The San Francisco International Film Festival Turns 54

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Beverly Berning
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The San Francisco International Film Festival Turns 54

In San Francisco, a city that winces at the shortened moniker Frisco, eyebrows were no doubt slightly raised at the first sight of MTT on downtown banners several years ago. No, it was not the brand name of a wireless phone service or a new television network, but the abbreviation of the San Francisco Symphony’s artistic director and beloved conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas.

Now San Francisco’s cultural elite have another acronym to get used to—SFIFF. A few years ago, the San Francisco International Film Festival decided to go the route of the texting and tweeting generation and abbreviate its own name, which is probably for the best since the longer version truly is a mouthful. Unfortunately, SFIFF is not an acronym that is advisable to pronounce. People might think you’re catching a cold if you try to say it, or that you suffer from a stammer if you spell out the letters.

The San Francisco International Film Festival may be the festival with the most unwieldy title, but it’s also the longest-lasting film festival in America, as well as the first international film festival to take place outside Europe. These bits of history are a testament to the long-standing passion the city has had for the movies, and its awareness of the existence of a powerful cinematic tradition outside Hollywood.

Both of these cultural proclivities found their spokesperson when San Francisco attorney and film lover Irving “Bud” Levin started the first festival in 1957. Levin’s father had built several theaters in San Francisco, including the Balboa, the Vogue and the Metro, so film was in his blood. The first festival brought to the city a remake of Macbeth called “Throne of Blood” by a still relatively unknown Japanese director named Akira Kurosawa. The closing night film was Visconti’s “Senso.”

Mr. Levin wanted San Francisco to compete with the likes of Cannes and Venice as a meeting place for the best in world cinema, but the festival never quite reached the summit of his ambition. It wasn’t for lack of trying; Levin, who was the festival’s director until 1964, was up against major obstacles, and he realized he couldn’t do it alone, what with Hollywood’s lack of support for its northern neighbor, and the festival’s competition for films with the two European stalwart festivals. Still, the festival has survived the ups and downs that any film festival this old has endured, thanks in part to the savvy and conviction of several of its supporters, including former directors and programmers like Claude Jarman (1967-1979), who held down the fort while former “Sight and Sound” film critic Albert Johnson championed third world cinema and developed the star and director tributes that remain to this day. Film curator and exhibitor Mel Novikoff (the Castro’s savior when he took over and restored the theater in 1976) later came on board, along with Tom Luddy, a producer and film promoter whose many accomplishments include breathing life into the Pacific Film Archive and running the Telluride Film Festival. Tom Luddy still serves on the festival’s advisory board, as does Peter Scarlet, who ran the festival for 18 years through the 80s into the mid-90s. Much like his predecessors, Peter Scarlet expressed his love of third world cinema in his program choices, with a special interest in the Middle East. Scarlet was instrumental, for example, in introducing the extraordinary work of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami to festival audiences during his tenure.

No festival can survive without endowments from wealthy patrons, and San Francisco has been lucky. The festival has had many benefactors, but it is George Gund III’s largesse that has remained constant, even perhaps single-handedly sustaining the festival during the lean years. “Forty-five years ago, George Gund walked into Claude Jarman’s office with a check for a thousand dollars,” remarked current festival director Graham Leggat at this year’s press conference. Mr. Gund-who also owns several ice hockey teams, including the San Jose Sharks-became chairman of the film society’s board of directors in 1973, a position he still holds to this day, and you can bet his checks to the film society are a lot more than a thousand dollars these days.

Under Leggat’s direction, the film society has ventured beyond its role as festival organizers to promote world cinema throughout the year. Much like the film society at New York’s Lincoln Center, where Leggat hails from, the San Francisco Film Society has launched several smaller focused programs, mini festivals like French Cinema Now, Taiwan Film Days, New Italian Cinema and The SF Int’l Animation Festival. Leggat’s dream is to have a year-round theatre for society-sponsored screenings, but that illusive venue has so far evaded him.

Now in its 54th year—hence the numeric addendum to SFIFF—the festival is upon us once again, starting April 21st and running through May 5. The line-up this year is much like every year. You’ve got your global reach in both documentary and narrative genres, you’ve got your new directors (this year, 12 of the 28 are women), your festival favorite directors (films by Herzog and Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzman are must sees), your tributes and your restored classic (“La Dolce Vita” playing at the Castro is like a scene from “Back to the Future” to anyone over forty).

Word must have reached festival audiences that “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” is nothing less than hypnotic, and tickets to Werner Herzog’s 3D documentary about the cave drawings discovered in 1994 in southern France’s Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caverns-which unlike Lascaux will never be open to the public-have already sold out, although true acolytes can always stand in the rush line. Patricio Guzman’s equally mesmerizing documentary “Nostalgia for the Light” manages to combine his political convictions with a metaphysical exploration by looking both upward to the clear bright night skies of Chile’s Atacama desert, and down below to be the burial grounds of thousands of Pinochet’s critics who didn’t survive his military regime in the 1970s.

Errol Morris is back with another meditation on the eccentricities of human behavior with “Tabloid,” one of England’s biggest media stories of the 70s covering the trial of an American beauty queen who kidnaps her former lover and forces him to have sex with her for the next three days. “The Arbor,” Clio Barnard’s innovative film portrait of British playwright Andrea Dunbar, has been hailed as an impressive debut feature for the British visual artist and filmmaker. Also being lauded is “The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu,” an eerie look back at how the Romanian dictator constructed his own cult of personality.

On a lighter side, there is “Yves Saint Laurent L’Amour Fou,” a portrait of the French couture designer that shows us one man’s lifelong obsession with all things beautiful. Bay Area avant-garde artist Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Women Art Revolution” is an engaging look back at the women artists who declared WAR on the old-boy art establishment in the 60s, and a reminder of what feminism really looked like back in the day.

Among the narrative films, several are notable. Both Tom Luddy and Jay Rosenblatt, a San Francisco filmmaker and programming director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, declared Denis Villeneuve’s Academy-award nominated “Incendies” a powerful must-see. Miranda July’s second feature “The Future” promises to be just as quirky, and at times as disturbing, as her 2005 “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” Michelle Williams (“Wendy and Lucy”) is once again starring in a Kelly Reichardt film, this time as a pioneer woman whose party gets lost on a wagon trail in “Meek’s Cutoff,” a slow-paced, visually stunning film that recalls Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.” Michelangelo Frammartino’s second feature, “Le Quattro Volte,” is a lovingly constructed meditation on the cycles of life that play out almost wordlessly among the various living beings that inhabit a small hamlet in Italy’s isolated region of Calabria.

“Silent Souls” is another film with a nostalgic inclination to pay homage to the past. Set within the vanishing culture of the Merja people who originally inhabited the Volga region of Russia, it is the moving story of two men who have loved the same woman, and who come together to bury her when she dies. This hauntingly poetic film is a loving tribute to the traditions of the Merja people, and a beautiful testament to the timeless power and ultimate tenderness of the human heart.

For those who prefer a more contemporary setting of urban life, I’d recommend “Living on Love Alone,” a decidedly unsentimental look at love and survival in the big city. Set in the Paris of today, Isabelle Czajka’s second feature once again stars Anaïs Demoustier (“l’annee suivante”) and heralds the next generation of French films about strong women who live and love on their own terms. Whether they survive or not is another question.

Tributes this year include an evening with Oliver Stone, the director of such political films as “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Platoon,” “JFK” and “W.” After an onstage interview, the festival will show his 1986 film “Salvador,” based on a true story about down-and-out journalist Richard Boyle’s shocking discoveries of the scare tactics used by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military regime while on a road trip through El Salvador.

Avant-garde filmmaker (and singer Bjork’s life partner) Matthew Barney is being honored with the Persistence of Vision Award. Frank Pierson gets this year’s screenwriting award, and his classic “Dog Day Afternoon,” will be screened in his honor. The timing couldn’t be more bizarre, considering the recent passing of the film’s director Sydney Lumet.

The Mel Novikoff Award goes to Serge Bromberg, a French filmmaker and programmer famous in the industry as a zealous advocate of film restoration and preservation, and a truly crazy guy who lives and works at full speed. He comes to town with his own program of rare and restored 3-D films, which includes early samples of 3-D from the Lumière Brothers to Chuck Jones and Disney. I’d go just to see a 3-D version of an anvil falling on Wiley Coyote. Audiences will be handed two sets of 3-D glasses upon entry to the program, which will be at the Castro Theatre, and Bromberg himself will be providing piano accompaniment.

Finding someone to receive the Peter J. Owens award honoring an actor has been an ongoing suspenseful drama this year; word has it that Vanessa Redgrave had initially agreed to come, but had to cancel her appearance at the last minute. Just a few days ago, it was announced that the award would go to Terence Stamp, the British bad-boy actor whose career has spanned several decades and myriad genres. I’ll never forget him as the disturbed stalker in William Wyler’s “The Collector,” based on the best-selling novel by John Fowles, or as the handsome stranger in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “Teorema” who enters the life of a bourgeois family and eventually seduces everyone in it before he mysteriously disappears. His later work includes a very funny stint in “The Limey.”

The festival program is online, as well as information about how to get tickets to the screenings. Tickets have been on sale for a while now, so I’d suggest you get started before screenings sell out. Fortunately, several of the films I’ve mentioned will be released in the Bay Area later on, but diehards won’t want to wait. Besides, the program has over a hundred films in it, most of which will probably never again be screened stateside.

Beverly Berning

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