The fall film festival fun fair continues this week with two major annual events, the United Nations Association Film Fest and 3rd i’s San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival, as well as a notable series of Chinese oldies at BAMPFA. Well, actually, the emphasis may be (even) less on fun this year at those festivals, given that a fair amount of their programming deals with human rights and media distortion at a particularly acute moment for both issues.
A compact 21st edition of 3rd i’s main event commences this Fri/20 with two Roxie screenings of Vinay Shukla’s While We Watched. This engrossing portrait of high-profile broadcast news anchor-reporter Ravish Kumar finds him (and longtime platform NDTV) under increasing pressure for reporting unpopular truths.
India is officially the largest democracy in the world, yet like many other countries at present, it has been bent by radical nationalists towards an agenda of thinly disguised religious fundamentalism—one that conveniently re-directs the masses’ anger away from extreme economic-inequality towards sectarian violence. Kumar himself is routinely branded a “traitor” and subject to death threats for not delivering the propaganda spewed by his leading rival Arnab Goswami, a first-class screamer. When Prime Minister Modi is re-elected in a sweep, the rhetoric and harassment intensifies to new authoritarian highs. This engrossing slice of “it could happen here” reality will be shown with director Shukla in person at both shows.
Dealing in a more personal, poetic fashion with the same Indian political trends is Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing, a nonfiction feature from the viewpoint of an anonymous young female film student. Also pushing against sexist boundaries are the subjects of Elizabeth D. Costa’s Bangla Surf Girls, who seek freedom from traditional gender roles on local waves. Nishtha Jain’s The Golden Thread is a visually arresting portrait of the imperiled West Bengal jute industry, from harvested fields to fiber-weaving factories that have scarcely changed in a century.
Back on media-watch terrain, Shalini Kantayya’s TikTok, Boom. examines how that hugely popular platform—the most downloaded app ever—for makeup tutorials, skateboarding vids, lipsynching and other frivolities became a source of political controversies around the world. In the US, it is suspect for being owned by the Chinese (and tacitly controlled by their government); in India and a few other nations, it is banned outright for allowing “too much” free expression. Issues of stealth censorship, predator-enabling, and negative impact on youth psychology (some of the influencers we meet certainly illustrate that) also arise in this busy, wide-ranging overview.
Narrative features in 3rd i’s program this year include Kanu Behl’s tense domestic drama Agra, Amit Ashraf’s family film Kathal aka Jackfruit (a free matinee on Sun/22), and Saim Sadiq’s Pakistani Joyland, a star-crossed romance between an unemployed Lahore husband/father and an ambitious trans performer that we reviewed during its Roxie run earlier this year. There’s also a shorts program entitled “From Mumbai to the Mission.” All shows are at the Roxie Theater in SF, Fri/20-Sun/22, for full schedule and ticket info go here.
The UNAFF, now in its 26th year, sprawls even further around the globe (and the Bay Area) in its focus on human rights crises at a moment when, as festival founder Jasmina Bojic puts it, “democracy is under attack and the world is in flames.” But its theme in 2023 is “Solutions,” so not all the news is bad. An opening night feature this Thurs/19 is Isaac Halasima’s Waterman, a Jason Momoa-narrated paean to pioneering surfing legend Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, whose lifespan (from 1890 to 1968) witnessed monumental change in his native Hawaii. It’s followed by Camille Hardman and Gary Lane’s Still Working 9 to 5, which examines how one pretty dumb hit 1980 comedy (starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton) nonetheless did a lot to highlight routine sexism and exploitation in the American workplace. Both will be shown at Mitchell Park Community Center in Palo Alto, preceded by a reception with live music.
Most of the festival’s sixty short and feature-length documentaries will be shown in the South Bay, including additional locations in East Palo Alto and on the Stanford campus. Highlights on the closing day, Sun/29 (also at the Mitchell Center), include another alarm raised over press freedom: Rick Goldsmith’s Stripped for Parts: American Journalism on the Brink shows how US newspapers and other local outlets have been decimated not just by the internet destroying their business model, but by a more insidious foe.
That would be the multinational hedge funds and private equity firms, often operating under a cloak of secrecy (and “based” in notorious offshore tax shelters). that practice “vulture capitalism” in buying journalistic enterprises with the intent to liquidate them. As one observers here puts it,“They saddle the business with debt, they fire reporters, then they strip [it] for their parts,” notably salable real estate. This creates regional “news deserts” whose uninformed populace are less likely to vote, let alone protest corrupt policies that likewise exclusively benefit the corporate rich. (Among Bay Area publications extinct as a result are the Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times.) It’s one more way in which the robber barons seem to be winning.
Also playing Sun/29 is Mark Samuel Shapiro and Douglas Brian Miller’s Downwind, a Martin Sheen-narrated look at nuclear weapons testing that was done by the US government with scant concern for residents’ well-being for over four decades. Featured in it is movie star Michael Douglas, whose longtime work with the UN will be honored in-person with a closing awards ceremony and party after the films.
Other titles represent issues and filmmaking enterprise from Indonesia, Argentina, Ukraine, Japan, Jordan, Australia, Germany, Iran, Vietnam, Canada, Mexico, and myriad other places. But there will be a very local focus in two programs at SF’s Roxie (again) on Wed/25, encompassing looks at a beloved late homeless artist (Jeanne Marie Hallacy’s He Had Wings), playground politics (Jay Rosenblatt’s Oscar-nominated When We Were Bullies), raising an autistic child (Sarah Moshman’s My Name Is Siri) and teaching music to children (Samantha Campbell’s The Secret Song, which we previously wrote about in a Docfest preview here. For the full Oct. 19-29 UNAFF schedule and other info, go here.
If by this point you can’t stand any further consciousness-raising and just want some singing and dancing, that is to be had at Berkeley’s BAMPFA series Chinese Musicals From 1957 to 1963, which runs this Thu/19 through Sat/28. These Mandarin-language tuners were somewhat pioneering, reviving a genre that had gone dormant amidst the hardships of World War II and its economic aftermath.
A distinctly western influence can be felt in two B&W vehicles for the era’s popular singer-actress Grace Chang. Resembling concurrent Hollywood teen B-pics until it takes a tearjerker turn, Evan Yang’s 1957 Mambo Girl has her as a squeaky-clean collegiate turning her classmates on to Latin steps and sounds. She’s considerably more wised-up in 1960’s melodrama The Wild, Wild Rose, a noirish modern spin on Carmen in which her tempestuous nightclub chanteuse attracts lethally jealous male attention.
These relatively low-budget films were popular. Even more so were a couple later color period extravaganzas produced by the Shaw Brothers, their more traditional music and elaborate theatrical artifice derived from Chinese opera. Li Han-hsiang’s The Love Eterne in particular was an enormous success, though it’s a bit rough sledding for a western viewer now, given the tortured contrivance of a heroine (Betty Loh Ti) who’s donned drag to attend university, falling in love with a male student… likewise played by a cross-dressing actress (Ivy Ling Po). Also released in 1963, A Maid From Heaven is a fairy tale with actual fairies. It hinges on the classic fantasy concept of a divinity who descends to Earth to find love—and because Paradise is, well, borrrring.
Surprisingly, more fun than either of those two ornate spectacles is the one mainland Chinese production included here. Su Li’s 1960 Third Sister Liu is another color period piece set in some indistinct picturesque feudal past, albeit with anti-capitalist rhetoric laid on thick. Liu Sanjie (Huang Wanqiu), a figure whose offscreen legend goes back a millennia, is a “stubborn and haughty chit of a girl”—at least to the rich landlords relentlessly ridiculed in the folk songs she sings.
That also makes her a rebellious favorite amongst the Guangxi region’s much-abused peasants, including the fishing villagers she’s taken in by when found floating down river on a raft. Appalled to have this sharp-tongued (if also exasperatingly attractive) canary on his turf, Lord Mo (Zongxue Xia) hires snobby music scholars to defeat her in song. But as the two sides hurl insults at each other in what’s basically a melodic rap battle, you can bet the proletarian princess keeps coming out on top. Shot largely on scenic location, with ethnic Zhuang traditional music incorporated in the score, this is shameless state propaganda that is also pretty dang entertaining. For info on the whole BAMPFA series, go here.
Meanwhile in the decadent West, there’s the bad-boy braggadocio of Mutiny in Heaven: The Birthday Party, which starts playing at the Roxie (co-presented by Amoeba Music) this Wed/18. Ian White’s documentary chronicles the path of Nick Cave’s first band (initially, snarkily named The Boys Next Door) from Melbourne to London and Berlin, with a lot of self-destruction en route.
I’ll admit it: I am generally not a Cave fan, finding his whole ambiance in nearly any/every creative form pretentious AF. Nor did this well-crafted flashback do anything to change that, as band members themselves credit Birthday Party with “glimpses into another dimension, another way of perceiving the world,” “something completely unique,” being “the only real rock band in the world,” and so forth… when they are not recalling arrests, fights, drug and alcohol excesses, and theatrics shoring up an image as “very very naughty boys.” They also keep noting how their “keen intelligence” nonetheless somehow raised them above all competition, as we watch vintage footage of Cave caterwauling or writhing onstage.
Yeah, whatever. Mutiny offers a trove of such rare clips, also including studio recording sessions, as well as some nice animation segments. Still, if I want the approximate mix these posers affected, I’ll read some actual Rimbaud while putting on some actual Johnny Cash, rather than listen to a band that has to keep announcing those are among their influences. If this is your cup of absinthe, however, by all means… drink up.