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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: SFFILM Fest unleashes Dizzy Gillespie, Chiwetel Ejiofor,...

Screen Grabs: SFFILM Fest unleashes Dizzy Gillespie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, June Squibb

Where else can you catch a 94-year-old action star, a jazz legend fighting for the Congo, and a requiem for activist Rob Peace?

If the truism “less is more” really applies, this just might be a great year for SFFILM (Wed/24 through Sun/28), the storied organization—Oldest Film Festival in the Western Hemisphere, etc.—whose purpose, personnel, and programming have all grown rather obscure in recent years. For decades the giant among such Bay Area events, this year it is shorter than most of the extant ones it cleared a path for.

Where once its leadership and staff were well-known throughout the local film community, now you’d be hard-pressed to find people who could identify any current representatives. The organization’s website seems stripped of archival material, and present-tense intel isn’t exactly plentiful, either. Not long ago, its big annual shindig was a very full two weeks. Last year, that was down to 10 days. This year it’s five, not counting a handful of “Festival Encore” screenings at the Roxie in early May. Let’s hope the shrinkage doesn’t continue apace, so there’s still something left when the former San Francisco International Film Festival reaches its 70th anniversary year in 2027… a point that would also mark a decade since its rebranding as SFFilm.

If you detect a degree of exasperation in the above, you detected correctly. These are hard times for film festivals. Nevertheless, SFFILM’s past stature lends some residual glow even to the diminished edition playing this Wed/24 through Sun/28 at various venues primarily in the Marina and Presidio, as well as Berkeley’s BAMPFA.

It begins on a local note with the opening night selection of the first feature by a Fremont-born talent who’s already had a great year: Sean Wang’s delightful Nai Nai & Wai Po was nominated for the Best Documentary Short Oscar, and full-length narrative Didi won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Award at Sundance. The latter is a loosely autobiographical tale of a Taiwanese-American 13-year-old (Izaac Wang) absorbing some growing-up lessons one 2008, with his father overseas and his mother (Joan Chen) coping with an in-law household where she is made to feel unwelcome.

This acclaimed seriocomedy will be released to theaters in a few months, but meanwhile it kicks off SFFilm’s 67th year, screening at both the Marina and Premier theaters. The following day writer-director Wang will also be present to give a “Festival Talk” about both his new movie and “Filmmaking in the Bay Area,” while on Sunday celebrated actress and SF resident Chen will discuss her own career (which has encompassed everything from The Last Emperor and Twin Peaks to Stallone and Seagal movies) before a screening of her own feature directorial debut, 1998’s fine Tibet-shot Cultural Revolution era drama Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl.

This year’s other big star tributee is Chiwetel Ejiofor, the always-impressive English actor best known for 12 Years a SlaveKinky Boots, and Dirty Pretty Things. On Saturday night he’ll be present for an onstage interview in conjunction with a screening of his second directorial feature Rob Peace, a biographical drama about a brilliant real-life African-American youth’s rocky road from underprivileged roots to Yale to tragedy.

Otherwise, the festival’s starriest presences onscreen this year are largely women: There’s 94-year-old June Squibb from Nebraska as a woman who won’t let age or infirmity get in the way of her tracking down a scammer who’s victimized her in the closing night selection Thelma. Also featuring Parker Posey, Malcolm McDowell and the late Richard Roundtree, this comedic Sundance hit will be shown Sunday night with Squibb and writer-director Josh Margolin in attendance. Fellow nonagenarian Ellen Burstyn plays another stubborn senior in Niclas Larsson’s Mother Couch, which also has a stellar support cast (Ewan McGregor, Rhys Ifans, Lara Flynn Boyle, F. Murray Abraham etc.).

The illustrious Isabelle Huppert, a comparative whelp at age 71, stars in Elise Girard’s autumnal drama Sidonie in Japan, her character becoming involved with Tsuyoshi Ihara’s. Anne Hathaway likewise falls into an unexpected romance in Michael Showalter’s The Idea of You, her wooer being Nicholas Galitzine as a much younger boy-band singer. Julianne Nicholson essays the title role in Annie Baker’s Janet Planet, about a single mother easing her daughter into the storms of adolescence in the early 1990s. And Judy Greer plays a science teacher who encourages a student’s absorption in botany in Nicholas Ma’s Mabel, which makes its world premiere at the Vogue on Saturday.

In-person luminaries outside the realms of actors and directors include the Bay Area’s own Gary Meyer, recipient of this year’s Mel Novikoff Award for “enhancing the public’s appreciation of world cinema.” He’s certainly done that, as a longtime local exhibitor and co-founder of the Telluride Festival, for starters. He’s chosen two personal-favorite films to be shown at his noon Saturday event: Jessica Yu’s memorable 1993 short Sour Death Balls, and Roberto Gavaldon’s 1960 fable Macario, a B&W drama that was the first Mexican feature to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. (It lost to no less than Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring.) Based on a story by The Treasure of Sierra Madre’s B. Traven, which was in turn based on a Brothers Grimm tale, it sees a poor laborer (Ignacio Lopez Tarso) rewarded by Death itself for his generosity—but the gift he receives turns out to be a sort of curse.

The same year Macario won Tarso an acting award at the San Francisco International Festival saw the events depicted in Johan Grimonprez’s new documentary Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat—when leading jazz musicians stormed a UN Security Council meeting to protest the assassination of newly independent Congo’s prime minister Patrice Lumumba. It’s a tangled tale of Cold War politics and espionage that does not reflect well on the US, or the director’s native Belgium. He will receive the 2024 Persistence of Vision Award.

at the Thursday pm BAMPFA screening. Another highlighted guest is Richard King, the multiple-Oscar-winning sound designer and editor whose credits include numerous Christopher Nolan films and the current Dune: Part Two. He will discuss his craft in another “Festival Talk,” this one on Saturday afternoon at the Vogue.

The bulk of this year’s SFFilm program offers the usual mix of international narrative and nonfiction features, plus five themed shorts programs. Among long-form documentaries, subjects include famed portrait photographer James Hamilton (Uncropped), R&B legend Vandross (Luther: Never Too Much), creepier outer frontiers of AI technology (Eternal You), disappearing ways of life in rural Spain (Zinzindurrunkarratz), combatting sexual assault in Japan (Black Box Diaries), a female Nepali mountaineer (Mountain Queen: The Summits of Lhakpa Sherpa), a forgotten face of early digital media (Seeking Mavis Beacon), resistance in Ukraine under siege (Porcelain Wars), critters (Billy & Molly: An Otter Love StoryThe Cats of Gokogu Shrine), the scandalous legacy of Canadian residential schools for indigenous children (Sugarcane), and math instruction in U.S. schools (Counted Out).

In addition to titles already mentioned, US narrative features include Greg Kwedar’s fact-inspired Sing Sing, about a Rehabilitation Through the Arts program at that infamous correctional institution. Fresh from his Oscar nomination for Rustin, Colman Domingo stars as one convict greatly changed by stage performance—and the actor himself, by now a leading Hollywood and Broadway name, got his own start on Bay Area stages. He shares the screen with several veterans from the real-life program, as well as his own erstwhile SF theater buddy Sean San Jose, who is now Artistic Director at the Magic. The latter is expected to attend the Thursday night screening.

While this year’s SFFilm may not be as expansive as prior incarnations, it nonetheless runs a considerable geographic range. There are several features from Argentina (EurekaAlemaniaThe Practice) plus individual entries from Senegal (Banel & Adama), Bhutan (Agent of Happiness), Brazil (Heartless), Japan (Great Absence), Germany (Empty Nets), Palestine (The Teacher), Austria (Woodland), Canada (Ru), Pakistan (Wakhri), and Eduador (On the Invention of Species, which alongside Mabel gets this year’s Sloan Science on Screen Award).

SFFILM runs Wed/24 through Sun/28 at various locations in San Francisco and the BAMPFA in Berkeley. Some programs will be reprised at SF’s Roxie May 2-4. More info here.

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