Wednesday, April 5, 2017

My 60th San Francisco International Film Festival Plans

Image from Xiu Xiu: the Sent-Down Girl supplied by SFFILM
Goodbye SFIFF. *sniff* Hello SFFILM!

The San Francisco International Film Festival, while celebrating its 60th iteration, is undergoing a major rebranding. As Michael Hawley points out in his March 24 festival preview piece, we saw "hints of impending change in some of the graphics used during last year's festival and now it's become official. Henceforth, the festival's parent organization, the San Francisco Film Society, will be officially known as SFFILM, and the preferred name for its annual festival is the SFFILM Festival." Hawley's been attending since 1976, 23 years longer than I have, so he's seen more dramatic changes over the years (like when it moved from October to April in the early eighties); what I've seen over the past eighteen has generally felt more like natural evolutions and minor tweaks by comparison.

What's in a name? Maybe not much, on it's own. I'm not quite sure what factors played into the change, though when Hawley quotes The Festival's fourth-year Executive Director Noah Cowan as saying it "provides a new kind of flexibility" and "reflects the reality and breadth of our programming" I wonder what former words were found inflexible or unrealistic. "International"? Though the Cowan-era "Marquee Presentations" section of the program, focusing on some of the more accessible, distribution-bound, talent-accompanied titles is perhaps a bit less global in reach than in prior years, it never really was the place to find films made in languages other than English (or perhaps French), and other sections, from "Masters" and "Vanguard" to "Dark Wave" and "Golden Gate Award Competitions", not to mention, of course, "Global Visions", seem to be about as "International" as ever. Furthermore, The Festival seems perfectly happy to use the I-word as long as it's spelled out, which ultimately may give the International component of the event a bit more visibility, not less. I suspect the real culprit is the word "Society" which sounds rather snooty on it's own and not much less so with the word "Film" in front of it, calling to mind the high-minded, European-originating groups also known as cineclubs that sprang up nearly a hundred years ago and that may seem especially alien in a modern digital-distribution-dominated landscape. Or maybe they just wanted to minimize confusion with other SFIFF organizations like the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival or the Syrian Federation of International Freight Forwarders. Of course now someone has to figure out what the all-caps SFFILM might be an acronym for: San Francisco's Foreign, Indie & Local Movies? Some Fab Films I Like, Man? (or Ma'am?) Striking Further Forward Into Limitless Media? Someone's gonna come up with something better than those...

But there are bigger changes for this 60th annual festival than just the name-change. The festival's timing has been moved up fifteen days from the slot in the calendar it had occupied since I started attending in 1999. On an international scale, this gives SFFILM more breathing room before the beginning of Cannes in mid-May. Nationally, it bumps it up to before Tribeca, which has in some previous years proved a thorn in The Festival's side in terms of booking all the films and guests it might have wanted to bring in a perfect world. Locally, the move has already caused some other festivals to shuffle their dates. (Certainly the Green Film Fest, probably SF Cinematheque's  Crossroads too, and I can't help but wonder if CAAMFest's recent announcement that it's moving its traditionally-March-held event to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month for 2018 is partially spurred on by an expectation that SFFILM would be permanently vacating May.) Starting and ending the festival on Wednesdays feels rather earth-shattering in a town in which almost every film festival begins on a Thursday or Friday and ends on a Sunday or Thursday. If it's successful, will this move also be copied by the myriad of other local fests?

Image from The Green Fog - A San Francisco Fantasia supplied by SFFILM
More regular screening venues have been commandeered than ever (at least in my memory) including, for the first time, my beloved (closest to my home and to my workplace of all festival venues) Yerba Buena Center For the Arts, which will utilize its normal 92-seat Screening Room and outfit its 700+ seat Theatre, normally used for live performances and lectures, with DCP projectors. I'm excited to check out a movie or two in a space I never have before. That goes double for the Dolby Cinema space at 1275 Market, which opened for private demonstrations and press screenings last Fall but as far as I know hasn't been available to the ticket-buying public until now; it'll be used only during SFFILM's first weekend. A good number of screenings there are already at RUSH status so if you want to see the space buy your tickets soon if you'd rather not wait in line for a chance at an emptied seat. With the addition of these new spaces, pretty much all of my favorite San Francisco cinemas are being used, the few exceptions being Artists' Television Access (and Craig Baldwin's Other Cinema-within-a-cinema, which brings two programs during SFFILM), and the sporadically-used New People, which is hosting an all-digital Cherry Blossom Film Festival in the second year in a row of the San Francisco International Film Festival's absence from Japantown). Add in BAMPFA in Berkeley as another major venue for ten days, and there's not many options (mainly just the Stanford, which is running a Val Lewton retrospective this month, and the Niles Film Museum) for Frisco Bay cinephiles wanting to attend non-commercial screenings outside The Festival's purview while it's happening. I'm especially pleased that the Castro Theatre is being utilized daily for 12 of the 15 festival days, not just for certain high-profile events like tonight's opening night selection Landline or the amazing-sounding closing night The Green Fog on April 16th (which in this case celebrates the closing of some venues but not others, as screenings continue at the Mission venues the Roxie, Victoria & Alamo for a few days after that), as it usually has been over the past decade-plus.

Which brings me to the other major change I notice in this year's festival: awards presentations. When I first started attending, the San Francisco International Film Festival presented four major awards to cinematic luminaries in four distinct categories. The Akira Kurosawa Award for directing had at that point gone to world cinema titans such as Kurosawa, Robert Bresson, Satyajit Ray, Ousmane Sembène, Manoel de Oliveira, and Im Kwon-Taek, as well as a few genuine Hollywood legends like Arthur Penn and Stanley Donen. Shortly after I began paying attention the awardees began a sixteen-year streak of being either American or else having each directed major English-language hit films. (During this time the award's name changed to the Irving M. Levin Award, after The Festival's 1957 founder.) The vast majority of these more recent awardees were perfectly solid and sometimes inspired choices, but only a few (like Robert Altman and Werner Herzog) tapped into my cinephile pleasure centers as deeply as I might hope, and as a group, even with a Walter Salles here and a Mira Nair there, they didn't feel like they truly embodied the "International" in the festival's name. At least the selections were more diverse than the recipients of the Peter J. Owens Award for acting over the years. Again it's a very solid list of stars who have proved (and in a few cases, later disproved) their serious commitment to acting, but as a group it's all white, mostly male, and nearly all American with only a couple Brits and one Australian to justify the "International" label. By contrast I could rarely quibble with the choice of recipients for the Persistence of Vision Award to directors of animation, documentary, short-form and/or experimental work or the Mel Novikoff Award presented to individuals or institutions (most commonly critics, programmers, distributors, or archivists) whose work has "enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema," both of which have done an excellent job alternating between honoring already-beloved figures and bringing attention to lesser-known but equally vital contributors to a thriving cinephile culture.

I have wonderful memories of attending, often at the Castro Theatre, the public conversations with recipients of each of these four awards, as well as with more recent addition Kanbar Award for screenwriting (notably Paul Schrader's 2015 presentation, though he spoke more about his work as a director and they screened his astonishing Mishima: a Life in Four Chapters, which feels to me more like a director's than writer's achievement.) But I've long assumed that the forces guiding these awardee selections, at least for the Levin, Owens & Kanbar Awards, had their eyes less on these for-the-general-public events and more on the annual Film Society Awards Night black-tie gala events that cost to attend, at minimum, as much as some of the cash prizes for Golden Gate Awards Jury Prize winners. I'd never had anyone who didn't work for the festival admit to me they'd attended these tony affairs, and plopping it in the middle of a two-week cinephile event always felt like a weird disconnect. The disconnect grew a bit wider in the past few years with the addition of a new honor, the George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award, given under apparently rather vague criteria to worthy cinema-related luminaries such as Peter Coyote and Ray Dolby, but with no affordable public program attached. Obviously nonprofit fundraising is important, and if celebrity appearances help grease the wheels so that an organization like SFFILM can fulfill its mission to help foster film culture, I'm not going to dismiss its importance. But there are signs that in the most recent chunk of the San Francisco International Film Festival's six-decade lifespan, it's become overly-important, perhaps even to the detriment of The Festival's public programs. (Did you ever notice one mid-fest night in which the films and guests on offer seemed a bit lackluster in comparison to every other? That was probably the Film Society Awards Night; most of the top-level festival staff was preoccupied with that event and so other programs that night sometimes tended to be easier-to-introduce, guest-free ones).

Image from My Name Is Khan supplied by SFFILM
So I'm really quite happy to hear that this year SFFILM will be moving its gala fundraiser to the Fall (no doubt to coincide with "Awards season") and, if I understand it correctly, taking the Levin, Owens and Kanbar Awards with it. It doesn't mean there aren't plenty of awards and tributes planned for the next few weeks; it just means they've all been arranged with an eye exclusively to the public presentation and not in selling multi-thousand-dollar tables to a fancy dinner. The Mel Novikoff Award is going to a long-overdue local recipient, Tom Luddy, a storied figure in Frisco Bay and indeed international cinephilia, whose accomplishments have partially been recorded by Michael Fox in a recent article. I'm excited to see his screening selections A Long Happy Life (a 1966 Soviet drama I'd never heard of before) and the eight-minute-long Une Bonne à Tout Faire, which must be one of the least-commonly seen things ever directed by Jean-Luc Godard, and to hear his conversation with Todd McCarthy at the Castro this Sunday. The P.O.V. Award will go to Lynn Hersman Leeson, another local with a long history in moving-image art going at least as far back as her involvement in the Maysles Brothers' and Charlotte Zwerin's wonderful 1977 documentary Running Fence. And for the first time the George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award will presented at a public event, this time to Eleanor Coppola at an already-RUSH-status screening of her new Paris Can Wait at SFMOMA. Hopefully we'll soon have a clearer picture about just what this award is for. In addition, The Festival has arranged tributes to philanthropist Gordon Gund, writer/producer/director John Ridley, director/writer/producer James Ivory, actor/writer/director Ethan Hawke and actor/producer Shah Rukh Khan. The others are solid choices but I'm thrilled by this last pick: the biggest movie star in the world will be on hand at the Castro, hopefully to launch a series of annual international star tributes, and the film they're showing is a Bollywood-goes-to-Frisco Bay mini-epic (less than three hours is short for an Indian hit) I've been wanting to see for a while: My Name is Khan. The only way it could be better is if they were instead showing his 1993 film that shares my name: Darr. (I learned about it from a festival volunteer over a decade ago.) Surprisingly, there are still tickets available for this.

Of course the soul of the San Francisco International Film Festival is not found so much in the awards and tributes but in the hundred and eighty or so films being screened over the next fifteen days. Be sure to peruse the surfeit of links collected by David Hudson at Keyframe Daily; I'm particularly partial to the advice of trusted friends Max Goldberg and (again, with a more recently published piece) Michael Hawley, who are helping me guide my own viewing selections along with unmentioned-on-Keyframe articles by Kelly Vance and Lincoln Spector. I'd also be remiss not to mention the Bay Area Film Calendar, which notes which of the SFFILM presentations will involve actual reels of film. For the record, it's four programs (one repeated): Joan Chen in person with a 35mm print of her directorial debut (which stunned me on first release; time for a revisit?) Xiu Xiu: the Sent-Down Girl, 16mm presentations of Jerome Hiler films and Guy Maddin's personal selections from the Canyon Cinema catalog, and the only new 35mm film in the program, a 12-minute short by Brigid McCaffrey called Bad mama, who cares, which plays alongside work by Janie Geiser, Matthias Müller and other experimentalists in the Who Cares, Who Sees shorts program. It's a shame this program's only San Francisco showing is nearly at the same time as the Hiler program; those of us who want to see every last scrap of physical film projected at The Festival will either have to give up a prime Saturday night slot to see Bad mama, who cares at BAMPFA, or try our hardest to race from the Roxie to the Castro in hopes of catching both on the same Monday.

Image from The Death of Louis XIV supplied by SFFILM
Without further ado, my own current program plan for the festival (subject to revision):

Thursday, April 6:
Jem Cohen in person with his World Without End (No Reported Incidents), 6:30, BAMPFA
Albert Serra's The Death of Louis XIV, 8:30, BAMPFA

Friday, April 7:
Isaki Lacuesta & Isa Campo's Next Skin, 3:00, YBCA Screening Room
Bertrand Bonello's Nocturama, 6:00, Castro
Alex Ross Perry's Golden Exits, 9:15, YBCA Theater

Saturday, April 8:
Joan Chen in person with her Xiu Xiu: the Sent-Down Girl, 1:00, SFMOMA
Hong Sangsoo's Yourself and Yours, 8:00, Dolby
Alexandre O. Philippe in person with his 78/52, 10:00, Roxie

Sunday, April 9:
Matt Schrader in person with his Score: a Film Music Documentary, 1:00, Dolby (John Debney also expected)
Mel Novikoff Award to Tom Luddy, presenting Gennayi Shpalikov's A Long Happy Life, 4:00, Castro
James Gray in person with his The Lost City of Z, 7:00, YBCA Theater

Monday, April 10:
Shorts program Who Cares, Who Sees, 6:30, Roxie (Untitled, 1925 Part Three director Madi Piller expected)
Shorts program Parallel Spaces, 8:00, Castro (with live music by Bonnie Prince Billy & Bitchin Bajas)

Tuesday, April 11:
Delphine Coulin & Muriel Coulin's The Stopover, 8:45, Victoria

Wednesday, April 12:
Joshua Bonnetta & J.P. Sniadecki's El Mar La Mar, 6:30, YBCA Screening Room
Barbara Kopple in person with her This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous, 8:30, Victoria (Gigi Gorgeous, Ian Roth & Joshua Gamson also expected)

Thursday, April 13:
Anocha Suwichakornpong's By the Time it Gets Dark, 9:15, Alamo

Friday, April 14:
Zhang Hanyi in person presenting his Life After Life, 4:00, BAMPFA
Tribute to Shah Rukh Khan, presenting Karan Johar's My Name is Khan, 8:30, Castro

Saturday, April 15:
Surprise member screening (for the first time I'm a member this year), 10:00, Alamo
Ramahou Keita and Magaajyia Silberfeld in person with their The Wedding Ring, 2:30, Roxie
Shorts program Canyon Cinema 50, 8:30, SFMOMA (Guy Maddin & Antonella Bonfanti in person)

Sunday, April 16:
Zacharias Kunuk's Maliglutit, 1:30, BAMPFA
Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, and Galen Johnson in person with their The Green Fog, 7:00, Castro (with live music by Kronos Quartet & Jacob Garchik)

Monday, April 17:
Shorts program Shorts 4: New Visions, 8:30, Roxie (It Is What It Is director Cyrus Yoshi Tabar & The Watershow Extravaganza director Sophie Michael expected)

Tuesday, April 18:
Kirill Serebrennikov's The Student, 9:00, Victoria

Wednesday, April 19:
Amat Escalante's The Untamed, 6:00, Victoria
Alejandro Jodorowsky's Endless Poetry, 8:30, Roxie


  1. What a great overview of the state of the Festival. Ironically we created a magazine for the bay area Landmark Theatres back in the early 1980s called "SFFilm." When the internet came along we created the first film website but since the company had grown to have theaters in many parts of the country we called it "filmnet."

    When the SF Film Society started their online magazine I suggested they use SFFilm. I did not think SF360 told people it was about the movies. But they wanted their own branding. Sadly it never caught on enough to survive but it had great content by superb writers.

  2. It certainly did! One of them, Michael Guillén, once honored me by inviting me to contribute to an omnibus article on mothers and movies. And editor Susie Gerhard also was generous enough to include me in various year-end (and decade-end) wrap-ups on occasion. I'm glad the archive is still kept online.