SF Docfest is baaaaaaack, with a 21st annual edition running this Wed/1-Sunday, June 12 that will mix live on-site screenings and online “virtual” ones. Among the 36 features on tap, opening night’s duo both offer hard-hitting indictments of political power abused.
Jason Loftus’ Canadian Eternal Spring combines documentary and animation elements to chronicle the Chinese government’s persecution towards followers of Falun Gong, a Buddhist-related religious movement founded in that nation just three decades ago. Initially state officials were tolerant, seeing the practice as harmless. But when it rapidly grew in popularity (there were purportedly 70 million adherents by the turn of the millennium), the rigidly atheistic Communist regime decided it was a threat, making the faith illegal, and aggressively persecuting practitioners.
The film focuses in particular on a 2002 act in which a small group of devotees plotted the hijacking of TV airwaves (mostly in the city of Changchun) to counter the government’s incessant anti-Falun Gong propaganda with some highly public, if brief, case-pleading of their own. This breach of the state’s power naturally brought swift, ruthless and brutal (in some cases lethal) reprisal. Eternal Spring is a first-rate hybrid that inventively combines archival news footage and latterday escapees interviewed in the west (Falun Gong’s official HQ is now in upstate New York) with very vivid, imaginative animation dramatizing prior events in a graphic-novel-esque style.
It well-deserved the prizes it won premiering at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival last month. I just wish my sympathy for Falun Gong’s travails in China weren’t tainted by knowledge of its current activities elsewhere, which in their fervent, understandable anti-Chinese government slant have embraced any crackpot cause also likely to appeal to China-haters. Thus this portrait of heroic resistance is colored by the (off-screen) role of outlets like publication The Epoch Times in promoting anti-vax and QAnon conspiracy theories, as well as all things Trumpian.
The other opening night feature is a very local story: Ricochet, by Chihiro Wimbush and the late Jeff Adachi, reviews perhaps the single most notorious instance of San Francisco gun violence in recent years. On July 1, 2015, 32-year-old SF resident and Pleasanton native Kate Steinle was walking with her father on Pier 14 when she was struck by a bullet and died two hours later. Already under arrest by then was Jose Inez Garciz Zarate, an indigent Mexican man who claimed he’d found something wrapped in a t-shirt on the pier, picked it up, and accidentally squeezed the trigger of a gun (which turned out to have been stolen from a Bureau of Land Management agent’s car several days earlier) that he didn’t know was inside.
At first glance, it seemed a dubious story. But the idea that Garcia Zarate had deliberately killed some poor young blonde white woman out of sheer craziness and/or resentment was weakened by the forensic evidence that the bullet had struck the pavement twelve feet from him—then richocheted 78 feet to hit Steinle, making premeditation unlikely, to say the least. But that didn’t stop prosecution from painting the accused as a deliberate killer. And it certainly didn’t stop Donald Trump from relentlessly exploiting the case on the presidential campaign trial, citing Garcia Zarate’s status as undocumented and a convicted felon (indeed he’d spent a total of seventeen years in US prisons, albeit for nothing more than repeatedly crossing the border to seek work) as proof of the alleged criminal scourge invading from Mexico.
Ricochet is primarily about the 2017 trial, and the strategizing by then SF Defender Adachi and that office’s Chief Attorney Matt Gonzalez. They had to hope the court would grasp the extreme flimsiness of evidence against Garcia Zarate, rather than being swayed by all the righteous outrage being directed at him by Trump and the media in general. This is an engrossing look at a freak occurrence that became a cause celebre for all the wrong reasons, helping define the vindictive, emotion-driven political landscape we’ve been stuck with ever since.
Not everything is so serious at SF Docfest, though there are also features about current politics in Mississippi (“Centerpiece” selection In the Bones), human rights in Afghanistan (closing nighter With This Breath I Fly), the fight for childcare and early education programs (Clarissa’s Battle), reproductive rights (Abortion: Add to Cart), anti-Asian violence (On Patrol), environmental activism (Sentinels), and coping with traumatic injury (Derek Changes His Mind, The House We Live In) or terminal illness (Jack Has a Plan, Keep the Cameras Rolling: The Pedro Zamora Way, The Last Guide).
But other films run a gamut of inspirational, entertaining and fun subjects. A music sidebar puts the spotlight on midwestern blues (Born in Chicago), industrial/noise (Other Like Me), Cajun (Roots of Fire) and hiphop (We Were Hyphy), as well as a beloved defunct SF store (It Came From Aquarius Records) and the art of ASL interpretation at live performances (Sign the Show). Other portraits-of-an-artist include ones about Buddhist thangka painting (Above and Below), a “king of the B’s” (Roger Corman: The Pope of Pop Cinema), women in graffiti (Street Heroines), a neglected African-American multimedia innovator (The Fragmentations Only Mean), and a collaboration between longtime SF dancer-teacher-activists Sarah Crowell and Keith Hennessey (The Space Between Us).
Docfest also roams the globe with movies from or about China (You Are the Days to Come and Father), England (I Get Knocked Down), Mexico (The Time of the Fireflies), and more. All the above-listed still leave out the festival 58 shorts, which will be shown both accompanying features and in nine themed programs of their own.
Also of note this week:
Castro Theatre 100th Birthday Celebration
There’s been a lot of angst about this beloved venue’s forthcoming transition to primarily live events (concerts, etc.), a future that is still somewhat vague. But it is pretty clear that the repertory cinema programming which defined the auditorium as a cultural mecca for the last several decades will no longer be a priority, or perhaps even possible—the conventional movie-theater seating is going to be torn out shortly. So this schedule of 11 days honoring the auditorium as a celluloid showcase may well be taken as a sort of last hurrah to that history.
Designed inside and out by local architect Timothy Pfleuger (who also did the Paramount, Alhambra and other “movie palaces”), the Castro opened on June 22, 1922 with Across the Continent, an adventure starring Wallace Reid (who’d die just six months later from an injury-related drug addiction) that is now lost. Ergo one film on the first day (Fri/3) of the current series is 1928’s Across to Singapore, a late silent with young Joan Crawford as a lass torn between two seafaring brothers (Ramon Novarro, Ernest Torrence). It’s a solid MGM melodrama with a prominent supporting role for Anna May Wong.
Each day of this Castro film schedule commemorates one decade in its history, and all the interesting choices are early on. The 1920s selections also include 1925 Reginald Denny comedy Oh, Doctor! and Hitchcock’s Jack the Ripper-inspired breakthrough The Lodger, plus well-known classics Sunrise and The Mark of Zorro. The 1930s bring some familiar hits (the first Thin Man, Errol Fynn’s Robin Hood, all-star The Women, the Marx Bros.’ A Night at the Opera), but also Laurel & Hardy’s first feature, the 1931 prison-drama spoof Pardon Us, and 1934’s Bright Eyes, which capped a year in which little Shirley Temple went (via seven movies!) from unknown to stardom—for the next four years she would be the #1 box office star. It’s the film in which she introduced her signature song, “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”
After that, the programming (through Sun/12) sticks to tried-and-true favorites, from Casablanca and All About Eve to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Godfather, Star Wars, Blade Runner and so forth, right to up Ironman and Bohemian Rhapsody. On Wed/22, the annual centenary date, there will be another marathon, this one with free admission, and dedicated solely to SF-set movies: 1936’s San Francisco (with Clark Gable surviving the 1906 earthquake), Bullitt, Dirty Harry, Mrs. Doubtfire, and relative obscurity Sudden Fear, a noirish 1952 thriller in which Joan Crawford seemingly lives right in my neighborhood—and gets menaced by unexpectedly homicidal suitor Jack Palance. For full schedule and ticket info, go here.
Even among people who don’t, er, partake themselves, there is almost certainly a secret fascination with how the porn industry works—something that has been seriously explored in relatively few films (Boogie Nights, Starlet, the recently-revived Kamikaze Hearts), as opposed to the ones that use it as a plot device for cheap laughs or “cautionary” suspense thrills. Thus it’s hard not to be intrigued by director/cowriter Ninja Thyberg’s first feature, in which a fellow Swede played by Sofia Kappel travels to Los Angeles for the sole purpose of becoming a porn star.
Preferring to go by her professional name Bella Cherry even before she’s entered the profession, this 19-year-old blonde dutifully does everything she can to attain success. She moves into a shared household with several other aspiring XXX starlets, including self-appointed new BFF Joy (Revika Reustle); claims she’s ready for any kind of assignment even when it’s clear she has no idea what some might entail; and avidly pursues the business’ top-tier talent agent (Mark Spiegler, playing himself). We see her get stage fright before her first scene, shoot a bondage film for a very considerate, largely female crew, then have a traumatizing opposite experience with three men after asking to do a “rough” sequence. That last experience nearly sends her homeward, but still she perseveres, driven by sheer ambition.
But where does that drive and ambition come from? Pleasure does afford some insight, involving as it does a number of actual SoCal porn veterans in cast and crew. But “Bella” remains a cipher. Despite the title, she does not seem motivated by (or to get) any pleasure in the sexual acts themselves. She tells Spiegler she’s a born exhibitionist, but that may just be a line she’s using to win him over as her agent. She says she’s up for “any” kind of scene, yet seems to have no personal experience in any particular scenarios or fetishes. She remains a blank sans any backstory (when she calls her supportive-sounding mother, we can’t tell if mom even knows what she’s doing in LA) or loyalties (you know the friendship with Joy is doomed), despite Kappel’s game performance.
That makes Pleasure feel hollow—particularly when it ends on a note of liberation and/or rebellion that comes out of nowhere, and makes little sense. This well-crafted, adventuresome film dares to go where few have before. But once there, it ultimately seems to have nothing to say. It opens Fri/3 at the Roxie, more info here.
There’s also a lot of frontal nudity and women making “orgasm faces” in this very different European feature from Bertrand Mandico, a French experimentalist making his second feature after 2017’s The Wild Boys. Described in publicity materials as “a lesbian El Topo,” it also might remind you at times of Barbarella, Dune, Pink Narcissus, Soviet fairy-tale cinema, Ulrike Ottinger’s baroque fantasies, and a lysergically-enhanced version of one of those original “Star Trek” episodes where Kirk wandered around a papier-mache desert planet encountering various alien babes and monsters.
Roxy aka Toxic (Paula Luna) is a platinum-haired youth living in an all-female society—the men died off once humanity was forced to flee the Earth it had despoiled for new habitats. While being bullied by some mean girls, she chances upon a woman who calls herself Kate Bush (Agata Buzek), buried up to her head in the ground. She promises Roxy three wishes if freed—starting with rather excessive vengeance against her nearby tormentors. Turns out this formidable being is some sort of notorious criminal whom Roxy and her fearful mother (Elina Lowensohn) then get forced into tracking down as punishment for liberating her.
After Blue is 127 minutes, and feels it, but would likely be no better or worse if it were half, or twice, that length—it’s essentially a static objet d’art, a sort of cinematic lava lamp. This camp (yet largely humorless) futuristic phantasmagoria manages to land midway between Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World, albeit without the former’s profundity or the latter’s fun. It is pretentious, and peurile, AF.
Yet it is also wildly stimulating eye candy, with art-installation sets and photography that are colorful in the Day-Glo hues of hard candies, black light posters, or Gatorade. It offers a kind of costume-party transgressiveness that instantly curdles into kitsch, forcing performers to solemnly intone lines like “The journey is leaking.” (I experienced exactly one intentional laugh, when Roxy picks up a book entitled “Emmanuelle and Macbeth.”) But at the same time that it’s all somewhat exasperating, you can’t help but admire the eccentricity of Mandico’s vision, as well as the scale on which he’s managed to realize it.
After Blue would no doubt look like a work of genius if projected without sound in the chill room of a rave. Its IQ drastically plummets when you have to actually hear what people are saying in it—still, this is a singular accomplishment that goes way out on its very own limb. It opens Fri/3 at Alamo Drafthouse.