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Reflecting on the Past, Looking to the Future: San Francisco International Film Festival Celebrates Golden Anniversary

By Margarita Landazuri

From Gary Leva's Fog CIty Mavericks

The San Francisco International Film Festival is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. And the oldest film festival in the Americas is marking the anniversary by looking back, looking forward and celebrating Bay Area filmmakers.

The backward look, which has actually been going on for several years, went into high gear over the past year, as a treasure trove of nuggets from the festival's history have been posted on its website: a database of listings of films shown, awards and guests; historical photos and articles based on the vast archive of festival records and newspaper clippings; audio and video clips of interviews and retrospectives with stars such as Bette Davis and directors such as Akira Kurosawa; and oral histories with key festival figures such as Claude Jarman, Jr., the former child star who headed the festival from 1967 to 1979, and Irma Levin, widow of founder Irving "Bud" Levin.

Levin, an exhibitor who owned a string of movie theaters in the city, was an avid foreign film buff. The first San Francisco International Film Festival debuted in December 1957 with a 14-day event showing films from a dozen different countries. That first year, Satyajit Ray's debut film, Pather Panchali (1955), won the Golden Gate Award as best film. The awarding of prizes for best film, director, actor and actress went on for several years, but after complaints from Hollywood about competition (and withholding of films by American studios and international distributors), festival leaders changed the emphasis of the awards system away from narrative features.

By the late 1980s, The Golden Gate Awards had become something entirely different, honoring short and feature-length documentaries, experimental films, animation, films made for television and films by Bay Area filmmakers. But the recognition for local filmmakers has never been the festival's focus. "It's not meant to be a showcase for Bay Area filmmakers," says festival executive director Graham Leggat. "For 50 years the festival has been a showcase for world cinema--but anytime we find a Bay Area film that measures up to the standards of excellence that we hold for the festival in general, we are ecstatic." That it happens quite frequently is indicative of the breadth of talent in the Bay Area.

Documentaries have been a part of the festival from the beginning. The first festival included an elegant British documentary, The Bolshoi Ballet (1957), directed by Paul Czinner, documenting performances of the famed Russian ballet company. Music and performance documentaries have been among the festival's biggest draws. Murray Lerner's Festival (1967), about the Newport Folk Festival, caught iconic performers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at turning points in their careers. In 1968, Yellow Submarine delighted Beatles fans and animation buffs. The 1984 sold-out world premiere of the Talking Heads concert film, Stop Making Sense, directed by Jonathan Demme, had the closing night audience dancing in the aisles. In 1998, hundreds of disappointed fans were turned away from a rare screening of Robert Frank's Cocksucker Blues (1972), a behind-the-scenes look at the sex-drugs-and-rock 'n' roll world of a Rolling Stones concert tour. The Stones had commissioned the film, but were so dismayed by its warts-and-all portrayal that they sued to stop its release. A compromise allowed it to be shown only when Frank was in attendance, which he was on this occasion, as the recipient of the festival's Persistence of Vision award. It was the first time that Frank, best known as a photographer, was ever honored for his film work.

The Persistence of Vision Award, instituted in 1997, honors lifetime achievement for documentaries, short films, animation or television works. Documentarians honored, in addition to Frank, include the BBC's Adam Curtis (2005), Jon Else (2004), Fernando Birri (2002) and Johan Van Der Keuken (1999). This year, the award will go to Peruvian-born Dutch filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, a festival favorite. Six of her docs and one fiction film have played at the festival since the mid-1990s. Her latest, to be shown at this year's festival, is Forever (2006), a meditation on the influence of artists buried in Paris' famed Pre Lachaise cemetery, from Frederic Chopin to Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust to Simone Signoret. Honigmann focuses on some of the people who pay homage at the tombs, and what art means in their lives.

"There is a great history of documentary filmmaking in the Bay Area," says Leggat. And the festival has programmed many films by local filmmakers, including John Korty's Who Are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? (1977), Jon Else's The Day After Trinity (1981) and Sam Green and Bill Siegel's The Weather Underground (2003). Leggat continues, "There's also a great history of appreciation for documentary films, whether it's because San Franciscans and Bay Area residents have a particular interest in an enlightened world view, or getting to the bottom of things, or social consciousness."

Among the documentaries that proved memorable for local audiences were Peter Davis' controversial, Oscar-winning look at the Vietnam conflict, Hearts and Minds (1974), called in the program notes "the most compelling and affecting documentary ever made." In 1976, blacklisted screenwriter Lester Cole and blacklisted actress Gale Sondergaard shared their experiences at a sold-out screening of David Halpern's Hollywood on Trial (1976), about the McCarthy-era Communist witch-hunts. Last year, screenings of Eric Steel's The Bridge (2006), about suicides off the Golden Gate Bridge, and Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple (2006) offered festival audiences unforgettable in-person appearances by survivors of those life-changing traumas.

This anniversary year is an appropriate time to celebrate filmmaking in the Bay Area, and the festival has just the film to do itthe world premiere of Gary Leva's Fog City Mavericks (2007). It's a history of the adventurousness and innovation of local filmmakers from the very earliest silent days, with Broncho Billy Anderson's Essanay studios in Niles Canyon, through the mid-century experimental films of Bruce Conner, which were first shown at the festival in 1959, and the '70s and '80s giants Francis Coppola and George Lucas, to today's blockbuster animation studio, Pixar. Many of those legendary filmmakers will be in attendance at the event. "The serendipity of having Fog City Mavericks could not be better," says Leggat. Lucas will also be on hand to receive a one-time-only award--the Irving "Bud" Levin Award, honoring both Levin's and Lucas' love of film, innovation and entrepreneurship.

This year's festival has a special spotlight section called "Cinema by the Bay," which features the work of local filmmakers, including new films by documentarians Les Blank and Jon Else. Blank's latest, All This Tea, celebrates tea in the same way that he celebrated garlic in Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980). Else's Wonders Are Many returns to his Day After Trinity subject, J. Robert Oppenheimer, with a look at the world premiere production of John Adams' opera, Doctor Atomic (2006) by the San Francisco Opera. Edie and David Ichioka's Murch (2006) profiles the Bay Area's great editor and sound designer, Walter Murch. Lynn Hershman Leeson's Strange Culture (2007) uses her own highly original style to tell the true story of an artist accused of terrorism. And independent director Rob Nilsson gets a tribute. "We were lucky enough to have all these great films at this moment," says Leggat. "It's important to us this year to honor our tradition, and part of honoring our tradition is honoring the tradition of the Bay Area."

But Leggat is anything but tradition-bound. Over the past year, the festival has introduced, an online film magazine about Bay Area filmmaking; San Francisco Movie Night, on which people gather all over the city to watch the same film and discuss it; and SF360 Film Club, a monthly "social screening" at a bar. In his second year as head of the festival, Leggat continues to push the boundaries of what a film festival is.

This year's innovation, International Online, is a partnership with Jaman, a Bay Area-based online community for world cinema. The initiative will offer online screenings of a selection of festival feature films. With his enthusiastic embrace of new media, technology and innovation, Leggat is keeping the festival very much within the tradition of Bay Area filmmaking that's being celebrated at this year's 50th.


Margarita Landazuri is a San Francisco-based writer and producer.