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Festival Focus: San Francisco International Film Festival

By Margarita Landazuri

From Michael Glawogger's 'Workingman's Death,' which won the Golden Gate Award for Documentary Feature

The new executive director of the San Francisco International Film Festival, Graham Leggat, arrived in town with a circus full of ideas, from projecting huge images of actress Tilda Swinton on the outside of the city's Beaux Arts City Hall, to interactive mashups of snippets from various festival films, shown at a popular bar. These eye-catching gimmicks had little to do with serious movie-watching, but one that did was actually a warm-up event a few days before the festival began.

San Francisco Movie Night was the cinematic equivalent of a book club. On a given evening, people gathered at house parties all over the city to watch and discuss Street Fight, Marshall Curry's Oscar-nominated documentary about the 2002 Newark, New Jersey mayoral election. In an activist city like San Francisco, the film was a call to political action, and a rousing kickoff for the festival.

Within the festival itself, Guerrilla News Network (GNN) co-founder Ian Inaba's American Blackout was also call for an end to politics as usual. The film focuses on voting irregularities in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, and on the career of Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, with allegations of a systematic disenfranchisement of black voters. After the screenings, McKinney and members of GNN talked about using the film as an organizing tool for the 2006 elections, and asked for audience input to that end.

As always, there were several films with a Bay Area focus, and Eric Steel's The Bridge was the most compelling and controversial. The film looks at the Golden Gate Bridge as both an iconic landmark and as the most popular suicide destination in the world. Steel and two crews filmed the bridge over the course of a year, and recorded 23 deaths. The film begins with one of these deaths, and several more jumps are interspersed throughout, as the film explores, through interviews with friends and families, what led these troubled souls to end their lives.

Steel deceived bridge authorities when he applied for permission to shoot continuously, telling them he wanted to record the bridge in all conditions for a film on national landmarks. The beauty and changing moods of the bridge are indeed magnificently photographed, making its dark allure understandable. But Steel also did not tell the families he interviewed that he had their loved ones' deaths on film until after shooting was finished, raising disturbing ethical and moral issues. In question-and-answer sessions following the screenings, Steel said the deception was necessary because he did not want potential suicides to be attracted by the possibility of their deaths being "immortalized on film." He said he wants the film to be used for suicide prevention education, and favors building a suicide barrier on the bridge.

Another film with visceral impact was Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple, winner of the Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Documentary Feature. The mass murder/suicide of Reverend Jim Jones and more than 900 of his followers is familiar to many Bay Area residents. Jones and his flock spent several years in San Francisco before emigrating to the jungles of Guyana, and over 400 victims are buried in a mass grave in Oakland. The film revives traumatic memories, and offers never-before-seen footage and survivor interviews. One of those survivors, Jones' adopted son, was at the screenings, and held the audience spellbound with his recollections and his ambivalence about his heritage. "I'm very proud to be Jim Jones Jr.," he said. "I'm grateful for the gifts he gave me. But I've had to come to terms with the paradox."

Among the international documentaries at the festival was The Dignity of the Nobodies, the second of Argentine director Fernando Solanas' planned four films documenting Argentina's social and economic collapse and its effect on its citizens. More hopeful than its predecessor, A Social Genocide (2004), the film celebrates ordinary people and how they managed to survive and fight back. Shot mostly with small digital cameras by Solanas himself, the images are stark and striking, and framed with a painterly eye. Solanas also narrates, linking the stories with aptly heroic-sounding poetry that pays tribute to the determination of his subjects.

Ordinary workers were also the focus of the Golden Gate Award winner for Best Feature Documentary, Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death. The Austrian filmmaker traveled to places such as a coal mine in the Ukraine, a volcanic sulfur pit in Indonesia and a slaughterhouse in Nigeria, where people still perform hard manual labor. The film is best in its surreal juxtapositions: the eerie beauty of the sulfur pits; the rhythmic movements of the workers, and their banal conversations about Bon Jovi and sex; the cheerful vendors in the slaughter yard, hawking "Innards! Skin! Heads!" as they walk through blood and gore and haggle over prices; a Disneylandish sound-and-light show in an abandoned German smelting works that has been turned into an ber-hip art installation. But for long stretches, the film is as mind-numbingly tedious as the work performed. Perhaps that's the point.

Other notable international documentaries included Patrick Bisschops' Strangers in the Neighborhood, an offbeat take on race relations in The Netherlands. The tensions between immigrant Turks and native Dutch in a working-class neighborhood in The Hague is seen through the prism of a shared passion for pigeon racing. In Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei's The Giant Buddhas, the destruction of the 1500-year old Buddha statues in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 2001 becomes an elegant and eloquent meditation on culture, identity and loss.

Near the end of the festival, co-director Magnus Bejmar introduced Smiling in a War Zone to an audience of middle-school students by saying, "We wanted to make a documentary that wasn't boring, that wasn't about homicide, genocide or pesticide." I knew what he meant. Not only did I have festival battle fatigue, but I had watched way too much footage of war zones in my job as a TV news writer. So I passed up undoubtedly worthy films such as Iraq in Fragments, Shooting Under Fire and Encounter Point for the quirky, funny, suspenseful and uplifting Smiling in a War Zone, the story of performance artist, pilot and co-director Simone Aaberg Kaern's quixotic flight from Denmark to Afghanistan in a small plane to give flying lessons to a teenage Afghan girl who wants to be a fighter pilot. Despite hard-to-read subtitles, the film obviously engaged the audience of predominantly adolescent girls. Their questions afterward showed that they identified with both Aaberg Kaern, who was not at the festival because she'd just given birth to her and Bejmar's daughter, and with her teenage protge, whose dream was only partly realized.


Margarita Landazuri is a San Francisco-based freelance writer, critic and news writer.