It might be difficult to discern with the naked eye, but there's a perceptible sense of rejuvenation in this year's model of the San Francisco International Film Festival. You might even call it a feeling of refreshment, of welcome renovation. Suddenly it's Springtime in Festival Land.
Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, the annual festival's governing body, reports that even though endowments and grants are still somewhat restrained compared to the flush times of a few years ago, the 53rd edition of the SF International arrives this week fully loaded with sponsors — a prime requisite for the nonprofit festival.
On the artistic side — where the flavor is for this event's film-crazy audiences — brand new Director of Programming Rachel Rosen booked nearly all of the fest's films since she came on board in the autumn of 2009. The festival now bears her stamp. For Rosen it's a homecoming of sorts — she was an SFIFF associate programming director for seven years in the 1990s before departing for a stint with Film Independent and the Los Angeles Film Festival. She promises "a return to basics and classical storytelling" in her selections for the Western Hemisphere's oldest film festival.
There is truly something basic and classical about Jean-Francois Delassus' enthralling "doctored documentary" 14-18: The Noise and the Fury, but those adjectives don't begin to describe the emotional power of Delassus' deliberately disorienting chronicle of World War I. For the French, the five-year conflict was a tsunami of horror and disillusionment, leaving 1.4 million Frenchmen dead and three million wounded.
Delassus' first-person narration in the voice of an ordinary soldier (the English version was written by Paul Bandey) takes a personal view of the misery and folly of trench warfare, using colorized black-and-white images from newsreels, re-creations, and excerpts from period films, including Charlie Chaplin's Shoulder Arms. The shock accumulates as Delassus sets a tone of weary resignation and infinite sadness to stand alongside All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory as one of the very best meditations on that long-ago war. 14-18 is also one the very finest films in the 2009 SFIFF lineup. It screens April 26, May 1, and May 3 at the Kabuki.
A few years ago in these pages I lightheartedly described the offerings of the typical all-inclusive international film festival as belonging to four main groups: Coffee Table Films, Village Pictures, Documentaries, and Shelfniks.
Most durable of these categories has been the Coffee Table Film, which customarily features sumptuous foreign settings (preferably in Europe), elaborate costumes, a sheen of historical interest, and a double-cream dollop of romance — especially between white men and women, and most especially when one of them is either a noble or a literary figure, or both. This favorite genre has truly withstood the test of time. Although fests seem to have tired of Coffee Table Films lately, they're still a staple of commercial art theaters. Recent ones include Bright Star, The Young Victoria, and The Last Station.
Village Pictures, those glimpses into the daily life of faraway societies, can either be an epiphany or an ordeal. The original function of the Village Picture was to provide festival representation from countries without established film industries, and to prove to audiences that the festival does indeed girdle the globe. The hallmark of the most egregious Village Picture has always been intense boredom, accompanied by a warm glow of self-satisfaction that you have now fulfilled your moral obligation to pay attention to people from places you'd never go for vacation. The all-time classic Village Picture would be a saga of rural electrification in India, circa 1988. But for contemporary examples all we need to do is check this year's SFIFF schedule: Frontier Blues, Alamar, Constantin and Elena, Nymph, Northless, Between Two Worlds, and A Brand New Life, to name a few.
Documentaries are still very much amongst us. That's a good thing. Shelfniks — a type of movie from the old Soviet Bloc that typically used veiled satire to condemn and/or ridicule the regime in question and which led the film (and often the filmmaker) to be placed "on the shelf" for political reasons — have thankfully gone defunct. No more need for them in the brave new world.
Shelfniks have been replaced by a robust new genre, Youth Bait. Festivals share the same worries that plague museums, university film studies programs, and other institutions faced with the realization that times have changed. Today's college students and twentysomethings are no longer content to sit around discussing cognitive dissonance, let alone lap dissolves and Jean-Luc Godard. They'd much rather watch a zombie flick on their handheld devices. Wised-up fests like the SFIFF were quick to add "midnight shows" to their playlists to attract the elusive youth demographic with a wide range of the entertainment young auds appreciate most: horror movies, sex-and-horror movies, and sexy horror movies shot on iPhones.
All the Late Show offerings in this year's SF International are genuine Youth Bait: the Swiss sci-fi entry Cargo; a gory Butcher Brothers/Mitchell Altieri/Phil Flores film called The Violent Kind; the world premiere of Joshua "Peaches Christ" Grannell's slasher pic All About Evil; and the pick of the litter, director Sean Byrne's 2009 Australian teenage shockeroo, The Loved Ones. It's the story of a long-haired surfer type named Brent (Xavier Samuel) who makes the mistake of blowing off a prom invitation from a high-school wallflower named Lola (creepy Robin McLeavy) and lives — barely — to tell about it. The Loved Ones is one of the best films in the film festival of any kind. It plays May 2 at the Castro, May 6 at the Kabuki.