Why You Should Pay Attention to the San Francisco International Film Festival

By  · Published on April 22nd, 2013

Why You Should Pay Attention to the San Francisco International Film Festival

Who knew the longest-running film festival in America is presented in San Francisco – shimmering gifts of spring opening at some of our best movie houses? Only fitting, since San Francisco has always been a filmmaker’s dream city. Every major festival except Cannes pivots on a driving force pushing from behind. Ironically the San Francisco International Film Festival attracts major support from the French government and its media arm TV5 Monde, along with the local annex of French banking titan BNP Paribas Group.

The French love us, what can I say? We love them back.

Fresh off a 2012 season that saw Sundance-acclaimed features make their debut here, SFIFF 2013 hints at a more understated outcome, but there are highlights:

Serious business, but of course the films are the main attraction. We were on the look out for those that not only sparked our interest but which we had not covered at previous festivals.

For starters, and to honor the efforts of SFIFF’s benefactors, we have our eyes on a pair of French language films:

In Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas returns to the era he explored before in his masterwork Cold Water (1994) – youth and rebellion in 70’s France. The film’s potential power lies in the director’s ability to break with romantic notions held by the French left of the May ’68 riots and their aftermath. Readers may know Assayas for his 2010 film Carlos, which portrayed the life of revolutionary terrorist Carlos the Jackal.

Semi-autobiographical, Something in the Air follows Gilles as a pensive young artist who dreams of becoming a filmmaker, and Christine, a risk-taking political activist dedicated to revolution. The film, which won the best screenplay award at the Venice Film Festival, captures a time that is often sentimentalized by French cinema. But here Assayas promises to peel away the pretentions and look back honestly.

The Artist and the Model, (technically a Spanish production but a French language film nonetheless) is a meditation on art, both those who make it and inspire it. Set in Nazi-occupied France, the film follows octogenarian Jean Rochefort – the most expressive male face in French cinema – as a man who is deeply inspired by the female form, the subject of all of his works.

Suffering from painters’ block and needing inspiration, he engages Merce, a beautiful creature sure to inspire facial expressions. Innocent to a fault, Merce quickly meshes into his world, what she calls the “strange job of being naked all day, doing nothing.” Oh, darling… Et voila! It is not long before inspiration returns – but can the artist resist his model’s charms? Taking inspiration from the lives and work of the likes of Picasso and Maillol, two loutish luminaries, this arthouse film about the art world was shot in rich black and white.

Staying firmly in the house of art, Museum Hours follows a Vienna museum guard as he watches patrons peruse the masterpieces, until one day a cash-poor lass from Montreal asks him a question. This simple act, over the course of the next few days, turns his answer into a relationship. Conversations about life and walks around Vienna are bookended by visits to the museum and to the women’s hospitalized cousin. The film promises an exploration of life – and its end – intermixed with art. Just as importantly, it explores the possibilities that arise when two middle-aged people find an outlet for their introspection. Each scene is framed with a painterly quality that helps connect its portrayal of everyday life to the extraordinary, as with the art itself.

Gallic offerings aside, San Francisco’s ties to China are its richest, culturally and financially. The city has a majority Asian population, and arguably the most diverse and dynamic Asian American community in North America. Plus, China covets our tech, and we her markets and money. The new documentary Chimeras follows a pair of Chinese artists, Wang Guangyi and Liu Gang, into the boomland in all its complexity, shown through their lens.

Wang, one of China’s most successful artists, has an affinity for big houses, luxury cars and cigars. A child of the Cultural Revolution, Wang ridicules Western indulgence although he partakes in its every luxury. Young photographer Liu Gang suffers from no such paradox on the outside. His work also mocks Western-style advertising and commercialization, but in the end he is preoccupied by a girlfriend demanding marriage and parents who want to make certain he can support them later in life.

Chimeras takes us on a tour of booming China, where questions of how Western-style consumerism conflict and converge with time-honored habits and customs.

For something a little more local, there’s Peaches Does Herself, boasting of “nudity, transvestites, transsexuals, trans in general, labia, penises, dildos, bicycles, confused bystanders, fake and real tattoos, power chords, a performance artist called the Naked Cowgirl of Times Square, simulated sex and some stuff I am not sure has a name.”

Ah, home.

It’s hard to imagine any film more quintessentially San Francisco than this West Coast premiere docu-opera, the first feature-length film directed by musical and performance artist Peaches. Featuring many of Peaches’ best-known anthems, such as “Diddle my Skittle,” “The Tent’s So Big in Your Pants” and “Fuck the Pain Away,” and a dance troupe called the Father Fuckers, this film captures the best of the Peaches oeuvre. Of course, it was one of the first films to go to rush. In addition to presenting the film herself, Peaches will be playing in concert in conjunction with the festival.

Our final mini review is of possibly the best film screening here. Shot primarily through the lens of three dashboard-mounted cameras over a two-year period, the magnificently quiet documentary Sofia’s Last Ambulance follows the crew of one the Bulgarian capital’s 13 ambulances that serve a population of two million. Our chain-smoking heroes are shown making their rounds along roads in major disrepair, lacking radio communication, surviving on low pay, and low morale so that the wounded and ill may have a chance to live. The observational true-life story develops through a series of events, focusing solely on the ambulance staff, while patients are only represented off camera through dialog or painful exclamations. Winner of the “France 4 Visionary Award” for new talent at Cannes, the film captures the human spirit struggling against bureaucratic dysfunction and decay.

In it’s 56th year, the SFIFF has matured into a graceful, balanced, and truly international celebration of cinema. It’s a testament to its organizers, legacy, and backers that the selection of films so deftly reflects the global cultural trends while still maintaining that San Francisco spirit. Make sure to catch this festival! Even if you have to do it by keeping an eye out from afar for all the fantastic films being featured and adding them to your future queue.