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Arts + CultureMoviesIndiefest electrifies with punk and sci-fi royalty, surreal thrillers,...

Indiefest electrifies with punk and sci-fi royalty, surreal thrillers, local debuts

As always, the 22-year-old film fest lights up screens with the challenging, the curious, and the profound.

SF Indiefest (Wed/29-February 13) may not look backward a great deal, but when it does, it has to be the right fit for a festival that has never hewed to conventional criteria about what makes a movie a movie “art,” a “classic,” or anything else that smacks of cinematheque-style thinking. Thus it’s perfect that its sole tribute this year goes to Julien Temple, a filmmaker seemingly made for Indiefest—even if his history does predate its own by quite a stretch.

The London native started out as an early documenter of the Sex Pistols; played a key role in the development of music videos; made a couple relatively mainstream if highly idiosyncratic musical-comedy features (Absolute Beginners and Earth Girls Are Easy) that were poorly received at first but became instant cult favorites; and has spent recent decades primarily as a prolific and inventive maker of rock documentaries.

Recipient of the Philo T. Farnsworth Award for Innovative Filmmaking this year, Temple will appear at Indiefest’s second weekend in tandem with two features from his now 40+ years behind the camera. On Fri/7 he’ll introduce 1980’s The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, the Sex Pistols post mortem mockumentary whose half-truths and outright fibs he rebutted two decades later with straight-up documentary The Filth and the Fury.

The next night, he’ll offer his latest documentary Ibiza: The Silent Movie. It’s not the EDM-only showcase you might expect (despite having Fatboy Slim as music director), but rather a cheeky history of “the party capital of the world” from that island’s geological formation through Phoenicians, Dadaists, fascists, hippies, mafiosi, ravers, New Agers and oligarchs. This paradise has been lost innumerable times already (even in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin pronounced it “ruined by tourism”), yet the money just keeps rolling in. Temple offers eye candy aplenty by weaving together animation, old movie clips, staged sequences and much more into a caustically effervescent whole.

The opening night of SF Indiefest’s 22nd edition on Wed/29 at the Victoria provides another flashback of sorts, in the form of Todd Thompson’s Woman in Motion—a documentary portrait of Nichelle Nichols. Of course she’s best known as Lt. Uhura on the original Star Trek, but Nichols has also been a singer, dancer, Civil Rights activist and NASA spokesperson, among many hats worn in a long, still-active career. Both director and subject will be present at the event.

But mostly, as ever, SF Indiefest is about the present and future of independent filmmaking. Among features of particular local interest are locally-based director and cinematographer (Colma: The Musical) Richard Wong’s Come As You Are, a delightful remake of a 2011 Belgian movie about three disabled men who engineer a road trip to get their virginities professionally disposed of. It’s the opening-night selection at the Roxie, which is the festival’s primary screening venue.

Bay Area talent is also represented by Jonathan Kiefer, whose screenplay for Oliver Krimpas’ U.K.-funded, France-shot Around the Sun mixes elements of Before Sunrise and Certified Copy. In it, a man (Gethin Anthony) and a woman (Cara Theobold) engage in heady discussion and an ever-shifting dynamic while wandering the grounds of a spectacular Normandy chateau.

Kara Herold’s 39 1/2 is an antic mix of animation and live-action as a Mission District filmmaker (author/Porchlight founder Beth Lisick) finds her biological clock ringing a four-alarm fire upon reaching that age. Berkeley documentarian Jason Cohn contributes The First Angry Man, about a fateful California tax initiative that had permanent national consequences, while Mill Valley-based Zio Zeigler and co-director Tania Raymond’s Bad Art is an ensemble comedy about the slippery nature of art (and badness).

As usual, there will be plenty of shorts-only programs, parties, audience-participation screenings (including the annual Big Lebowski and Super Bowl: Men in Tights events), and other special happenings in addition to the nearly 50 features on tap. Here’s a few additional highlights from amongst the latter:

Pariah and Cat Sticks
Like the Sundance Film Festival, with which it overlaps this year, SF Indiefest is primarily about American independent filmmaking, but it has room for some international titles. The 2020 program happens to include two remarkable recent Indian films, both strikingly shot in B&W. Especially stunning in visual terms if Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks, a bleak (if often bleakly humorous) series of narrative fragments involving junkies in the slums and outskirts of Calcutta.

More straightforward in its (nonetheless somewhat mysterious) storytelling is another bold directorial debut, Riddhi Majumder’s Pariah. Its hapless protagonist (an unforgettable Guarav Krishnani) is a mute “idiot” clad just in a loincloth, scorned by the residents of a rural village. When he attracts the attention of their pampered, ill-tempered “Lord,” his treatment escalates from shunning to eventually martyrdom-grade abuse.

While challenging, these films both get our highest recommendation. Other nations represented in Indiefest this year include Germany (Effigy: Poison in the City), Brazil (Pacarrete), Japan (Mellow, Vise), Spain (It’s Always Autumn), China (The Wild Goose Lake) and Canada (Entangled, Things I Do For Money).

Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway
Miguel Llanso’s film is officially from Estonia, but was also shot in/funded by several other off-the-usual-filmmaking-grid countries (including Ethiopia and Latvia), and in any case might as well be from another planet entirely. Billed quite accurately as “a WTF thriller,” it’s a sort of retro espionage-trash mashup that also manages to throw in elements of vintage kung fu exploitation, lucha libre, Afrofuturist fantasy, and more—all on a delightfully cheesy, obvious budgetary shoestring. Here is a movie that truly defies classification, although not viewer pleasure.

Those looking for other slices of cinematic surrealism at Indiefest might want to take a gander at Gille Klabin’s After Hours-like The Wave, in which Justin Long’s recreational drug trip turns into a hallucinatory time-travel purgatory; Lake Michigan Monster, a B&W fantasy adventure borrowing its aesthetic from Guy Maddin and the Melies; Shoot the Moon Between the Eyes, a slackerish, James Joyce-inspired musical in which characters burst into John Prine songs; and Bob Byington’s latest absurdist comedy Frances Ferguson.

Blood Machines
Fall SF Indie offshoot Another Hole in the Head may specialize in horror, sci-fi and other “genre” films, but that doesn’t mean the parent festival doesn’t still claims its share of the same. A particular find this year is this Kickstarter-funded French collaboration between director/VFX designer/animator Seth Ickerman and composer Carpenter Brut that is equal parts Galaxy Quest, Heavy Metal, 80s exploitation-movie homage, video game and category-defying whatsit. When two grizzled male “space hunters” land on a planet defended by warrior women, they find their big-gun machismo ultimately outmatched by the power of psychedelic-erotic femininity. Blood Machines is only 50 minutes long, but believe me, it’s quite enough sensory overload to take in.

Other programs offering outre thrills include Canadian time-travel tale James Vs. His Future Self; 1990s multiplex-set teen horror comedy Porno, in which an old can of 35mm smut unleashes an ancient “sex demon” on the unsuspecting after-hours theater staff; Alex Knappe’s post-apocalyptic world premiere Go/Don’t Go; and Wild Boar, which involves a hidden society of, yes, killer mutant boar-men. If none of this is quite nasty enough for you, hie thee to Teddy Grennan’s Swing Low, an I Spit On Your Grave meets Deliverance exercise whose murder-witnessing wildlife photographer heroine (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) takes a lot of punishment from brutal yokels—but dishes out even more in return.

Non-Fiction Cinema
In addition to titles already mentioned above, notable documentaries at Indiefest 22 include ones about taxidermy and the search for Bigfoot (Big Fur); weirdness in the world of film-festival-producing (Narrowsburg); Rio de Janeiro trans sex workers (Queen of Lapa);

skateboarding (both The Tony Alva Story and grrrl-powered Don’t Give a Fox); and competitive pigeon flying in South Central (San Bruno filmmaker Milena Pastreich’s Pigeon Kings).

Indiefest’s closing night selection is a modern Belle du Jour motivated not by curiosity but economic necessity. When the husband (Martin Swabey) of Emilie Piponnier’s titular wife and mother abruptly disappears, having already covertly emptied all their finances, she is bewildered, then panicked, then furious. At immediate risk of losing her (and their toddler child’s) home, she finds herself working for the very escort service where her MIA spouse had squandered much of their money.

Surprisingly funny at times without being unrealistically frivolous about our heroine’s desperate situation, Josephine Mackerras’ French-language feature is one of the better narrative features about sex work in recent years. But it’s also interesting in other ways, not least for the sympathetic portrait of various kinds of male fragility, and for Chloe Boreham’s character as a fellow escort who’s got a great attitude, but also her own set of issues.

SF Indiefest runs Wed/29-Thurs/13 at the Roxie Theater, Victoria Theater and 518 Gallery. Full program and ticket info: www.sfindie.com 

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