Jean-Luc Godard died last week at the age of 91—I’m sure he would have been amused to closely follow the Queen—and it is hard to think of any other director who singlehandedly so expanded the vocabulary of cinema. He was influential without ever being easy, certainly not as an entertainer, or apparently as a person. If increasingly he seemed to be making movies for an audience of one, you could argue that had always been the case, the only difference being that in in the 1960s (when he was theoretically as “popular” as Fellini or Bergman), viewers were willing to hazard experimental and intellectual content in numbers not seen since.
A measure of both his difficulty and long-term resonance is that a spotlit film in the latest addition of 3rd i’s annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival is Amartya Bhattacharyya’s new Adieu Godard, in which an elderly man in a small northeast Indian village is addicted to porn… until he mistakenly stumbles upon you-know-who’s 1960 breakthrough debut feature Breathless aka A bout de souffle, developing an improbable new obsession with this very foreign filmmaker and the Nouvelle Vague in general. It’s an homage to the horizons-expanding properties of art, and as such not just an eerily well-timed but wholly fitting farewell to titular talent.
This is the festival’s 20th year, and its program runs a gamut from other recent narrative features to documentaries, shorts and experimental work. The official opening-night selection at Fri/23 at the Roxie is Tribeca-premiered comedy Four Samosas, in which romantic complications within SoCal town Artesia’s sizable “Little India” community result in an attempted heist to disrupt a wedding. Director Ravi Kapoor (of the prior Miss India America) and star Venk Potula will be in-person guests at the event.
Other highlights include a number of documentaries, perhaps the most exciting prospect being Vivek Bald’s Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music (Sat/24 at the Castro), about the cross-cultural sonic renaissance of the 1990s that resulted in such acts as Asian Dub Foundation, Cornershop, Fun-Da-Mental, Talvin Singh, State of Bengal, and many more. (Don’t miss the afterparty at Bissap Baobab, 9pm-midnight, with performances by Navdeep Music, Seti X, and Maneesh the Twister). There’s also musical hip-hop doc In Search of Bengali Harlem, and Animal, whose real-life protagonists travel the world to urge prevention of climate change-accelerated wildlife extinctions. Shorts programs will encompass both new work and a “retro” bill. The always-popular “Bollywood at the Castro” pick this year (on Sat/24) is Dil Bole Hadippa!, a goofy cricket-themed 2009 romcom with plenty of songs, swagger, and booty-shaking on and off the playing field.
The in-person events take place at the Roxie and Castro this weekend, Fri/23-Sun25, with an additional free program available online on Oct. 6. For full info, go to www.thirdi.org
Of related interest, BAMPFA is hosting a brief visit this weekend by Rithy Panh, the Cambodian documentarian whose subject has been the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the late 1970s—and whose victims (estimated to be as much of a quarter of the nation’s population) included much of his own family. His reviewing of that tragic history as a survivor has taken adventurous forms onscreen.
In Berkeley he’ll present 2013’s Cannes prize-winner The Missing Picture, whose often personal, painful recollections are illustrated in part by elaborate clay-figure dioramas of prison camp life, to an impact not unlike Art Spiegelman’s Maus. He’ll also screen the more recent Irradiated, a kind of Godardian screen essay musing on the last century or so of global atrocities, whose visuals are presented in widescreen triptych form. For full into on the Rithy Panh In Person program (Sat/24-Sun/25), go here.
Human disaster is also the theme shared by some new documentaries being released this week. Four Hours at the Capitol director Jamie Roberts’ Escape from Kabul, which debuts on HBO and HBO Max this Wed/21, is eerily deja vu—those old enough to remember the Fall of Saigon may marvel that nearly a half-century later we managed to exit another long, fruitless overseas war so very badly, in near-identical fashion. It was viewed as a triumph for the Trump administration that they orchestrated a peace agreement with the Taliban, setting a timeline for US military withdrawal from perpetually besieged Afghanistan, where our involvement had been unpopular both at home and on the ground since it began in 2001. Notably, however, that withdrawal would occur during the next Presidential term, most likely leaving Trump’s successor with a royal mess.
Which it certainly did. Told in subsequent interviews (with military personnel, Afghan citizens, and Taliban leaders) as well as plentiful witness footage, Escape chronicles a horrific scenario in which about 150 US Marines were sorely ill-staffed, -equipped, and -prepared to deal with tens of thousands of panicked would-be refugees mobbing the Kabul airport.
As in Saigon, many had collaborated with the American forces, and were terrified at being left to the devices of the hostile regime already taking over. For women, it meant the end of careers, jobs, education. But relatively few could actually be evacuated, and amidst the “full chaos” of an exit that did not lack for gunfire or bombing at the airport itself, some hopefuls died of heat, starvation, thirst, and trampling during several tortuous days.
The Taliban interviewees see all this as a further indictment of Americans’ “savagery,” several among them blaming the US for family members’ “slaughter” during the long conflict. The Yank military personnel, wildly overmatched, can only lament a “humanitarian catastrophe” they had little power to prevent, and indeed at times exacerbated—some rough treatment of civilians was required simply so some airplanes could land on and take off from the occasionally overrun airfield.
Notably, we do not hear from US leaders, apart from a TV clip of Biden proclaiming “the extraordinary success of this mission,” which as we’ve just seen was anything but. Escape from Kabul is only 77 minutes long, but given all the harrowing footage of people screaming, crying, and sometimes literally dying for rescue, anything longer would be downright unbearable.
A catastrophe that probably could not have been prevented—though several survivors still beat themselves up wondering—is recalled in Buried: The 1982 Alpine Meadows Avalanche, which opens this Fri/23 at Bay Area theaters including the Roxie, Smith Rafael, Regal UA Berkeley, and Mountain View Showplace. Forty years ago, the titular ski resort was regarded as a more relaxed, unpretentious counterpart to Lake Tahoe area neighbor Squaw Valley. Its staff of ski bums and miscellaneous hippie type transients reflected that communal vibe, lending additional poignancy to survivors’ reminiscences today.
But the unique qualities of its landscape and climate conditions also placed it at unusually high risk of avalanches. To prevent serious ones, staff regularly used various means to trigger smaller, pressure-relieving ones. There was even a fulltime “avalanche forecaster” employed to monitor conditions that looked serious enough one late-season day (after 11 feet of snowfall that week) in ’82 for the slopes to be closed to the public. Nonetheless, staff and some resort guests were on-site when disaster struck.
Though I could have done without the device of some dramatic re-enactments, Buried vividly conveys the confusion, disbelief, and slowly-dawning horror of the situation, as it was gradually realized just how many people were missing amidst tons of snow and debris (including one collapsed building). Days of frantic digging and rescue-dog sniffing ensued, as the likelihood of finding anyone still alive shrank. There is a miraculous surprise in this story—but also a lot of grief, and lingering sorrow over the “hubris” that led fun-seeking humans into such a perilous circumstance in the first place. Nonetheless, life goes on… and Alpine Meadows (now merged with Squaw Valley) is still open for business.