SCREEN GRABS This is a moment when the notion of watching documentaries sounds like mandatory homework: The world is falling apart, many parties would like you to not be paying attention (or pay attention to the wrong things, like golden oldie “her emails”), and simply being informed feels like a form of resistance. With serious mainstream journalism under assault from many directions, independent documentary features are one of the few remaining areas where in-depth public scrutiny of important issues is happening, let alone reaching a significant audience. Still, too much of what’s good for you can be bad for you. At the recent Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, an entire special section of eight movies was devoted to the crisis in Syria. Important stuff, yes, but Jesus H. Christ — a person might slit their wrists absorbing that much sobering intel.
There’s not much threat of such feel-bad informational overload at SF DocFest (May 31-June 15), which opens its 16th annual program this Wednesday—and runs for 16 days, too, ending June 15. Oh, you can definitely find serious films about hot-button issues here, including combat PTSD (Almost Sunrise), climate change (Sea Tomorrow), gender re-assignment (Finding Kim), United Nations crisis-intervention (The Peacekeeper), therapy in prison (The Work), narco-trafficking (Olancho), Native American activism (On a Knife Edge), disabled activism (Uhuru, Swim Team, Motxilla21 Live) and the history of modern American activism itself (Working in Protest). There is also, yes, one movie about Syria—Resistance Is Life, about a little girl whose family fled their village’s ISIS takeover for a border refugee camp.
But as DocFest founder Jeff Ross puts it, “With recent political events, some film festivals are seeing it as their responsibility to get more serious. We don’t think that approach always leads to showcasing the best or most interesting films, so in the punk rock spirit that birthed this fest we have decided to double-down on the fun.”
And on the punk rock. The opening night selection at Alamo Drafthouse is a very big deal as far as that goes: The debut of Corbett Redford’s Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, an epic 2 1/2-hour overview of the Gilman Street collective/scene that gave us Green Day, The Offspring, Rancid, The Mr. T Experience and more. Narrated by Iggy Pop no less, its premiere will be followed by a party with “Gilman-style live music showcase” at SOMA’s DNA Lounge. The festival closes on the 15th at the Roxie with another world premiere, Timothy Crandle’s Buried in the Mix—a look at the earlier, first-wave San Francisco punk bands that included Dead Kennedys, The Mutants, Avengers and Frightwig.
Striking different notes are two additional venues’ separate festival opening nights. On Thursday June 1 at the Roxie, we get Rory Kennedy’s Sundance hit Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton, an all-access profile of the famed big-wave surfing innovator. On Friday June 9, the Vogue will kick off its shorter Docfest schedule with Tania Libre, a filmed exchange between dissident Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and trauma-specializing psychiatrist Dr. Frank Ochberg. It’s the latest from veteran local multimedia artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, whose just-closed gallery retrospective of over five decades’ work at YBCA you hopefully did not miss.
Elsewhere, there’s a wide gamut of subjects, styles, formats (including five all-shorts programs), and a few variably live events (including Ferris Bueller Bingo, an interactive screening of the all-time teen flick classic, and a Smiths Sing-a-Long Party). Here are a few individual picks in a program full of alluring titles:
The recipient of this year’s Non-Fiction Vanguard Award, Meltzer has made documentaries about a fascinatingly diverse range of topics, from Nigeria’s lively no-budget movie industry (Welcome to Nollywood) to a far-left U.S. activist turned FBI informer and Tea Party hero (the disturbing Informant). DocFest will reprise his first feature, the delightful 2003 Off the Charts: The Song-Poem Story, about an obscure American alley of musical folk-art, as well as his latest True Conviction, which profiles the Dallas detective agency that fights on behalf of wrongfully convicted prisoners—and is staffed by three such exonerated men.
Japanese teen pop-idol culture is a vaguely familiar phenomenon to most. But odds are you don’t know about the “idol bars” in which an estimated 10,000 young women and girls — some pre-adolescent — maintain a bizarre, lucrative industry of fantasy obsession and regimented interaction for (mostly) lonely adult men. These “living dolls” provide a cheerful, supportive, virginal image for fans sometimes several times their age to fixate on in lieu of the real-world relationships they’re either afraid of or simply don’t want. This documentary affords an experience equal parts perky and creepy.
Two young Scandinavians who’ve run short of cash partway through their global backpacking journey take a three-month gig as barmaids in a dusty outback mining hamlet considered “Australia’s most isolated city.” But being served up as fresh blonde meat to an overwhelmingly male (and entirely roughneck) populace proves a bit more than even these game tourists can deal with. Pete Gleeson’s fish-out-of-water black comedy is like a real-world version of the vintage Aussie hick-horror movie Outback aka Wake in Fright (which happens to play the Roxie June 28).
Other DocFest exercises in variably hairy armchair travel include Bangalogia (charting African high-style influence around the planet), End of the Road (a British Columbia hamlet that U.S. draft evaders turned into a hippie paradise), and Spettacolo (about a village in Tuscany that stages an original play about its pressing offstage issues each year).
Everybody Has an Andy Dick Story
A man everyone agrees has boatloads of talent, but also “the attention span of a ferret on meth” (according to one colleague), Andy Dick has managed to offend seemingly almost everyone in show biz, torpedoing his once-high-flying career in the process. But those whom he’s blessed and burned alike seem to wear their experiences as a badge of pride, telling all in Cathy Carlson’s documentary. There’s disappointingly little performance footage, but practically every major-league comedy star you could name contributes a memorable anecdote or two here — and we get to see Dick watching them on playback.
Elsewhere on the laugh-till-or-because-it-hurts scale is Double Digits, whose subject R.G. Miller makes one-man movie genre epics. They have titles like “Garden of Heathens” and “Murderer III: The Return of the Murderer,” not to mention dialogue like “As you know, the fate of the human race depends on how well we enact Operation Magic!” And Joan Kron’s Take My Nose Please! examines the pressure on female comedians to “fix” their looks, surgically or otherwise—and still joke about it.
Though politics are little-discussed here, you might get a good sense of where Trump voters’ heads are at from this flavorsome look at a once-booming milltown in easternmost Louisiana where time seems to have frozen in the 1950s — particularly when it comes to the advice “Miss Dixie” gives young female charges in her week-long annual Smokey Creek Charm School course. It’s a slice of ethnography as tangy as key lime pie, and quirky as vintage Errol Morris.
The Road Movie
For sheer WTF-ness, you can’t beat this compilation of Russian dashcam footage that captures awe-inspiring moments of freak traffic mishaps, dangerous behavior, and sheer surrealism. Also offering some stranger-than-fiction truths are The Gateway Bug (about the “edible insect industry”), The Lure (in which thousands search for a fortune an “eccentric millionaire” hid in the Rockies for whoever could find it), and Charged, whose subject Eduardo Garcia got a whole new outlook on life after being jolted by 2400 volts of electricity in rural Montana.
SF Docfest runs Wed. May 31 through Thurs. June 15 at the Alamo Drafthouse, Roxie and Vogue Theaters in SF. Regular tickets $12-14, excepting some special events; festival passes and discount vouchers also available. Tickets and more info here.