Bright Lights Film Journal

Everyday Freaks and Fantasy Wars: The 2005 San Francisco International Film Festival


It was the best of times . . .

Running parallel to the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival were a surprisingly large number of other celebrations of film, including the 4th San Francisco Sex Workers Film & Arts Festival, REEL San Francisco (a month-long festival of films set in San Francisco), the 2005 Spring Asian Film Series, and the Santa Cruz Film Festival a couple of hours down the coast.

Based on how long it’s taken me to write this review (the fest ran April 21 to May 5, 2005), I’m thinking maybe I should have gone slumming at one of the other festivals. Maybe the SF festival, at 185 films, 49 countries, 14 world premières, is getting too big for its britches. Maybe I needed the edge of a Sex Workers Film & Arts Festival to get my juices flowing. Maybe. But while the San Francisco International Film Festival at times could be best described as controlled chaos, its directors, while not batting 1,000, did pull in a delicious array of excellent films.

My personal favourite was a sweet little documentary called Life in a Box, the “box” being a 20-foot trailer that is home to Y’all, queer country-western duo James Dean Jay Byrd and Steven Cheslik-DeMeyer. DeMeyer directed this quirky, engaging, completely charming “accidental” documentary of their life on the road – accidental because they only started filming when convinced by a friend to do so. If you don’t know y’all, and I did not, you should. I fell in love with everything about them – their artistry, their struggles, their queer little selves – Jay in the green dress, Steven in the overalls – their music, how they live and love. Out and proud, these boys do not stay in the comfy queer ghetto but take their music to the heartland (think small halls in back country towns of the Bible Belt) where it is inspiring to see how they are fervently embraced. We struggle with them as they temporarily become a threesome, lovingly working through jealousies and musical abilities alike. They’re not trying to join anybody else’s dysfunction; they’re just trying to live their lives as true to who they are as possible. DeMeyer manages to catch their spirit on film and make us care about them in the process.

Pursuit of Equality, on the other hand, was not much more than free advertising for San Francisco’s mayor, Gavin Newsom. Led by Newsom, the city of San Francisco started issuing same-sex marriage licenses in February of 2004 and continued until ordered by the California Supreme Court in March of 2004 to stop. It was an exhilarating time as 3,900 couples were married and the nation’s debate on equality took center stage. While not a marriage supporter myself, I believe absolutely in the right of free choice and my respect for Newsom rose mightily as he stood up for what he believed was the right thing to do. I also had high expectations of this film and went out of my way to see it. Directed by Geoff Callan and Mike Shaw, Pursuit of Equality documents this pioneering event, from the marriage of lesbian icons (and now senior citizens) Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon to the thousands on the street waiting for their license to the behind the scenes moments with the mayor and his senior staff. While interesting, it wasn’t the ground-breaking film I was hoping for. It weighed too heavily on the workings of Gavin Newsom and not enough (for my liking) on the multitude of emotions involved when someone is forced to fight for their right to equality. The most moving moment in the film is when the adult son of Jeanne Rizzo and Pali Cooper, the first same-sex couple to be denied a marriage license on March 11, 2004 tries to explain what it means that his parents would not be allowed to marry. “My family isn’t safe,” he said, tears rolling down his cheek, and suddenly the audience understands what this young man (and many more like him) has been living with. I wanted more of that side of the story.

Despite the United States’ esteemed Congress renaming “french fries” to “freedom fries” in their little sniff over France’s opposition to the war in Iraq, France was the most heavily represented nation (after the U.S.) at the festival. One of the most interesting of their entries was The Last Mitterrand, a fictionalized account of the last months in the life of the late French socialist president, François Mitterrand. Directed by Robert Guediguian, a portrait of not only the man, but his country, politics, and history itself, is brilliantly laid before us in what is essentially a dialogue between Mitterrand and his young biographer (played by Jalil Lespert). Michel Bouquet was so convincing in the lead role, Mitterrand’s real-life friends were apparently moved by it. Whether true to life or not, The Last Mitterrand is a film well worth seeing for political junkies and novices alike.

Kings and Queen, directed by Arnaud Desplechin, is another film that proves the French know how to tell an old story in new, edgy, and creative ways. There’s a triangle of sorts here – Nora (Emmanuelle Devos) is a 35-year-old director of an art gallery engaged to marry a wealthy businessman; Ismael (played by Mathieu Amalric, who won the 2005 Best Actor César award for this role) is her ex-lover, tax dodger, violinist about to be committed to a mental asylum; there’s Nora’s father, who’s dying, and her 10-year-old son, whom she now believes only Ismael can care for. And oh yes, there’s the sublimely, ever perfect Catherine Deneuve playing Ismael’s psychiatrist in the hospital. Kings and Queen is both funny and tragic, knitting together parallel plots of a single mother caring for her ailing, not very kind father, and a musician seeking escape from a mental ward into a highly entertaining and intelligent story.

Not so intelligent were two films, both U.S. collaborations, that held a lot of promise but for different reasons didn’t quite step up to their inherent possibilities. The Boys of Baraka, a U.S./Kenya collaboration, is the story of 20 at-risk Baltimore high school students (all boys) who are selected to attend the Baraka School in Kenya’s bush country in order to have a shot at something other than jail or death. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady document two years in the lives of these boys and their families, their dreams, their wins and losses, the culture shock they manage to survive in Kenya, and ultimately their transformation. It’s a fascinating story, but unfortunately the one told in the film is incomplete and therefore ultimately unsatisfying. We never understand why Baraka, who funds it, who started it when and why, what happens to the boys after (there is only a partial follow-up). We see 20 black boys being sent to Kenya where the headmaster is white, the principal is white, the administrator is white, and most of the teachers are white. What do the Africans think of the program? Unless a sequel is planned, we’ll never know.

Touch the Sound, a U.S./Germany collaboration directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer (Rivers and Tides), documents the work of Scottish master percussionist Evelyn Glennie, deaf since childhood. While there is much to love about this film (gorgeous cinematography, Glennie’s improvisational genius, the music itself), one can’t help but think that Riedelsheimer just didn’t think through how to tell the story. Touch the Sound is in desperate need of an editor, and given that Riedelsheimer edited the film himself, it could be that he was just too close to the story to give it the justice it deserves.

I have always been a fan of director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling), and, while there was much I liked about his latest film, Palindromes, it was almost too signature. It’s as though Solondz is bored with himself and trying to see what he can get away with. The film is dedicated “In loving memory of Dawn Weiner,” the lead character from Dollhouse (played by Heather Matarazzo), who we learn in Palindromes has killed herself after being date-raped and impregnated. The film opens with her funeral. In real life, Solondz had been trying, unsuccessfully, to persuade Matarazzo to act in his post-Dollhouse films. I guess this was his way of moving on. Palindromes revolves around 12-year-old Aviva (played by eight different actresses of different ages, races, and sexes), whose primary goal is to get pregnant. While her excessive mother (played by Ellen Barkin) insists she get an abortion when she attains her goal, Aviva ends up at Mama Sunshine’s (Debra Monk) evangelical home for the discarded. From there, we’ve got child molesters, rapists, killers of abortionists, and everyday freaks. There are some classic moments that still make me laugh out loud, but it just doesn’t come together in the manner I’ve come to expect from Todd Solondz.

The wonderful thing about film festivals is that you see the difference, up close and personal, between creative works of art that lead and not-so-creative works that follow the norm. Take as examples Pin Boy, an Argentina/Belgium entry by director Ana Poliak, and November, a U.S. entry by director Greg Harrison. Pin Boy is the story of a young Argentinean who has moved from the country to the city and is living with his cousin in a small apartment in Buenos Aires. He gets a job picking up pins in the last of the manually managed bowling alleys. The opening sequence is one of the most languidly erotic moments in film that I have seen even though it really had nothing to do with eroticism. The pin boy, played by Adrián Suárez, sits on a doctor’s exam table naked, waiting. Minutes go by in complete silence as we watch him look around, his legs swinging. Waiting. In silence. I actually wondered how long the audience would sit still. When the doctor finally does arrive, the exchange is filmed in extreme close-up. We may be looking at his penis, but they’re talking about life and what the young man is going to do with his. Ostensibly about nothing, Pin Boy is charmingly modest, poetically filmed, and unfolds slowly as we get to know his co-workers, his cousin, his own dreams and philosophies. “There are stories everywhere,” says one of his co-workers. Pin Boy is a delightful paean to the art of storytelling, subtly unfolding and beautifully filmed.

Unfortunately, Greg Harrison chose to tell a story that seemed so familiar I consigned November to a Mulholland Drive/David Lynch copycat box. Courtney Cox plays photographer Sophia, who is trying to solve the puzzle of her boyfriend’s murder. As the events keep casting new light on various shadows, the film moves from mystery to fantasy and back again. There are good things to be said about the film for sure – Cox proves she can successfully move beyond Friends, for one – but even at 88 minutes, it was too long for me.

Perhaps the most important film of the festival was Adam Curtis’ The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear. Curtis wrote, produced, and directed Nightmares as a three-part BBC television series to make his case against American neoconservatives and radical Islamic jihadists alike, going so far as to contend that the U.S. war against terror is, at its core, a fantasy war, that there was no such group as Al Qaeda, for example, until the U.S. held a press conference pronouncing the phantom group responsible for 9/11. Curtis has done his homework and, after many years of research, presents us with a documentary that goes back 50 years in history to lead us to where we are today. He debunks myths, names names, and offers a more feasible scenario of who was behind the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. than the President and his administration have ever been able, or willing, to come up with. Viewers should be aware that the film has not been edited from its original TV series format, resulting in a three-hour film with lots of repetition. Regardless, The Power of Nightmares is a must-see for everybody, particularly Americans. Curtis received the festival’s Persistence of Vision award for Nightmares and despite the fact that no U.S. television network has shown interest in airing this series, it would be irresponsible to ignore it.

Even if the SF International Film Festival did feel unwieldy at times, there was more than enough diversity to keep every film lover happy, including this one. Maybe next year I will take in some of the other festivals as well. After all, what better way to celebrate a city than to celebrate its creative indulgences.