 interview with Baichwal here.

The latest updates to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts calendar include four screenings of Chiara Clemente's Our City Dreams, focusing on five women artists working in New York. That's April 9-12.

The Castro Theatre's March calendar has the dead white male auteurs we know and love on it (Truffaut, Hawks, Fosse) but what of Martha Coolidge, first and thus-far only female president of the Directors Guild of America? She may not be quite as much of a cinephile household name but she's represented at the Castro too, by a MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS-presented screening of Real Genius March 20th. I haven't seen Real Genius since its initial theatrical release back when I was in junior high school, perhaps the perfect demographic for a Val Kilmer college comedy. I loved it then, so why not now? I hope to find out March 20th.

More midnight movies come courtesy of the Landmark After Dark series at the Clay here in Frisco and the Piedmont over in Oakland. The latter will show Mary Harron's American Psycho April 17th and 18th at 11:59 PM.

And then there's the San Francisco Women's Film Festival, running April 1-5. It has just announced its program at its blog.

Finally, Artists' Television Access is celebrating International Women's Day it's own way - slightly belatedly- with a March 12th screening of Under the Same Moon. The venue also hosts two evenings of films by local filmmaker Kerry Laitala on March 13 and March 20.


  1. Thanks for this post, Brian. As always, a wealth of information. I had completely forgotten about the Tiburon Film Festival, which I've never attended despite there ususally being a couple films of interest in their line-up. It's always been a problem with either transportation or scheduling (everything screens just once.) This year the two films I'd like to see are actually showing at times I can see them: Albert Serra's BIRDSONG and JE VEUX VOIR with Catherine Deneuve.

  2. I've never been either, but I've been led to believe by friends who have that it's a convivial event. Hopefully I can make it over this year...

  3. Interesting to be able to track the progress of this print - we had the same problem in the two London (NFT) screenings this weekend, but got a ropey old 16mm print instead of the DVD. I'm not actually sure which would have been worse!

    The level of detail and quality of light in the new print (compared to the film and digital copies previously circulating) is astonishing.

  4. Thanks for the comment! It's disappointing to hear that reel 2 hasn't been reunited with its sisters, but I have to admit that of all the reels, it's probably the ideal one to go missing. Reel 1 would be terrible, as you want to be able to establish the look of a film going in if at all possible. And other than that exception, I think the later in the film a reel went missing, the more distracting/disappointing it would be.