Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The 61st San Francisco International Film Festival: Forgetting the Alamo?

Image from supplied by SFFILM
Since last September, my moviegoing habits have been dramatically altered. As any longtime reader of this blog (and/or its appallingly garish predecessor) would probably guess, I've for many years treated the San Francisco Bay Area cinema scene like my own personal buffet table, sampling as many different kinds of films as I could from different eras, genres, nations and formats (with an admitted bias towards 35mm, 16mm and 70mm, especially for films originating in those gauges) at any venue I could reasonably visit, given the limits of time, money and public transportation. It has seemed to me that too many people are looking for any excuse not to go to the cinema, an attitude I've found dismaying.

But after Tim League, the CEO of Alamo Drafthouse, LLC admitted nearly seven months ago that he'd secretly hired back a former employee who had resigned after confessing to sexual assault, I could no longer see myself supporting the local link in his growing national cinema chain in any way. I'd attended and enjoyed dozens of screenings at the New Mission Theatre since it had been refurbished and reopened under Alamo auspices in late 2015. I had (and still have) nothing but respect for the New Mission employees and programming. But I wanted Tim League and his Austin-based enablers to feel some repercussions for their extremely (if not criminally) poor judgement. So on September 12, 2017 I sold back all my advance tickets to Alamo screenings and said goodbye to the staff of Lost Weekend video, which for the past few years has been housed in the New Mission lobby. I haven't been back inside the building since. (Now I limit my DVD/Blu-Ray rentals to what I can find at Faye's or Video Wave). With more damning details about Alamo's Austin operations coming out since, I don't regret anything except that I don't see as many of my cinephile peers coming to the same decision as I'd expected. I do remain hopeful that someday League might publicly answer the hard questions about his management decisions and make meaningful amends so that his brand, which had traded so heavily on themes of inclusiveness, progressive politics, and respect for the patron experience, can begin to be genuinely rehabilitated. So far reports of company changes have felt like little more than window dressing.

Depriving myself of the Alamo Drafthouse was a big change for someone who prided himself on seeking out as many of the best, most unique screenings in the region as he could, but it was an easy decision. Harder was taking the next logical step of writing to the many local film presenters and organizations that have partnered with Alamo to hold events at the New Mission in the years since it re-opened, asking their intentions about involving Alamo in future presentations and making clear that I wouldn't be attending their events held at any venue if they continued to work with League's company. Few organizations got back to me and none wanted me to publish their response publicly, for reasons I can only speculate on. (My best guess is that making public statements on this topic puts a festival at a disadvantage when negotiating with other venues?) But when organizations I'd previously supported, such as SF Sketchfest, Noise Pop, or the Jewish Film Institute, continued hosting events at the New Mission, I determined not to attend or promote their events at other venues like the Castro, no matter how appealing they were.

Image from Ravenous supplied by SFFILM
With this as the backdrop, I was thrilled to discover at last month's press conference for the San Francisco International Film Festival that in 2018 SFFILM would not be using the New Mission as a festival venue as they had in 2016 and 2017. From my perspective, SFFILM was the first established Bay Area film organization to publicly partner with Alamo Drafthouse, LLC when for their 2015 festival they brought Tim League on to guest curate and co-host their annual (rebranded from "Late Show") "Dark Wave" screenings at the Roxie and the Clay, months before construction on the New Mission was completed. As the longest-running film festival in town (not to mention, depending on your definitions, in the Western Hemisphere), SFFILM often sets trends that other major nearby film festivals follow. It feels only right that they be the first film festival to publicly distance themselves from the Alamo Drafthouse in the wake of Tim League's misjudgments, especially since such an action dovetails so neatly with the "Bay Area values" that were frequently touted at the press conference and in subsequent write-ups, and with SFFILM Executive Director Noah Cowan's remarks found on the inside cover of the festival program guide, and reprinted online.

To be sure, SFFILM's distancing from the Drafthouse was not a forcefully presented statement, but it it was clearly presented, and that's good enough for me. When I asked at the press conference if the decision not to use the New Mission this year was due to the scandals at the company's Texas headquarters, Cowan responded that SFFILM looks forward to continuing its relationship with the Alamo Drafthouse in the future as the latter's issues were being resolved, but that the festival would take a break from the New Mission this year while that was happening. It may not have been the rousing battle cry for institutional change at the Drafthouse that I'd dreamed of, but having a major regional festival put a pause on its partnership is still one of the very few concrete consequences for that company I can think of happening in the past months. Nonetheless, I'm not too surprised that, Lincoln Specter's initial Bayflicks festival announcement reaction aside, none of the 2018 SFFILM previews, articles, or interviews I've come across so far (as always, David Hudson has collected the best of them) have mentioned the reason why the New Mission is not among the venues this year. Six months on from the initial reporting on Harvey Weinstein's far fouler misdeeds, it sometimes feels like there's a general fatigue with #MeToo in the film industry, sadly, as a noble and important movement is now being improperly co-opted as a shield for the cowardly actions of ignoble institutions. Of course the Tim League story predates all of this, but it never really got enough traction to be taken seriously outside a few insular circles that most Bay Area journalists probably aren't paying close attention to. Perhaps if it's talked about more in the context of SFFILM's decision the overall conversation might change, even nationally. I hope so.

But now that I've got all that off my chest, I can dwell on my excitement about this year's films and guests. This year's SFFILM has plenty of events that make me feel so relieved I'll be able to attend without compromising my principles. I'll be writing about some of these in more detail in the coming days, but for now, here's my planned schedule, which if last year's schedule is any indication, will change by about 30% over the course of the next two weeks, but may still provide a good snapshot of what I'm most interested in.

Image from The Rider supplied by SFFILM
Thursday, April 5:
Chloé Zhao's The Rider, 3:30, SFMOMA
Larent Cantet's The Workshop, 6:00, Roxie
Dominique Choisy in person with My Life With James Dean, 8:30, Roxie

Friday, April 6:
Golden Gate Persistence of Vision Award to Nathaniel Dorsky, presenting Avraham, Intimation, Autumn & The Dreamer in 16mm, 6:00, SFMOMA (interviewer Steve Anker also expected)
Paul Schrader presenting his First Reformed, 8:45, Victoria

Saturday, April 7:
Creativity Summit: Alex Garland in Conversation, 2:00, Creativity Theater
Shorts program Shorts 3: Animation, 5:00, Roxie (Carlotta's Face director Valentin Riedl, Oh Hi Anne director Anne McGuire, 73 Questions director Leah Nicholas & Weekends director Trevor Jimenez expected)
Tribute to Wayne Wang, presenting his Smoke, 7:30, Dolby (interviewer H.P. Mendoza also expected)

Sunday, April 8:
Guy Maddin giving the festival's annual State of Cinema address, 12:30, Victoria
Mohammad Rasoulof's A Man of Integrity, 3:15, BAMPFA
Johann Lurf's 7:00, YBCA

Monday, April 9:
Hong Sangsoo's Claire's Camera, 4:00, SFMOMA
A Celebration of Oddball Films with Marc Capelle's Red Room Orchestra in 16mm, 8:00, Castro

Tuesday, April 10:
Steve Loveridge's Matangi / Maya / M.I.A., 9:00, Grand Lake

Wednesday, April 11:
Shorts program The Shape of a Surface: Experimental Shorts, including some in 16mm, 6:30, Roxie (unnamed director(s) expected)
Blonde Redhead with I Was Born, But... in 35mm, 8:00, Castro

Thursday, April 12:
Rungano Nyoni's I Am Not A Witch, 6:00, Roxie
Kornél Mundruczó's Jupiter's Moon, 9:30, Castro

Friday, April 13:
Sandi Tan presenting her Shirkers, 6:00, BAMPFA
Ulises Porra Guardiola & Silvina Schnicer presenting their Tigre, 8:30, BAMPFA

Saturday, April 14:
Mel Novikoff Award to Annette Insdorff, presenting Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be in 35mm, 1:00, SFMOMA (interviewer Anita Monga also expected)
No evening SFFILM screening; I'm hosting a FREE open-to-the-public screening of Ricardo Gaona's Parque Central with Lizzy Brooks's Temporal Cities at 7:00, 234 Hyde Street in San Francisco, both filmmakers in person.

Sunday, April 15:
George Gund III Craft of Cinema Award to Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, presenting End Game, 1:00, Castro (interviewer B. Ruby Rich also expected)
Robert Greene's Bisbee '17, 4:00, Creativity Theatre
Gus Van Sant presenting his Don't Worry He Won't Get Far On Foot, 7:00, Castro (composer Danny Elfman also expected)

Monday, April 16:
Robin Aubert's Ravenous, 8:45, Victoria

Tuesday, April 17:
Bing Liu's Minding the Gap, 8:45, Roxie

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