When the Sundance Film Festival (originally called the Utah/US Film Festival, then briefly US Film and Video Fest) first launched in 1978, there was no other such regular showcase for American independent cinema. As both that general category of film and the event itself began rapidly grew in the 1980s, similar festivals sprang up—in part to bring “Sundance-type” movies to more audiences around the nation, partly because more indie movies were being made than Sundance itself could possibly ever program.
One of those spinoff festivals was SF IndieFest, which has not only gained considerable institutional traction since 1998, but soon generated its own more-narrowly-focused annual spinoff events under the same organizational umbrella. Now, there’s SF Docfest, genre-oriented Another Hole in the Head, SF Indieshorts, and more. While you may not have been able to score even home-viewing “tickets” to this year’s COVID-accommodating, long-distance Sundance (from which Roxie Virtual Cinema and Fort Mason Flix are hosting selections through Wed/3), you can get your fill of indie filmmaking and then some from IndieFest, which runs this year—online only, of course—Thu/4-February 21.
Though a majority of the work on tap hails from North America as usual, the 2021 program’s 80 features and shorts include work from 20 countries around the globe. The official opening selection this Italian-Swiss director Carlos S. Hintermann’s first narrative feature The Book of Vision, which was executive produced by Terrence Malick (whom he worked for on The Tree of Life, and has edited a book about). It’s an ambitious English-language construct whose “journey beyond space, time and death” weaves together visually extravagant, questing story strands set both today and in the 18th century.
A time tripping concept is also the glue that holds together 499, whose Oakland-based director Rodrigo Reyes (read our interview with him here) is the recipient of the festival’s Vanguard Award this year. Like Hintermann, he’s a documentarian also making his narrative debut with a film of frequently stunning imagery (shot by Alejandro Meija). A Spanish conquistador (Eduardo San Juan Brena) who’s just finished pillaging the New World as part of Cortez’ crew finds his loot-filled ship wrecked en route back home. He alone survives to be washed back ashore on the beach of Veracruz…500 years later, by some “secret miracle.” This “castaway in the future” wanders the same route he had before, now modern and alien, everywhere finding evidence of the ongoing dehumanization his original conquest seeded.
Part documentary, 499 is largely occupied with input from real people who’ve suffered grave injustices echoing those visited upon Indios and Aztecs centuries before: The murderous abductions of whistle-blowing journalists and activists; volunteers who search for hidden mass graves of the disappeared; families decimated by drug cartel violence; others forced by such threats to flee north, seeking asylum legal or otherwise in the US. Corruption seems bottomless, even extending to police “mishandling” evidence so that neighbors caught red-handed in the brutal murder of a 12-year-old girl end up going free. Weaving these testimonies into a poetical whole, with gorgeous landscape photography and moments of Jodorowskyesque phantasmagoria, 499 is a unique filmic essay with great depth and beauty.
Its opposite in just about every way is the closing night feature Puppy Love, which stars Hopper Jack Penn (son of Sean Penn and Robin Wright) as an apparently brain-damaged naif. Morgan lives with his bullying older brother (MMA fighter Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone) and is a little like Forrest Gump, even to the degree that he tells his story to a bunch of strangers in a public hot tub (as opposed to a bus stop bench). “The only thing I’ve ever been proud of is, I got a hooker off crack,” he begins, and that pretty well sets the tone here.
This debut feature for writer-director Michael Maxxis was purportedly inspired by his own real-life cousin (also named Morgan). But to me it felt like a weird and queasy mix-mastering of wannabe Harmony Korine, Gump, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and a few other things. It’s at once crass, condescending and sentimental—often so lowbrow it’s practically subterranean. There’s an eccentric support cast including Paz de la Huerta, rapper Mickey Avalon, Rosanna Arquette, Michael Madsen and Wayne Newton, as well as a soundtrack of songs produced by Butch Vig. Some people are going to love this movie. I cannot share their enthusiasm, but will be happy for them.
Indiefest also features a number of world premieres, the feature-length ones including Josh Wallace’s black comedy/satire Keeping Company. It manages to combine elements of Sorry We Missed You, Psycho and Eating Raoul as two life-insurance salesmen find themselves held captive by one very antisocial mamma’s boy. There’s also Keita Yamashina’s Body Remember, in which separate romantic triangles overlap and blur amidst a low-key narrative labyrinth of reality, dreams, novelistic fiction, conversational storytelling, reminiscences and flashbacks. (Likewise keeping the accent on quirky is a second Japanese title that’s having its international premiere here: Diachi Murase’s Roll, an absurdist comedy with a vaguely Jarmuschy feel.)
Another world premiere is veteran local filmmaker JP Allen’s latest Girl in Golden Gate Park, an offbeat drama about a newly homeless young woman (Kim Jiang Bubaniewicz) sleeping in her car off Lincoln Ave. She meets a slightly older woman (Erin Mei-Ling Stuart) whose pickpocketing technique she admires, and that relationship helps fuel an elaborate scheme of revenge against the ruthless developer (Allison Ewing) who evicted her from a longtime family home. The leisurely storytelling doesn’t quite catch fire, but Girl lives up to its title, in that it makes splendid use of SF’s most famous park in all its diverse moods and sights.
Other films of particular Bay Area interest include numerous shorts, plus full-length documentaries Truth Be Told: Irving Norman and the Human Predicament (about the late surrealist SF painter), Sky Blossom: Diaries of the Next Greatest Generation (focused on today’s caregivers for injured service veterans), and A Life’s Work (profiling SETI Institute astronomer Dr. Jill Cornell Tarter as well as others engaged in unique, long-term professional projects).
Also looking very promising are the supposed “most punk movie of your life,” Leandro Cordova’s Mexican C.I.A.; Spanish Hunger, which manages to be both a dance film and a cannibalism thriller; Zoe Wittock’s acclaimed French Jumbo, about a woman in love (really) with an amusement park ride; well-received Australian doc Morgana, whose real-life heroine bucks all conventions to reinvent herself as a sex goddess; and Summertime, an ensemble piece celebrating L.A.’s cultural diversity and slam poets, from director Carlos Lopez Estrada of recent Oakland-set favorite Blindspotting. I Blame Society, previously reviewed here, is a cunningly macabre mockumentary satire with writer-director Gillian Horvath playing her own homicidal alter ego.
As ever, in addition to the films programmed, SF indieFest has plenty of other activities—though of course circumstances necessitate that they, too, be online-only this year. That includes the beloved returning Bad Art Gallery, two sessions of cinema-trivia game “Filmmaker Feud,” a Screenwriters Panel, and more.
SF INDIEFEST runs Thu/4-For full program, ticket and other information, click here.