Monday, April 27, 2009

SFIFF52 Day 5: Empress Hotel

The 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival has completed its first weekend; it runs through May 7th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about one film I've seen or am hotly anticipating.

Empress Hotel (USA: Allie Light & Irving Saraf, 2009)

playing: 6:00 PM tonight at the Kabuki, with two more showtimes including an added screening on the last day of the festival.
festival premiere: Nashville Film Festival 2009
distributor: none that I'm aware of.

Forty years ago, a former lawyer named Frederick Wiseman made a film called Titicut Follies, out of footage he shot inside the Bridgewater (Massachusetts) State Hospital for the criminally insane. Though he had the permission of the hospital and its staff to film inside, after the film's completion a legal decision blocked its screening on the basis that the patients' privacy would be infringed upon. This despite the fact that Wiseman's camera was attempting to benefit the patients by improving their conditions; it showed those few who were able to see the film (before the ban was lifted in 1991) how Bridgewater was maltreating its inmates: housing them naked, force-feeding them in an improper manner, etc.

Empress Hotel is a quite different documentary in almost every regard. It shows life inside a Tenderloin residential hotel intended to provide shelter for people who might otherwise be sleeping on Frisco's sidewalks or in its parks. Though a number of these residents have mental health or addiction issues, they are not "criminally insane" (though it's questionable whether the men in Titicut Follies were, either). They are not being held at the Empress against their will. The film was made in full co-operation from the staff of the hotel, and building manager Roberta Goodman even served as co-producer. More importantly, as suggested by the documentary's subtitle "Stories of the Residents," Empress Hotel was made with the active participation of its subjects. This interview indicates that material the residents wanted omitted from the film indeed was. It's their perspectives and the depiction of their joys and frequent sorrows of living in the center of Frisco's Tenderloin that forms the heart of the film. Like any documentary made by outsiders (in this case Oscar-winning non-fiction filmmaking team Allie Light & Irving Saraf) huge ethical issues of representation are wrangled with, but following in the true cinéma vérité tradition of Jean Rouch (as opposed to the Direct Cinema strand Wiseman stems out of) the presence of the camera is acknowledged and the ethical wrangling becomes a clear part of the finished film.

Light and Saraf make a few choices that I'm not sure work so well; notably during some of the residents testimonials of their life experiences they intercut heavy-handed images of liquor, drugs, and other personal demons the storytellers are describing in the audio track. And the film doesn't seem to know quite how to conclude. Perhaps this is because of the messiness of human existence and our inconclusive narratives. Personally, I would also have liked to see more paralleling of the lives of the "cared for" with those of their "providers" in order to break down the separations that we tend to feel when confronted with people in a so-called "worse off" situation than our own. But ultimately Empress Hotel is a important and eye-opening document. If Titicut Follies led its viewers to understand the tragic indignities of the institution it portrayed, this film is liable to bring a sensitive viewer to a better understanding of the tragic indignities of a society that shunts aside a portion of its population into near-invisibility. A film like Empress Hotel can only be part of the corrective to this sad situation.

SFIFF52 Day 5
Another option: Al Más Allá (MEXICO: Lourdes Portillo, 2008), screening as part of Lourdes Portillo's Persistence of Vision award tribute. I've only seen one of this documentarian's films, Missing Young Woman, but on the basis of that film alone I think she's a worthy choice for the award. Michael Fox seems to be the only critic around who has seen her latest film, but he makes it sound quite interesting.
Non-SFIFF-option for today: Milk (USA: Gus Van Sant, 2008) at the Castro. If you're in town just for the festival and have never seen this award-winning biopic inside the movie theatre much of it was filmed in front of, this is your chance to do so. If you're a resident and haven't seen it there, you'll get another chance May 22-28, when it plays on a double-bill with the documentary the Times of Harvey Milk.

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