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The SFFILM Festival’s Eastern Front

Local color and outlandish international flickers at this year’s festival.


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The Little Comrade is a window into life in the Soviet Bloc after WWII, through the eyes of an inquisitive, mischievous, contrary, Estonian girl named Leelo (neophyte Helena Maria Reisner). When her mother is sent to Siberia for intervening in the case of six-year-old Leelo's innocent snooping at the local communist party headquarters, the kid's father (Tambet Tuisk, in a stirring performance) has to raise her and essentially keep her out of ideological hot water — a difficult task even though the outspoken girl yearns to join the Young Pioneers youth movement. One look at her face tells you Leelo was born to upset the dominant paradigm. Writer-director Moonika Siimets' impressively framed debut feature has political/cultural intentions, but also the power of pure personality. See it April 18 at BAMPFA.

The late Mel Novikoff was some kind of movie lover's saint, a theater owner who championed the same sort of adventurous, world-engaging visions to which the SFFILM Festival is devoted. That's why they named a prize after him. This year's winner of the Mel Novikoff Award is Arena, the long-running BBC-TV documentary series guided by British filmmaker Anthony Wall. To honor Arena and Wall, the fest is showing one of Arena's "discoveries," writer-director James Marsh's 1999 journey through the past darkly — Wisconsin Death Trip. The 1973 book by historian Michael Lesy on which the film is based is a collection of professionally posed photographs from a small Wisconsin town depicting the events of the day (the Depression of 1893) in a way that captures the stoicism and woeful expectations of Middle America with startling clarity. Pictures of grim-faced farmers in their Sunday finery, students at school, weddings, and dead infants displayed in their flower-bedecked coffins are interspersed with newspaper reports of diphtheria epidemics and madmen jumping down wells. Marsh's film version, narrated by actor Ian Holm, embroiders on Lesy's book with hypnotic grace. An in-person interview with Wall follows the BAMPFA screening, April 20.

The BAMPFA's 25-title slice of the SFFILM Festival also includes: Midnight Traveler, filmmaker Hassan Fazili's truly epic documentary account of his family's three-year journey out of Afghanistan to the European Union — through at least seven countries and dozens of obstacles and setbacks (drug smugglers, police, human traffickers, intolerant locals) — entirely shot on two mobile phones; the eerie Argentine drama Rojo by writer-director Benjamin Naishtat, in which a provincial family is swept up in an undercurrent of suspicion and violence during the time of the desaparecidos in 1975; experimental animator Jodie Mack's 16 mm tone poem The Grand Bizarre, the epitome of a challenging film festival study of texture and montage, starring an hour-long parade of fabrics; and, maybe this year's most recondite fest discovery, Lapü, by César Alejandro Jaimes and Juan Pablo Polanco, the true-life story of a native woman's efforts to unearth and rebury the corpse of her deceased cousin in order to placate the loved one's soul. It's presented as it happened in rural Colombia, with dialogue in the Wayuú dialect. Midnight Traveler screens at BAMPFA on April 19; Rojo on April 14; The Grand Bizarre and Lapü on April 13.

Confidential to SFFILM: Why is it that the "State of Cinema Address" by Boots Riley, the Oakland-identified creator of last year's marvelous satire Sorry to Bother You, is taking place in San Francisco instead of his hometown? Is it because Riley received a leg up from the non-profit SFFILM Makers org and they want to promote him on their own turf? Not exactly, says SFFILM's Director of Programming Rachel Rosen. The floor plan of the Victoria Theatre in SF's Mission district — where Riley appears in person April 13 to talk about the current cultural scene and what it all means — is more conducive to interactive conversations such as the State of Cinema talk. And besides, Rosen said, the nationally known Riley belongs to everyone, not just folks in the East Bay. Oh.

What would a film festival be without movie stars? Actors Laura Dern, Laura Linney, and John C. Reilly all are scheduled to drop by the festival in person. Dern brings along her 2018 effort Trial by Fire (directed by Edward Zwick), on April 14 at the Castro. Linney visits SFMOMA on April 11 for a showing of her 2007 starrer, The Savages, directed by Tamara Jenkins and costarring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. As for Reilly, his April 12 on-stage conversation at the Castro coincides with a screening of last year's eccentric western The Sisters Brothers. At SFFILM, directors are stars in their own right. Witness the April 11 appearance of filmmaker and SFFILM favorite Claire Denis, screening her new one, the alt-outer-space pic High Life, at the Victoria.

Continuing the local Bay Area impulse of this year's festival is Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall, a U.K.-produced doc directed by Alfred George Bailey. From his home base in the city's Cow Hollow neighborhood, photographer Marshall (1936-2010) made San Francisco and the rock-jazz-movie glory days of the Sixties and Seventies come alive for anyone who looked at his now-legendary images of such artists as Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash (Marshall snapped the infamous "finger" shot at San Quentin prison), John Coltrane, the Rolling Stones, etc. Marshall's motto: "Seeing is a creative act." Marshall occasionally had some trouble with cocaine and guns, but so did some of his most notorious subjects. Catch it at SFMOMA (April 18) or the Roxie (April 21).


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