Tuesday, April 16, 2019

SFFILM 62 Day 7: Confidence Game

The 62st San Francisco International Film Festival began a week ago and runs through April 23rd. Each day during the festival I'll be posting about a festival selection I've seen or am anticipating.

A scene from Kathleen Quillian's Confidence Game, playing at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival, April 10-23, 2019. Courtesy of SFFILM
Confidence Game (USA: Kathleen Quillian, 2018)
playing: 8:30PM today at the Roxie as part of the Shorts 4: Animation program

Some of my favorite things seen so far at SFFILM this year have been shorts. Madeline Anderson's I Am Somebody, for instance, screened as part of her Persistence of Vision Award presentation Saturday, was a rousing, formally inventive half-hour documentary about a 1969 hospital workers' strike in Charleston, South Carolina, that included footage of Coretta Scott King orating in support of the strikers just a year after her husband's assassination. On a completely different tack, the latest nine-minute mindfuck from Guy Maddin and his recent co-directors Galen and Evan Johnson is called Accidence, and it's probably my favorite new Maddin work in dozen years, starting as a planimetric riff on Rear Window and turning quickly into something much more diabolical. It was the warm-up for each screening of The Grand Bizarre over the past few days.

But tonight I'll finally begin to start watching some of the Golden Gate Awards-eligible shorts at the festival. The Shorts 4: Animation program includes ten separate pieces representing seven North American and (mostly Eastern) European countries. Six are by women animators, including the only one by a filmmaker whose work I'm already familiar with: Kathleen Quillian. Her piece Confidence Game made its local debut on a program that I was able to attend a year ago at Craig Baldwin's notorious Other Cinema (where, incidentally, she'll be premiering another new work this coming Saturday) and I liked it enough to place it on my list of top 20 shorts as part of Senses of Cinema's latest World Poll. I've written a bit about Quillian's work before, for instance on the occasion of her 2011 piece Fin de Siècle screening at a 30th Anniversary marathon presentation at Artists' Television Access. But Confidence Game feels like another leap forward for her. Her tendency to center objects in the frame, when repeated against various collage backdrops, gives the piece a hypnotic effect that I'm certain is completely intentional, given the thematic interest in cults of personality that the work is clearly expressing. She ends Confidence Game with an almost psychedelic finale that includes stroboscopic flashing backgrounds, so be forewarned if that sort of thing gives your senses too much of a workout.

I haven't made a terribly close comparison, but it seems like there are more shorts programs in this year's SFFILM than I've ever seen in 20 years of attending. In addition to Shorts 4: Animation there the usual Golden Gate Award contender programs devoted to shorts by and for youngsters. The usual two programs of GGA-nominated documentary and narrative shorts have been expanded to three, and the New Visions program of experimental and form-expanding works appears to be quite strong this year, with new work by Akosua Adoma Owusu, Zachary Epcar, Laura Huertas Millán, Sandra Davis, etc. The New Visions section of the Golden Gate Awards was on the chopping block twenty-five years ago, and saved only due to an outcry from the local experimental film community. You can read a bit about that in this excellent interview between Russell Merritt and SFFILM artistic director Rachel Rosen.

One program that's gone missing this year, after nearly as long, is the annual co-presentation between SF Cinematheque and the Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA). This was another set of experimental short films, differing from the New Visions program in various ways over the years. Perhaps because it was an out-of-competition program it tended to involve more 16mm and sometimes even 35mm prints, more work by established artists (though not exclusively so), and more flexibility in terms of the recency of completion; sometimes a program would include a new restoration of a short film made decades prior among a program of new works, and sometimes even the new works weren't always so new, having traveled on the generally slower experimental film festival circuit for a few years before making their way to their first San Francisco and Berkeley screenings. One might argue the need for two programs of experimental work at the festival has been made unnecessary by the sprouting of new festivals devoted entirely or almost entirely to such work: Crossroads, Camera Obscura and Light Field come quickly to mind. But I'm not as certain of the stability of all these younger organizations when compared to the venerable San Francisco International Film Festival, and more importantly I think there's a lot of value in SFFILM's long-standing "big tent" approach to bringing together different, sometimes fractuous communities together to see each other's work and have discussions about it. The loss of one program, even one that's run for 24 years straight, doesn't destroy that but it puts a damper on it.

I'm curious to know the reason for the loss of this program. I wasn't satisfied by the answer I got when I asked about it at SFFILM's program announcement press conference in March. I was told the reason for the change is because the festival wanted all the shorts programs to feature works in competition. That doesn't seem to hold water though, because of the existence of the Shorts 8 program, bringing together two of three Netflix-owned shorts. Both are out-of competition even though the third Netflix short, Life Overtakes Me,appears in the Shorts 1 program and is Golden Gate Award eligible. There must be some other reason.

Anyway, the festival has more than made up for absence of the SF Cinematheque/BAMPFA program in quantity at any rate, by highlighting shorts in their Persistence of Vision Award presentation, to the shorts presented in last night's Evening With Kahlil Joseph and in the Friday night live music presentation that I talk a bit about in the last paragraph of this post. Read on...

SFFILM62 Day 7
Other festival options: Today's the final screening of the Vanguard section of SFFILM, Lapü, about the Wayuú people, who also feature in the recent crime saga Birds of Passage. It screens 4:00PM at YBCA, followed by the final festival showings of the Uruguayan feature Belmonte at 6:15PM, and finally Mariam Ghani's documentary on the re-opening of Afghanistan's national film archive, What We Left Unfinished at 8:30PM. I've heard good buzz on all three so it might be a good place to camp out for the afternoon and evening.

Non-SFFILM option: A terrific set of 16mm shorts comes to the Coppola Theatre at San Francisco State University at 6:30 tonight. There's animation (Sally Cruikshank's Quasi at the Quckadero), documentary (the Miles Brothers' Mt. Tamalpais and Muir Woods Railway), found footage classics (Arthur Lipsett's Very Nice, Very Nice and Bruce Conner's Valse Triste) and live-action based experimental films (Bruce Baillie's Mass for the Dakota Sioux and Maya Deren's A Study in Choreography for Camera, which is not among the Deren shorts screening digitally with a new, live soundtrack replacing Teiji Ito's scores at the Castro Friday), showcasing some of the diversity of treasures in the J. Paul Leonard Library collection at SFSU. This collection was the source for one of my favorite film screenings so far this year; it holds one of two known prints of SFMOMA Art In Cinema curator Frank Stauffacher's own filmed mini-masterpiece Sausalito, which showed in late January at BAMPFA with Stauffacher's widow Barbara Stauffacher Solomon on hand to discuss its filming and reception among other topics. Though Sausalito is not among tonight's showings, it will hardly be missed in such a strong line-up (I vouch for five of the six films and perhaps if there's a large enough turnout future screenings from the J. Paul Leonard Library collection might be organized. Best of all, this program is FREE to all!

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