Hopes, fears, dreams, and ‘The Last Black Man in San Francisco’

Director Joe Talbot and star Jimmie Fails of 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco.' Photo by Peter Prato, Courtesy of A24

Two African American dreamers, Jimmie (first-time actor Jimmie Fails) and Mont (Jonathan Majors) are struggling to survive in the unforgiving reality of the City by the Bay in “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” out Friday.

While they’re not technically the last two African Americans in SF, in the poignant surrealist film loosely based on Fails’s own life, it can surely feel like it in the heart of The City from where people of color are increasingly exiled, thanks to wave after wave of gentrification.

In the movie, which opens Fri/7, Jimmie grew up in the Fillmore District, in a beautiful Victorian house that his grandfather was said to have built when the so-called “Harlem of the West” still boasted a thriving black community and a vibrant jazz scene. Now, Jimmie is hanging on to a proverbial life raft, living a meager existence amid the Bayview–Hunters Point projects with his aspiring playwright friend Mont and Mont’s grandfather (Danny Glover). He wants to reclaim his childhood home, calling in Mont for reinforcement in the Plan B Entertainment-produced film. [Read critic Dennis Harvey’s review here.]

I spoke to actor Jimmie Fails, 24, and first-time director Joe Talbot, 28, who’ve been buddies since childhood about their longtime friendship—Fails grew up in the Mission and Talbot in Bernal Heights; they met in Precita Park—and how it inspired The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

48 HILLS How did you two meet? 

JIMMIE FAILS We were in the same general neighborhood for a long time and we’d see each other around from the time I had moved to that neighborhood at age nine. Once I got settled there and went out and started meeting more people the next year, I saw Joe when I was 10 and then met him when I was 11.

48 HILLS Why did it take so long to meet?

JOE TALBOT So it was the kind of thing where you see him around, and if I was more confident, I’d have said, “Hey, you seem cool, you wanna be friends?” kind of thing. It took a little while, but there was a silent acknowledgment of “I kind of think we would bond,” and then we had one really long heart-to-heart one night.

He came over to my house with a friend of ours and I was there with my girlfriend, and it was a house where there were kids in and out, making music, making movies, and we just ended up talking all night.

48 HILLS I read that after meeting, you’d have epic nights walking around and chatting about your hopes and dreams, your fears and jealousies, and, of course, girls. Tell me more about those early conversations.

JIMMIE FAILS You always have talks with your friends, right? But there’s a difference with Joe because we have a different relationship and are closer in a different way, that we get to a deeper place because we’re so open and vulnerable with each other. This movie couldn’t have been made if not for that.

48 HILLS So what exactly were your hopes, dreams, and fears?

JOE TALBOT I think we were still working out things. It’s interesting to think back to certain things we talked about. We both made music. We made music together, so we’d talk about music and get excited about the same things. Other times, it was specific to stuff we were going through like a specific drama with a girlfriend or we didn’t have a lot of other guy friends that we could even open up to, feeling sad or jealous.

JIMMIE FAILS Outside of each other, our friends are women because those were the only other people we could be vulnerable in that way with.

JOE TALBOT Especially when you’re younger, but we would have friends, too, that’d be around us that would try to tap into a more vulnerable side, but then when they’d be around other kids, you’d see them kind of turn in a way, like Kofi in the movie.

JIMMIE FAILS It’s crazy that word “masculine” because it’s like a mask. It’s like you’re putting on a mask. That’s how I feel about it sometimes. We shouldn’t have to be that way, and that’s what we’re trying to explore in the movie. You don’t have to be that way all the time.

48 HILLS The two of you have such a strong friendship and an interesting backstory. So why didn’t you just make “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” about your friendship?  

JOE TALBOT The honest to G-d truth was that it was never a thought that crossed my mind. I think when we first started talking about it, the earliest iteration was Jimmie in this house because that was the story that I’d known. But then I thought there’s something interesting about putting him with someone who’s different than him.

So half of it is the shit that happened and pulling from that. But the other half is the fun of movies, particularly narratives. You go into your imagination and think about what would be the interesting story? And thinking about this friendship and creating a character, obviously, our friendship is what brought us together to make this movie, so it’s natural to ask how much of the friendship onscreen is us.

But Jonathan is such a brilliant dude, that he really invented a character. He took what was in the script to a whole ‘nother level and they created a bond that I see shades of our vulnerability with each other in. But it’s its own thing and it’s weirdly its own thing in real life, too. They have their own really close connection that they formed.

48 HILLS Were you the least bit jealous?

JOE TALBOT Yes, I was, although Jonathan and I have our own connection, too. So Jimmie was jealous of him, too. [Laughs]

Jonathan Majors and Jimmie Fails in ‘The Last Black Man in San Francsco.’ Photo by Peter Prato, Courtesy of A24

48 HILLS So many young people are trying to get their first movie made. What advice can you give them, from your own experience?

JOE TALBOT I never knew what collaboration meant till this movie. It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true. We shot the concept trailer five years ago and put it online and it became this accidental calling card, where all these people were writing us and saying, “I feel like I’m the last whatever in the Bay,” so we through that built this core team of people that all had complementary skill sets and were all learning together.

And people were wearing many hats, by turn helping with casting, location scouting, doing background and script supervising, as well as writing with us—and that’s one person. But it needed that. I actually want to take that to every production we do—this bigger collaborative nature—because then everyone has more of a bigger ownership of the whole thing. They commit more of themselves to it because they’re not just there in service of something; they’re there helping create the whole film.

Also, we lived in my parents’ house to get this movie made for five years. That speaks to San Francisco. Brad Pitt can be your executive producer, but you’re still living at your parents’ house.

Opens Fri/7
Various Bay Area theaters
Tickets and more info here.

Watching at CROSSROADS 2019: Avant-garde film festival returns

From Ross Meckfessel’s 'The Air of the Earth in Your Lungs'

San Francisco Cinematheque’s annual experimental film festival CROSSROADS is celebrating its 10th year at the SFMOMA, Fri/7-Sun/9. With 62 ​works of film, video, and media performance by ​56 artists representing ​17 countries ​and territories, nearly 30 artists are anticipated to be in attendance.

For newcomers to experimental cinema, the immense multitude of “personal” films being presented, much less the sheer amount of filmmakers showcased, can be extremely overwhelming. So, I have put together a spoiler-free list of my favorite experiences from this upcoming weekend’s fest. (That is not to say that the other films are not important. This is a starter kit towards taking risks with experimental cinema.) Also showcased are memorial screenings dedicated to three remarkable legends within the experimental community that were lost this past year: Jonathan Schwartz, Carolee Schneemann, and Robert Todd.

**SPECiAL NOTE: Hands down, the must-see program of the festival is #7: “The End and the Beginning Were Always There” which screens on Sun. Jun 9 @ 12:30pm. Nearly every film (seven in seven) achieve some sort of stasis that left me sifting through my own being as well as wondering what others may be experiencing. All film mentions below list the program they screen in and what time.

Jonathan Schwartz’s A Leaf is the Sea is a Theatre (Digital, 2018, US, 17 minutes)
This follow-up to my favorite film at last year’s CROSSROADS (The Crack Up) is a breathtaking meditation on endings inspired by Emily Dickinson and is especially fragile to experience being the Bay Area premiere and memorial screening of Schwartz’s final film. Plays in Program 7, Sunday, June 9 at 12:30pm. More info here.

Robert Todd’s LightFall (Digital, 2016, US, 16 minutes)
This meditative piece is a calming “series of in-camera harmonies” that linger long after the film comes to an end. Bay Area premiere and memorial screening of Todd’s stunning film. Plays in Program 7, Sunday, June 9 at 12:30pm. More info here.

Dan Browne’s Lines of Force (Digital, 2018, Canada, 2 minutes)
As soon as this film ends, I wanted to watch it again. Flying through the streets, this two-minute adventure is absolutely mesmerizing. Plays in Program 7, Sunday, June 9 at 12:30pm. More info here.

Erin Espelle’s Gathering Moss (Digital, 2018, US, 5 minutes)
Gracefully wandering through a natural habitat, plants and animals co-exist bringing my anxious blood flow to an absolute standstill. Plays in Program 7, Sunday, June 9 at 12:30pm. More info here.

Charlotte Pryce’s Pwdre Ser: the rot of stars (Digital, 2018, UK/US, 7 minutes)
This poetic essay on the “weariness of habit” left me in a state of beguiled uneasiness that has been haunting me for days. Plays in Program 7, Sunday, June 9 at 12:30pm. Director IN PERSON! More info here.

Pathompon Mont Tesperateep’s Song X (Digital, 2017, Thailand, 20 minutes)
Very much my most favorite film of the festival for both aesthetic and immensely personal reasons, this intimate 20-minute journey exploring “life after death” feels fully realized in a way that is reminiscent of the visions of Lucrecia Martel and Lav Diaz. Tesperateep’s camera floats through a forest I never want to leave while the stunning sound design brings “a-whole-nother” layer to the images of meandering kids. This will be on my year-end list. Do not miss this RARE chance to experience Song X on the big screen. Plays in Program 8, Sunday, June 9 at 2:45pm. More info here.

Cherlyn Hsing-hsin Liu’s How Old Are You? How Old Were You? (16mm, 2017, Taiwan/US, 16 minutes)
Grainy 16mm utilizing camera obscura techniques, this formalistically fractured film explores a dichotomy of one’s two selves and is one of two outrageous films by director Cherlyn Hsing-hsin Liu. Plays in Program 8, Sunday, June 9 at 2:45pm. Director IN PERSON! More info here.

Zachary Epcar’s Life After Love (Digital, 2018, US, 8 minutes)
Showcasing incredibly fluent (and vertical) camerawork combined with delicate reflections within a world of parked cars, this eloquent composition about seeking solace is simply stunning. Plays in Program 9, Sunday, June 9 at 4:45pm. Director IN PERSON! More info here.

Ross Meckfessel’s The Air of the Earth in Your Lungs (16mm, 2018, US, 11 minutes)
Mechanical memories juxtaposed with the natural world, using Drones and GoPros create a meaningful manufactured landscape of the 21st century. Bonus love to director Meckfessel for using Mr. Fingers’ 1985 Electro jam “Mystery of Love”! Plays in Program 9, Sunday, June 9 at 4:45pm. More info here.

Eric Stewart’s Helios (16mm, 2018, US, 6 minutes)
Time-lapses of cacti and succulents over the course of a year… everlasting peacefulness. Plays in Program 9, Sunday, June 9 at 4:45pm. More info here.

Ana Vaz’s Atomic Garden (Digital, 2018, Brazil, 8 minutes)
This frenetically flickering fantasy is best described by the filmmaker themselves, “a stroboscopic reflection on transmutation, survival and the resilience of myriad life forms in the face of toxicity.” Plays in Program 10, Sunday, June 9 at 7:00pm. More info here.

Ben Balcom’s The Sequence of Years (Digital, 2018, US, 9 minutes)
This nostalgic essay film, retraces our accumulated errors by way of hidden paths and isolated caverns and is actual medicine for melancholic minds. Plays in Program 10, Sunday, June 9 at 7:00pm. Director IN PERSON! More info here.

Scott Stark’s Love and the Epiphanists (Part 1) (35mm, 2018, US, 30 minutes)
The magnum opus of CROSSROADS 10th Anniversary is surely Scott Stark’s epic excursion into re-contextualizing 35mm Hollywood trailers. Using “a hand-made contact printing process that allows repeat, reorder, reverse, double-expose, stain, misalign, twist and otherwise strangle the images” combined with live-spoken text by the director IN PERSON, this long-term, ongoing project will have several “parts” released over the coming years. Plays in Program 10, Sunday, June 9 at 7:00pm. More info here.

Mixed Signals

Courtney Stephens’ Mixed Signals (Digital, 2018, US, 9 minutes)
“A loose adaptation of Hannah Weiner’s chapbook Code Poems, which explores the capacity of systematized language to convey female experience.” Stephens’ statements and style continues to build momentum. Don’t miss a single chance to see this stand out filmmaker. Plays in Program 4, Saturday, June 8 at 3:15pm. Director IN PERSON! More info here.

Carolee Schneemann’s Plumb Line (16mm, 1968-71, US, 18 minutes)
Perhaps one of the rawest expressions of a relationship on celluloid, all I can say is, prepare yourself. Edited from scrap diary footage shot in 8mm, hand printed, manipulated and even burned into 16mm, Schneemann’s devastating odyssey into the guttural loss of love will change you forever.  Do not miss this RARE 16mm screening. Plays in Program 4, Saturday, June 8 at 3:15pm. More info here.

Cherlyn Hsing-Hsin Liu’s A Study of Fly (Shot 16mm/screened digitally, 2018, Taiwan, 13 minutes)
Grainy 16mm utilizing camera obscura techniques, this formalistically fractured film explores the relationship between insect, human, environment and the universe and is one of two outrageous films by director Cherlyn Hsing-hsin Liu. Plays in Program 5, Saturday, June 8 at 5:15pm. Director IN PERSON! More info here.

Diana Sánchez’s Dorothy (Digital, Mexico/US, 2018, 2 minutes)
This short and sweet ode to pioneering filmmaker Dorothy Wiley combines single frame fractions with found footage fragments, weaving together Sánchez’s past and present perfectly. Plays in Program 5, Saturday, June 8 at 5:15pm. Filmmaker IN PERSON! More info here.

Esther Urlus’ you are not alone (16mm, 2017, Netherlands, 69 seconds)
Patiently perusing through an entire program for the pinnacle, 69-second 16mm piece is a true testament to any filmgoer. This beautifully homemade collaborative project of Filmwerkplaats is loosely based on the sound on film experiments of Prof. Joseph Tykociner in 1921 and the golden record sent to outer space on a Voyager spacecraft in 1977. Plays in Program 5, Saturday, June 8 at 5:15pm.

For more information and Advance Tickets:

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks teaches 12 film history courses and is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University. He also curates/hosts the film series, is a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle, and writes film festival reviews for 48hills.

Exploring love on its own terms with the team behind “The Sun is Also a Star”

Yara Shahidi and Charles Melton play star-crossed lovers in “The Sun Is Also a Star.” Credit: Atsushi Nishijima/Warner Bros.

Daniel Bae is a lifelong romantic, who pens love poems in a little notebook he carries around with him. Natasha Kingsley (Yara Shahidi) is a persisting pragmatist, who is more likely to quote the theories of cosmologist Carl Sagan than the love poetry of Emily Dickinson.

When this modern-day Korean-American Romeo and Jamaica-born Juliet finally meet one day in New York City, the timing couldn’t be any worse. University-bound Bae is en route to a critical college interview and Kingsley is on her way to an 11th hour appointment with immigration authorities about her and her family’s impending deportation.

The odds of the two teens developing an attraction, much less an everlasting love, seems slim at best, in director Ry Russo-Young’s “The Sun Is Also a Star, which is based on Nicola Yoon’s bestselling YA book. Except that Bae is convinced that they are destined to be together and begs the skeptical Kingsley to give him 24 hours to prove it.

Although Kingsley has barely enough time to grab a coffee, she acquiesces and what follows is a testament to the power of…well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

48 Hills spoke to “The Sun Is Also a Star” cast members Charles Melton (“Riverdale”) and Jake Choi (“Single Parents”), who plays Daniel Bae’s brother, Charlie in the film, as well as author Nicola Yoon about the power of love and the role that romance plays in their own lives.

48 HILLS The central question in “The Sun Is Also a Star” is whether our lives are determined by fate or random events? Which is it, in your opinion?

NICOLA YOON I think that fate is being open to the world or to seeing how the random events are going to affect you. So some things are random, but if you’re paying attention, then one thing can lead to the other.

CHARLES MELTON I think both. What’s meant to be is meant to be, but that doesn’t mean you live with this passiveness because of what fate has in store for you. You still get up every day and stay open to the world and present to the things that may seem random but aren’t.

JAKE CHOI I think it’s already written, but then people are going to say, “Hey, then what’s the point of getting up every day and doing what we do?” But that’s the point, right? If you live moment to moment and work toward your dreams and goals and are present, that’s fate.

48 HILLS Another theory that the film explores is whether it’s possible to fall in love within 24 hours. Have any of you experienced that in your own lives?

CHARLES MELTON I think the possibility of falling in love within 24 hours is very real. I believe falling in love happens in moments, and when you first see someone—people talk about love at first sight, and there’s this hopeful curiosity to love at first sight.  Unfortunately, we live in a time where people can feel a little jaded about the idea of love, but you just have to be open to it.

NICOLA YOON There’s also this idea of love at second sight, which means that you know that it’s possible to fall in love with this person, so you see them and see the possibility of them.

When I met my husband—I remember clearly in graduate school—I looked at him and thought he’s so cute and there was something about him where I knew immediately that he was going to mean something. Then he’s like, “Well, I have a girlfriend,” and I was like, “Whatever about this girlfriend.” Then we were friends for years before we got together.

48 HILLS In the movie, we hear that the ingredients to a successful relationship are friendship, chemistry, moral compass, common interests, and the X factor. What does the X factor mean to you?

NICOLA YOON It’s something that’s not definable. It’s the reason that when you walk into a room you notice that super cute boy but not that one. I have one friend and he’s extraordinarily attractive, but I get nothing. But all my girlfriends are swooning.

With my husband, he walked into the room and I was like, “Hello.” But I don’t know what it is. There is a chemistry there, and it’s not just physical. But there is that. There’s just something about the other person. That’s why in the book, I call it the X factor because I still don’t have any other words for it. It’s magic.

JAKE CHOI It’s that mph…

“Romance is not dead and whenever people say that, it makes me insane,” says “The Sun Is Also a Star” writer Nicola Yoon.

CHARLES MELTON You can’t measure the X factor. There’s that saying, “Oh, I have butterflies,” and you start getting that queasy feeling and your heart just stops for a moment and there’s just this invisible magical force that draws you to somebody. Everybody experiences it in their own way and they just don’t know how to express it.

Falling in love can be kind of scary, at times, because you don’t want to get hurt. But when you’re feeling that X factor feeling, you should never be worried about the possibility of being hurt. Just be open.

48 HILLS Every year, it seems that more and more people complain that romance is dead, but this movie and the way that you all speak about it almost make me believe that it’s still possible. How do you keep the romance alive in your own lives?

NICOLA YOON Romance is not dead and whenever people say that, it makes me insane. People talk about love as if it were not the most important thing in the world, which is crazy because it’s literally the thing that makes the world go round. Everyone wants and needs love in whatever form—the love of your art, the love of your friends, the love of the person you’re in love with. So romance is not going to die, because we’re people and we’re made for love. That’s what we do.

CHARLES MELTON You just have to be open to the possibilities, and this film is such an aspirational story that I think it gives hope. Today, with social media, it’s easy to become jaded with personal trials and tribulations, with relationships. There’s just something special here, and tying it back to destiny and fate, if Daniel Bae was on his phone at Grand Central Station, he’d have never noticed Natasha. Were he taking a selfie, he’d never have noticed the car about to hit Natasha and wouldn’t have been able to save her life, so there’s just something about this romance that I think is very fresh and installs hope.

JAKE CHOI I agree. One of the things that’s essential to romance is a childlike curiosity and innocence. I think we see that from Daniel in the movie. He has this curiosity toward Natasha that comes from a very pure place and that kind of gives birth to a lot of the ways that he romances Natasha.

Even looking back on my life, things I did in my life that seemed romantic to me, it really came from a place of innocence where I listened to what my partner liked or loved and wanted to present that in my own way like a romantic gesture, ‘cause the idea of romance is different for everybody.

48 HILLS Nicola, if I had to draw a commonality between your books, “The Sun Is Also a Star” and “Everything, Everything”, I’d argue that they’re both about interracial relationships that defy odds. Obviously, you’re in an interracial relationship. Why are these stories important to be told?

NICOLA YOON I would say it’s more about love. But as far as the political commentary in there, we all have way more in common than we think we do. I think especially, in 2019, we tend to think that people who don’t look like us or share our race, religion, or sexuality are so different. But they’re not.

It’s safe to say that I have more in common with David, my husband, than with anyone in the world because I am the Jamaican version of him and he’s the Korean-American version of me.

48 HILLS At a time when people have very opposing views on immigration, you’ve chosen to tell a story about the plight of immigrants inside the narrative of a love story. We can’t all relate to immigration—at least directly—but most of us can relate to love.

NICOLA YOON I think one of the things that books and media do so well is that they can make you empathetic. It’s hard to hate someone if you’ve been in their heads for 400 pages or in a two-hour movie where you’re falling in love with these characters.

The best thing I ever heard from a reader once is, “You made me think about immigration differently,” because he loved Daniel and Natasha and loved the story and was with them. So if we could have media that shows that it’s not just politics—it’s also people and real lives—then I think we’re doing a good job.

Opens Fri/17
Various Bay Area theaters
Tickets and more info here

Hello Kitty to ‘Happy Cleaners’: Asian American film shines at CAAMFest

Valerie Soe’s groundbreaking feminist short films get a showcase with comedian Kristina Wong at the Asian American Art Museum for this year's CAAMfest

From SF’s own Chinatown to the crisscrossing currents of transnational adoption, this year’s CAAMFest—formerly known as the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival—covers the globe as usual in its pursuit of subjects and talent from throughout the Asian diaspora. The 11-day event, now in its 37th year, takes place May 9-18 at venues throughout SF and Oakland.

The kickoff this Thursday at the Castro Theatre is Bay Area natives Harry and Josh Chuck’s world-premiere documentary Chinatown Rising. It draws on extensive archival materials and interviews with surviving participants to chart the neighborhood activism that finally pushed this large yet hitherto oft-ignored population into the mainstream of city politics, as well as a national struggle for Asian-American representation. The screening will be followed by an opening-night party at the Asian Art Museum.

The official closer at the Roxie is another new documentary by a local filmmaker. Geographies of Kinship focuses on the stories of several young Korean adoptees, but also looks at the big picture of adoption as a matter of global politics, commerce and controversy. CAAM will pay tribute to its director Deann Borshay Liem by also screening her twenty-year-old first feature First Person Plural, which told her own story of adoption and assimilation.

Similar themes of uprooting and culture shock run through numerous CAAM titles this year, from a revival of Wayne Wang’s beloved 1993 Amy Tan adaptation The Joy Luck Club to Oliver Siu Kuen Chan’s Still Human (a seriocomedy about Filipina “guest workers” in Hong Kong), Alfred Sung’s world-premiere The Last Stitch (a documentary centering on Hong Kong emigres to Toronto), Andrea A. Walter’s Empty by Design (a drama in which two expats return to their native Philippines) and Emily Ting’s Go Back to China (a fictionalized spin on the director’s own experience of working at her immigrant parents’ factory).

There are a surprising number of musicals (though no Colma: The Musical again) this year. Centerpiece presentation Yellow Rose features the original Miss Saigon Lea Salonga in a tale of a teenage Filipina who dreams of country-music stardom in honky-tonk Texas. There will be a live score by singer-songwriter Goh Nakamura to accompany a 100th-anniversary screening of The Dragon Painter, a silent romance starring the great Sessue Hayakawa, whose globe-trotting screen career would continue for another half-century. U.S.-Cambodian coproduction In the Life of Music dramatizes how the “King of Khymer Music” Sinn Sisamuth’s signature song “Champa Battambang” runs though three generations of tumult before, during and after the genocidal Khymer Rouge regime.

Other highlights will include separate tributes to two recently deceased leading SF political figures: Mayor Ed Lee, and Public Defender Jeff Adachi. The latter was also a documentary filmmaker whose works often showed at CAAM, and will be excerpted as part of the program. Another tributee is Valerie Soe, whose films and video installations have made her a prominent figure in Asian-American feminism, cultural self-examination and experimental cinema for decades.

Among additional feature films of interest are several notable U.S. independent works, like Julian Kim and Peter S. Lee’s world premiere family drama Happy Cleaners; Sam Friedlander’s more comedic domestic tale Babysplitters; Alister Grierson’s fact-inspired boxing tale Tiger; Justin Chon’s moody L.A.-set sibling reunion story Ms. Purple; and Jalena Keane-Lee’s activist documentary Period Girl.

From farther afield, there’s teenage angst in the Japanese Demolition Girl, about a student whose crap home situation forces her into fetish-video work to pay the bills; Chinese sci-fi drama Last Sunrise; Ten Years Thailand, in which four Thai directors (including Apichatpong Weerasetthakul) imagine a dystopian near-future; and B&W The Widowed Witch, for whom the present is already bleak enough—losing her house and husband, she is virtually homeless in China’s rural north.

There are also shorts programs, filmmaker panels and workshops, live performances (musical and otherwise), and more. For full program, locations and ticket info, click here.  

Silent Film Fest ranges afar—but don’t worry, there’s still Buster

'You Never Know Women' (1926)

It’s been edging in this direction for a while, and it’s probably not a strategy that can or should be repeated ad finitum. But still, this year’s SF Silent Film Festival (Wed/1-Sun/5 at Castro Theatre) has come up with one surefire formula for a perfect program: Begin with Buster Keaton; end with Buster Keaton.

The five-day event kicks off Wednesday night with 1928’s The Cameraman—the first and by far best of the comedy star’s work under a new contract for MGM, whose creative inference would quickly dim his luster both commercially and artistically. But their meddling wasn’t yet chronic when this tale (in which Buster’s portrait photographer tries to break into newsreels to impress a girl) was shot. In fact, the very studio that kinda-sorta ruined Keaton held it up for years as a flawless demonstration of comedy technique to be studied by its payroll talent. They did, however, insist on at least one notion alien to Buster: That “The Great Stoneface” end the film with an on-camera smile. That uncharacteristic grin promptly hit the cutting-room floor after preview audiences simply refused to accept it.

‘Our Hospitality’ (1923)

In The Cameraman’s inspired climax, Buster obliviously finds himself in the middle of a Chinatown “Tong war.” This latest edition of SFSFF ends Sunday night with the 1923 Our Hospitality, which is almost entirely built around our hero being oblivious to mortal peril—here, he’s a visitor to the Appalachians who unknowingly blunders right into the middle of a “Hatfields vs. McCoys” type feud that’s been going on for over a century. Falling in love with one “hillbilly” (Natalie Talmadge, then Keaton’s wife), he is an assassination target for nearly everyone thereabouts until an inter-clan reconciliation is reached. Keaton’s first true feature (the same year’s Three Ages was essentially a trio of thematically-linked shorts), Our Hospitality was much admired for innovating the comedy form at the time, and it remains an absolute gem.

Of course, man cannot live on Buster Keaton movies alone, as appealing as that may sound. Between these two bookends, the Silent Fest will serve up no less than twenty-two programs at the Castro, all featuring live musical accompaniment, and running a global gamut. There will be the return of the sumptuous 1928 fable Shiraz: A Romance of India; Swede Mauritz Stiller’s 1919 frozen-north morality tale Sir Arne’s Treasure; sophisticated comedy master Ernst Lubitsch’s early triumph The Oyster Princess from that same year, and fellow German expat Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 The Wedding March, whose legendary excesses of budget and length basically ended his directorial career.

‘Rhapsodica Satanica’ (1917)

There are no less than two Italian representations of eternal damnation: The 1917 Rapsodia Satanica is a gender-switched Faust spin in which an elderly Countess cuts a deal with the Devil to regain her youth; 1911’s Dante-derived L’Inferno, the oldest surviving feature-length film, was a worldwide hit that proved no spectacle is quite so hot as the torments of Hades. Hell on Earth is depicted in the 1919 German Opium, a tale of addiction and vengeance that itself aspires towards a sort of fever-dream abandon. Hell is also found in the colonialist African backwater of Tod Browning’s lurid 1928 melodrama West of Zanzibar, in which Lon Chaney orchestrates a grotesque revenge upon the man (Lionel Barrymore) who stole his wife in America years before.

Among the rarities on tap are Goona Goona, a largely forgotten milestone in film history. When it was released in 1932, air travel—or any other kind—to far-off lands was an impossible dream for most Americans, so this romance shot in Bali with an entirely local cast seemed unbelievably exotic. Native dress customs allowed near-nudity to be permissible, which not only helped make this movie a huge hit (even where it was censored to the bone), but triggered a long cycle of “Goona Goona movies” whose alleged travelogue sights were often represented by topless So. Cal. beach bunnies in dusky makeup and makeshift sarongs. Most Western audiences hadn’t seen this much unclad cleavage in their entire lives—and the rice-farming peasant hero is pretty body-beautiful, too.

‘Goona Goona’ (1932

Speaking of hunkdom, what can you say about Gary Cooper in 1929, when at 28 he’d barely commenced his stardom? Perhaps just: Sigh. The Wolf Song was also an early effort for another man who’d go on to great things (like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind), director Victor Fleming. Immediately afterward they worked together again on The Virginian, another western, and the talkie that would perhaps shape Cooper’s screen persona more than any other single film. But late silent Wolf Song, a sagebrush romance, is fun. It certainly knows what it’s got: Not only does every woman here make goo-goo eyes at his 1840s hero, but his own fellow trappers exclaim “Ain’t you the pretty white thing!” upon spying him bathing naked in the river. Agreeing with that sentiment (and rather purdy herself) is heroine Lupe Velez, who became one of the star’s off-screen paramours.

Another director who’d make some of MGM’s greatest talkie classics (notably several among Garbo and Norma Shearer’s best, plus National Velvet and The Yearling), Clarence Brown, had an early success with 1924’s The Signal Tower, which is set in an unrecognizably remote, “primitive” Mendocino County. And William A. Wellman, whose many later jewels would include The Public Enemy, the 1937 A Star is Born, Beau Geste and The Ox-Bow Incident (as well as Wings), provides Texas beauty Florence Vidor with a Russian circus milieu for another love triangle in 1926’s You Never Know Women. John Ford, the director forever most associated with westerns, was already demonstrating his command of the genre in 1918’s sly Hell Bent, which stars the inimitable Harry Carey—who three decades later was still donning riding the prairie in Red River.

As usual, there are some eye-opening titles here you won’t believe aren’t better known. In Karl Anton’s masterful 1930 Czech late silent Tonka of the Gallows, a prostitute heroine (Ita Rina) only makes her bleak existence worse by spending a night consoling a condemned man. That act of compassion gets her ostracized from every layer of society save the gutter. It’s a superbly told tragedy that does not belabor the expected morality lesson in the least.

‘Tonka of the Gallows’ 1930

Another revelation is King Baggot’s 1925 The Home Maker, in which Alice Joyce and Clive Brook play in the dumps because of financial straits and other external pressures—he’s passed over for a much-needed promotion at work, while she’s exhausted keeping house and raising their three children. Yet when fate renders their situation more desperate, it turns out to be a blessing. Forced to support the family, she turns out to be a fast-rising model employee; rendered an invalid, he discovers he’s a terrific househusband. A situation that might normally have been treated for freakish gender-flip farce is instead handled with surprising warmth and understanding.

Other films in the festival run from the legendary (Dovzhenko’s 1930 Soviet masterpiece Earth) to the intriguingly neglected, including a 1933 Nippon gem of poetic realism, Japanese Girls at the Harbor, and eccentric French auteur Marcel L’Herbier’s 1920 L’homme du large. There’s also G.W. Pabst’s globetrotting intrigue The Love of Jeanne Ney, a major film that’s perhaps been overshadowed by falling between his vehicles for Greta Garbo (The Joyless Street) and Louise Brooks (Pandora’s Box, Diary of a Lost Girl).

There’s no Garbo or Brooks in the Silent Fest this edition, but if the alternative is Keaton and Cooper, we’ll take it. You’ll also get some live leading-man action from British actor Paul McGann (the “I” in Withnail & I, and a former Doctor Who), who’ll recite the Dante-derived intertitles for L’Inferno on the Castro stage.

SF Silent Film Festival, Wed/1-Sun/5, Castro Theatre.

After 50 years, ‘Midnight Cowboy’ rides again

Jon Voight in 'Midnight Cowboy,' playing as part of the SFFILM Fest. Courtesy of Park Circus

Back in 1967, Hollywood photographer Michael Childers, whose career was taking off, answered a fateful phone call from Broadway star Kaye Ballard, whom he had recently shot for TV Guide. She asked if he’d be so kind as to show her great friend John Schlesinger around Los Angeles.

Schlesinger, the British director of such acclaimed 1960s films as A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, and Darling was in the City of Angels for the opening of his latest movie, Far From the Madding Crowd, and Childers—a senior at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, who had admired Darling so much that he saw it five times, jumped at the opportunity to play tour guide.

Meeting Schlesinger at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the 23-year-old Childers found the 42-year-old director “charming,” “wonderful,” and “brilliant.” One thing led another, and the two became a couple, together for 36 years until Schlesinger passed away in 2003.

A creative partnership was also sparked between the couple when Schlesinger invited Childers to assist on his next film, 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. The movie about an unlikely friendship forged between a naive cowboy hustler from Texas named Joe (Jon Voight) and a sickly con man from New York nicknamed Ratso (Dustin Hoffman) would go on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture (the only X-rated film to do so), Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as revolutionize cinema.

Childers, who’d eventually photograph 200-plus magazine covers, create 150-plus album covers and film posters, and work as a photographer on numerous films, will appear in conversation with Oscar-nominated director Matt Tyrnauer about the modern classic at the 2019 San Francisco International Film Festival 50th anniversary screening of Midnight Cowboy, at SFMOMA Fri/19, featuring a new 4K restoration, along with rarely seen footage of Jon Voight’s screen test.

48 HILLS What was going through your mind when you were given the opportunity to assist on Midnight Cowboy?

MICHAEL CHILDERS John said, “Would you like to go to New York to work on a movie called Midnight Cowboy? I asked, “Is that a John Wayne Western?” And he said, “Hardly, hardly, my dear. Read the outline.”

I read it and said, “This is mindblowing. This is wild. How are you going to get this in the theatres? It’s so X-rated.” He said, “I will, I will.” So he had this vision of this great movie and I got so lucky to go to New York to work as a PA.

48 HILLS What exactly did you do on set?

CHILDERS I got to work on the whole movie—the casting, the rehearsals, locations—driving Jon Voight around Texas for 10 days, looking for extras and locations while he learned how to do a Texas accent. That was pretty fabulous.

And I helped shape the whole party sequence because in the book it just said: “A party in Greenwich Village ensues.” It didn’t say “Warhol” or “hipsters.”

48 HILLS And you introduced Schlesinger to Warhol?

CHILDERS I had gotten to know Paul Morrissey and Andy Warhol, was hanging out with them at Max’s Kansas City and took John down to meet Warhol and the superstars like Joe D’Allesandro, Viva, and Candy Darling and all the drag queens that were shooting up in the bathroom.

So I got all the superstars to be extras in that famous party sequence. In fact, that’s my darkroom that they used. I brought it to New York and set it up. Brenda Vaccaro makes love to the cowboy in it, and those are my behind-the-scenes stills from the movie.

In fact, Andy was meant to be in the film, but two weeks before we started shooting, Andy was shot and very grateful that we hired all his superstars for a week because they were all unemployed for a year while he was recovering.

So it was a learning experience par excellence. I learned so much more in that first year working on Midnight Cowboy than I learned in five years at UCLA film school.

48 HILLS Is it true that you also inspired the film’s opening scene?

CHILDERS There was an impasse in the script and they had a dramatic meeting between the writer and producer to figure out how the hell they open this movie. They were all stuck with ideas, so I showed them a still that I took in Texas of an abandoned drive-in movie theatre out on the prairie with sagebrush and asked, “Why don’t you start it there with perhaps one kid out at this abandoned drive-in playing with toy horses, which says a lot about Texas and the child?” They liked it and used it as the opening sequence of the movie.

Michael Childers. Photo by Stacy Jacob

48 HILLS I read that Schlesinger was so convinced that the film wouldn’t win any Academy Awards that he declined an invitation to attend the Oscars the following year.

CHILDERS United Artists begged him to come to LA for the Oscars but he was filming Sunday Bloody Sunday and he didn’t want to shut down filming. United Artists was producing Sunday Bloody Sunday, too, and they said, “We’ll pay to shut down the movie for four days while you and Michael come to LA for the Oscars, because we think you’re the dark horse and have a really good chance.”

And John thought, no and, of course, I really wanted to go to the Oscars. I said, “Please, let’s go. I’ve never been to the Oscars.” But when he won, we were on the phone at three in the morning in London. We had a friend working on the show backstage, and we heard everything as it was being announced. That was pretty exciting. But I’ve never gotten to go to the Oscars, damn it.

48 HILLS What, in your unbiased opinion, is the legacy of Midnight Cowboy?

CHILDERS Both Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy were the most important films because they were so successful. They blew the roof off of Hollywood in the late ‘60s and changed the whole way of filmmaking and introduced a new American cinema where films could be different and not just studio sludge.

Midnight Cowboy was the first X-rated Oscar movie that broke a lot of taboos, so it allowed a lot of freedom for films afterward.

From a technical perspective, the cinematography was way ahead of its time. The use of high-contrast film, color, infrared, black and white, the first tracking shot, the first Steadicam ever used, the first fisheye lens ever used predates what happened in music videos and films 15 years later. It was way ahead of its time, the look of it.

48 HILLS And it surprised me when I watched it for the first time in 15 years how well it still holds up.

CHILDERS A lot of times, 50-year-old films don’t hold up quite as you remember, but this one does. Between the comedy, pathos, and tears, it’s still a very powerful, gutwrenching movie.

48 HILLS What is coming up next for you?

CHILDERS I’m currently in a show in Palm Desert called “Distortions in My Mind,” through April 26th. In June, I’m lecturing at Yale University on my “Author-Author” portrait series at Bernicke Library with head curator Tim Young, then lecturing at the Provincetown Film Festival on Schlesinger’s masterpiece Sunday Bloody Sunday with Schlesinger’s biographer William Mann, and then back to Yale University for a show on select British artists, actors and directors at the Center for British Art. In July, I’m heading to the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis, Indiana for the award-winning short “I Knew Andy Warhol,” which I co-produced with Marc Saltarelli.

Fri/19, 8:45pm, $13/$16
Tickets and more info here.

SFFILM Fest opens with stars and ‘Tales’

New 'Tales of the City' director Alan Poul, Armistead Maupin, Laura Linney, and writer/showrunner Lauren Morelli at the Castro Theatre. Photo by David Schnur

Opening night of the SFFilm Festival filled the Castro Theatre with basically anyone you could imagine on Wednesday evening, as Netflix premiered the first episode of the new “Tales of the City.” Armistead Maupin, Laura Linney, and more from the original PBS series (DeDe Halcyon Day! Handsome Brian Hawkins!)  were on hand with new cast members, Mayor London Breed, the entire press corps of the city of San Francisco, and some familiar faces from the world of art and politics.

Cast of the new ‘Tales of the City.’ Photo by David Schnur

Unfortunately, Olympia Dukakis couldn’t make it, but the audience practically burst into tears when her face first appeared on the screen as Anna Madrigal, matron of the legendary 28 Barbary Lane. She appears as the subject of an interview one of the new characters is conducting, and is asked what she thinks of the changes San Francisco is going through. Anna hedges her answer in that irascible way she has, but the housing bubble and tech incursion are at least alluded to in the first new “Tales” episode. We’re a long way from the 1970s, and while that’s tragic in a lot of respects, it’s a good thing when it comes to the series’ inclusion of young, diverse, gender nonconforming and trans characters, even if there are some clunky moments of introduction. Ellen Page shines as a pansexual with a chip on her shoulder, holding her own with Dukakis onscreen.

Charlie Barnett plays main character Mouse’s young love interest in the new ‘Tales of the City.’ Photo by David Schnur
May Hong plays a new resident of 28 Barbary Lane. Photo by David Schnur.

And while it remains to see if Murray Bartlett (one of the few interesting things about Looking) can convincingly step into the loafers of Mouse Tolliver, now a hunky daddy, Laura Linney retains all the conflicted incandescence of Mary Anne Singleton. She’s back for Anna’s 90th birthday, unsatisfactory husband in tow, and the first episode deals with all the intrigue and nostalgia of her return after decades. It’s all quite beautiful and often moving—and a perfect cliffhanger moment at the end will keep you watching—even some of the more outlandish parts. (Who is paying for all the Ubers it takes to get these drag queens up to Russian Hill?)

Laura Linney was the force behind reviving ‘Tales.” Photo by David Schnur
Armistead Maupin and London Breed. Photo by David Schnur

At an onstage Q&A afterwards with the cast and producers—including powerhouse writer and showrunner Paula Morelli—Maupin himself was asked what he thought of all the changes. He referenced his good friend London Breed and seemed to try to change the topic, but then, with a nudge, admitted that the “new, incoming aesthetic” was “a but dull.” Finally, with a further nudge, the crowd got what we wanted. “I promised myself I would be a bitter old queen up here,” he said. “But nowadays these kids with their Grindr”—referencing the gay hookup app—”in my day we used to make you walk 10 miles through the snow to suck a cock!” The crowd roared.

From Gorbachev to ‘Red Joan’: SFFILM Fest gets geopolitical

'Meeting Gorbachev'

MOVIES The 62nd SFFILM Festival kicks off next week, and as usual there’s a plethora of movies to choose from (see our preview here). In particular, there are several documentaries and features dealing with geopolitical issues, including nuclear secrets, Perestroika, Syrian refugees, and the recent history of Afghanistan. Below are our reviews.

The British have always had, well, a different perspective on the atomic bomb spies of the 1950s. When upper crust, Cambridge educated spy Kim Philby fled to Moscow, one of his defenders was supposed to have intoned in a posh accent, “If Philby gave secrets to the Bolshies, then he had a damn good reason!”

Now we have a new take on the old conundrum as seen in the feature film Red Joan. Judi Dench plays Joan Stanley, an elderly librarian who is suddenly arrested for allegedly stealing atomic secrets years earlier. The film intercuts the modern day MI5 interrogation with scenes from the 1930s and 40s when we meet Joan as a young woman, portrayed by the very talented Sophie Cookson.

A central mystery soon develops: Was Joan a spy? And if so, why?

Director Trevor Nunn and screenwriter Lindsay Shapero cleverly intermix Joan’s personal story with the politics of the era. She is an intelligent, Cambridge graduate with a background in physics. But she gets hired as a secretary to a scientist researching nuclear fission at a top-secret lab. Had she been male, she may well have gotten credit for developing nuclear fission. 

We see Joan grow emotionally and intellectually from a naïve college student to a politically committed woman. She falls in love with a fellow Cambridge grad who happens to be a Russian agent. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

The film reminds us that times were different back then. The USSR, US, and UK were allied against fascism. Churchill had promised technological assistance to Stalin, according to the spies, and then reneged on the deal. “it’s not really stealing,” argues Leo, Joan’s lover and spymaster. “It’s sharing.”

Joan doesn’t fall for such balderdash. She supported building an atomic bomb because the allies thought the Nazis were developing one. After seeing the horrors of Hiroshima, Joan, like many nuclear scientists in the US and UK, questioned how atomic weapons would be used in future wars.

“I love my country,” she says. “If both sides had the bomb, neither would use it.”

She makes a valid point, and by the end of the film, Joan emerges as an unlikely hero.

Red Joan gets clunky in the middle, some of the spy ring characters come straight out of central casting, and an escape from Britain at the end beggars belief. But the film is based on the real life story of the “Granny Spy” who was arrested in the late 1990s in Britain. She never served time due to her age. 

Was justice served? You decide.

Red Joan
Sat, Apr 13 at 4pm, Castro Theater
More info here

The German government handed over Berlin’s iconic Tempelhof Airport to be used as public space in 2008. Seven years later it became home to thousands of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other war torn countries.

Berlin-based director Karim Aïnouz spent a year filming Central Airport THF, telling the refugees’ stories. The filmmaker clearly wanted to show the humanity of the refugees and counter some of the right-wing propaganda denouncing refugees as criminals seeking to take away German jobs. I just wish the results had been as successful as the intent. 

To its credit, the documentary shows how a refugee center can be run. Unlike the US government refugee centers I’ve visited, the Tempelhof complex is clean, airy and organized to respect refugee dignity. The massive hangars are divided into private living spaces. Communal kitchens serve culturally appropriate food, doctors treat patients and volunteers teach German language classes.

We hear refugee complaints. Why do they have blankets over dwelling entrances rather than doors? (Locked doors could be a fire hazard, according to authorities.) Some of the young men refer to the “shitty food.” But such complaints are minor compared to some US facilities where families are forcibly separated and children are locked in cages for most of the day.

We meet an 18-year-old Syrian, Ibrahim Al Hussein, who is waiting to be granted refugee status and thus move out of the airport. Time passes very slowing as the young man meets friends, visits the doctor and smokes a water pipe. The film pacing is slow, recreating the atmosphere of Tempelhof itself. 

But there’s a limit to audience patience. Central Airport has no compelling personal stories, no dramatic reveals, nor any hint of the political controversy caused by the influx of refugees into Germany. 

Central Airport provides interesting information on how a humanitarian refugee effort can operate, but little to recommend it as cinema.

April 13 at 6:15pm, Creativity Theater
April 17 at 7pm, BAMPFA
April 22 at 1pm, Roxie Theater
More info here.  

If you want to see long, tedious praise of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, then the documentary Meeting Gorbachev is made for you. Otherwise stay home.

Directors Werner Herzog and Andre Singer have managed to deify Gorbachev without providing personal insight, and they describe his political career without offering credible analysis. And they take an agonizing 90 minutes to do it. 

To be fair, the film reflects a commonly held view in the west. For documentarian Herzog, who both wrote and narrated the film, Gorbachev was a great hero because he oversaw the elimination of the USSR, allowed freedom in Eastern Europe and brought  democracy to Russia. 

But in Russia and Eastern Europe today, Gorbachev is widely scorned. Vladimir Putin and rightist leaders in Europe came to power, in part, because of the failings of Gorbachev and his successor Boris Yeltsin. But the film presents no serious criticism of Gorbachev. Instead Herzog lards on admiration for his subject from the very beginning. 

“Everything about Gorbachev was genuine,” he informs us, referring to their three interviews in Moscow.  

The use of archival footage during Gorbachev’s early years is the most interesting part of the film. We see a clip of Gorbachev participating in a very funny college satire of American swing dancing where “decadent” Americans throw their partners around, sometimes just dropping them on the floor. 

Soviet leaders faced serious problems in agriculture production in the 1950s and 60s. Unlike other party bureaucrats, Gorbachev met with peasants in the countryside, sometimes arriving by foot when transport broke down. 

But the parts of the documentary that should be intriguing become summary recitations of the rise and deaths of various Soviet leaders in the 1970s. Wikipedia provides more insight. We never learn why the old system failed other than it was evil communism.

When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he proposed radical reforms. Perestroika aimed to restructure the economy; glasnost was supposed to democratize the political system. But those reforms went awry, as even Gorbachev now admits.

At no time does Herzog show Gorbachev’s impact on ordinary Soviet citizens. Herzog devotes exactly one sentence to the topic, “He is a lonely man and considered a traitor by the Russian people.”

Wouldn’t viewers be interested to know why? The left hates Gorbachev because he wrecked Soviet style socialism; the right hates him because he dissolved a once strong nation. Those views deserve a fair hearing. Instead, Herzog and Singer immediately cut to a long homage to the untimely death of Gorbachev’s wife Raisa. 

Given Herzog’s access to the former Soviet leader and prominent western politicians, Meeting Gorbachev could have been an insightful documentary. Instead we get hagiography disguised as history.

Fri, Apr 19, 9:00 pm, Creativity Theater 

This year’s SF Film Festival features two seemingly contradictory films from Afghanistan. One examines the role of cinema during the time of communist party rule from 1978-91. The other eschews explicit politics, focuses on the lives of ordinary Afghans and still manages to show the impact of war.

Documentarian Mariam Ghani, who made What We Left Unfinished, digs into Afghanistan’s state cinema vaults to unearth unfinished feature films shot when leftist governments were in power, backed by Soviet occupation. 

She interviews directors and actors who alternately describe those years as a “golden time” for Afghan cinema or an era of propaganda films with harsh censorship. During the interviews we see seemingly random clips from five old, never completed feature films. But as the documentary progresses, we realize Ghani is actually constructing a whole new feature film using the clips to illustrate the film makers’ memories and political perspectives.

It’s a wonderful concept, but like the Afghan war itself, never really works out. To hear the directors’ talk, they had created the equivalent of Afghanistan’s Citizen Kane and Casablanca. Then we see the actual clips.

Like the commercial movies of Iran and India, these Afghan films featured lots of close in zooms, anguished looks and 

potboiler plots. One film portrays the forbidden love of a boy and girl from different ethnicities. Romeo and Juliet it’s not.

A knife fight scene in another movie features dubbed in swoosh sounds that make the turbaned antagonists look like samurai stuck in the Khyber Pass.

The documentary is far more interesting when it explores the role of state-sponsored cinema. In 1978 one faction of the pro-Soviet communist party launched a coup in Afghanistan. The new government established a state run film company in which, according to some interviewees, actors and directors enjoyed great prestige.

They had virtually unlimited budgets so long as the films praised the new system. One feature film, April Revolution, even starred the country’s new ruler, Hafizullah Amin and his family. 

Amin was overthrown in another coup, and in 1979 the Soviet Union occupied the country. The film makers associated with Amin feared for their lives. 

One director notes that “if you have politicized cinema, when that government ends, so does the cinema.”

Downfall, made during the communist era, exposed the role of the US-backed mujahedeen and Pakistani intelligence service in promoting the heroin trade. Propaganda yes—but also true—as I’ve written about numerous times since 1992. 

However bad cinema may have been before 1991, it ceased to exist altogether when the mujahedeen launched the civil war, which eventually led to the Taliban seizing power. Leftist and virtually all film makers fled the country. The Taliban banned cinema and destroyed 200-300 films. What We Left Unfinished is worth seeing — if for no other reason — to remind us of what happens to the arts when US-backed, reactionary religious forces come to power.

Thurs, Apr 11 at 3:00 pm, Creativity Theater
Sun, Apr 14 at 3:15 pm, BAMPFA
Tues, Apr 16 at 8:30 pm, YBCA Screening Room
More info here

The feature film Kabul, City in the Wind is the polar opposite of What We Left Unfinished. It eschews overt politics in favor of presenting the lives of ordinary Afghans. Yet we never really escape the reality of the brutal war.

Director Aboozar Amini shot the feature over three years with a hand-held camera, using non-professional actors in Kabul. The film’s slow and deliberate pacing recreates the lives of bus drivers, mechanics, carpet weavers and other ordinary Afghans rarely seen in the US – whether in journalism or on film. 

The politics of war are explained as part of everyday life. A former soldier has “the talk” with his eldest son, probably about 13 years old. The father explains the son must never go to crowded areas where suicide bombers may lurk. “It’s too dangerous,” he says.

Amini appeared to use little or no script. He shoots his actors from behind and then dubs in dialogue later. In other scenes he fills the screen with his character’s faces and has them explain their difficult lives. This technique gives viewers a street-level feel for Kabul. 

All the major characters are men. Only one woman has a brief speaking role. That reflects the on-going inequality and social conservatism even for a film shot by a director living in Europe.

Kabul, City in the Wind can be hard to watch. Many American viewers will grow tired of the slow pacing, the lack of an obvious plot and dramatic arc. However, the feature provides an interesting slice of life view of today’s Afghanistan.

Thu, Apr 11 at 5:30 pm, BAMPFA
Fri, Apr 12 at 8:30 pm, Creativity Theater
Sat, Apr 20 at 1:00 pm, YBCA
More info here

Reese Erlich writes about foreign affairs, jazz and cinema for 48Hills. He has reported from Afghanistan since 1992.

SFFILM Fest brings new ‘Tales of the City,’ rare gems, big star power

Laura Linney and Olympia Dukakis in the new 'Tales of the City'

The big-screen experience for movies is on the cultural endangered list, between venues going under (or having their leases revoked by landlords eager to jump on the development train) and streaming services like Netflix that deliberately keep films out of theatrical release. So an annual blowout like SFFILM, aka the San Francisco International Film Festival, increasingly represents one’s only chance to see many films projected in a communal setting—not just the usual types of “festival movies” that are unlikely to get commercial distribution, but many bigger titles that these days might bypass theaters entirely.

Its 62nd edition unfolding April 10-23 at various SF and East Bay venues, SFFILM 2019 offers the usual feast for cineastes, though not everything is a “movie”: In fact the opening night attraction is Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, the latest continuance of that beloved SF-set serial, which will next surface on (where else but) Netflix after the Castro premiere of its first new episode. Expect Maupin, director Alan Poul, and returning star Laura Linney to appear before the show, and at the Regency complex party afterward.

Linney is one of several talents getting her own stand-alone tribute this year, along with fellow blonde thespian Laura Dern (whom she’s joked she’s often mistaken for) and a third versatile veteran performer, John C. Reilly. Directors similarly being feted are the French Claire Denis (presenting her latest High Life, a rare odyssey into both sci-fi and English language cinema), and pioneering African-American documentarian Madeline Anderson, whose work will be represented by films from fifty and sixty years ago.

Other spotlit personalities will include Hollywood child actor turned early SF Film Society chief Claude Jarman Jr., second-generation musical talent Jakob Dylan (starring in concert documentary Echo in the Canyon, which pays tribute to his father’s singer-songwriter generation), Oakland’s own multimedia maestro Boots Riley (offering a State of the Cinema address in the wake of his hit directorial debut Sorry To Bother You), and Kalil Joseph, whose work in various forms (including Beyonce’s epic “music video” Lemonade) has straddled the realms of commercial and experimental.

“The Farewell’

Additional highlighted events include “Centerpiece” film The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s US/China co-production with Crazy Rich Asians’ Awkwafina in a globetrotting dysfunctional family comedy; all-female rock quartet Warpaint performing a live score to accompany films by the great celluloid avant-gardist Maya Deren; a salute to the superb, long-running U.K. television cultural showcase BBC Arena; and official closing-nighter Official Secrets, with Keira Knightley as a real-life whistleblower working for British intelligence.

There will also be documentaries about Dr. Ruth, Ai Weiwei, migrating elephants, Satanists, the “American Dream,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, prison basketball, fashion designer Halston, China’s “one child” policy, Molly Ivins, Toni Morrison, Christo, Miles Davis, Mikhail Gorbachev, a refugee camp in a defunct Berlin airport, Brazilian politics, Mexican cuisine, teenage modeling, SF rock photog Jim Marshall, competitive dog grooming, a Creationist “museum,” lost Afghani film, and…well, there’s a lot.

If you’re more in the mood for fiction narratives, on tap are new movies from up-and-comers like actress turned acclaimed firsttime feature director Olivia Wilde (Booksmart) and rapper turned ditto Fab 5 Freddy (Grass Is Greener), plus established favorites including Stanley Kwan, Werner Herzog and Paolo Sorrentino. As ever, the festival’s program spans the globe, with fifty-two countries and thirty-six languages represented. Among the dozen world premiere titles are Zachary Cotler and Magdalena Zyzak’s When I’m a Moth, a fact-inspired fiction about a young Hillary Rodham (Addison Timlin) mulling her future options while working at an Alaska cannery in 1969. All this plus shorts programs, the experimental “Vanguard” section, culty “Dark Wave” selections, educational programs, lectures and more.

Since being spurned by its longtime exhibition homebase the Kabuki a few years back (its new owners no longer wanted to host local festivals), SFFILM has diversified its venues, spanning from the Mission to downtown, plus the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and Grand Lake in Oakland. This year’s program even has a handy chart to gauge your likeliest walking times and transit routes between locations.

2019 SFFILM FESTIVAL, Wed/10-Tues/23, various SF and East Bay venues. For the full schedule, individual descriptions, ticket info, et al, go to

What we saw at Sundance (and Slamdance), part 4: Narrative features

'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'

SUNDANCE 2019 Our festival critic Jesse Hawthorne Ficks reports from the Sundance Film Festival. Read part 1 here, part 2 here, and part 3 here

Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, US)
Winning a Special Jury Award for Vision and Craft in the US Dramatic category, this devastating deep dive into a troubled household that manifests into lifelong, self-destructive tendencies should easily be one of 2019’s most memorable movies. An uncompromising coming-of-age flick, it weaves between multiple periods of a young boy’s turbulent and topsy turvy life, giving 22-year-old Lucas Hedges and 13-year-old Noah Jupe room to shine. Granted, most movies tackling child abuse are usually effective in concept but not necessarily affecting emotionally. Debut director Alma Har’el beautifully bandages the surprisingly severe screenplay with an endless amount of sincerity, especially during the film’s most suffocating sequences.

The fact that Hollywood bad boy Shia LaBeouf comes into his own both as an actor (embodying his own abusive father) and as the writer of this autobiographical journey, should be of major interest to even the most stringent critic of this notorious and infamous child star. Art as therapy is definitely being put into practice here with bold choices like casting UK singer FKA Twigs (LaBeouf’s present girlfriend) as a integral, yet extremely controversial character. But as the post-screening Q&A proved (LaBeouf surprised the cast and crew by showing up), the wounds of childhood don’t mend easily. And anyone who braves this poignant powerhouse should be warned; Honey Boy has the strength to help confront some dark and troubling matters.

The Farewell (Lulu Wang, US)
Feeling like a contemporary classic already, Lulu Wang’s second feature The Farewell is the kind of “the little indie film that could” that sometimes sparks a mainstream movement (i.e. Welcome to the Dollhouse, Real Women Have Curves, Little Miss Sunshine). Exploring the awkward silences and frustrating foibles of a disfunctional middle-class Chinese family, Wang gives viral hip-hop star Awkwafina the kind of role that many have to wait decades for (see Lady Gaga in A Star is Born.) A crowd pleaser in the truest sense, don’t dismiss the skills it takes to make a John Hughes-esque classic nowadays. Many of us forget how important it is to find our footing by watching some solidly made narrative cinema.

This Teacher (Mark Jackson, US)
The Slamdance Film Festival sported a slew of spectacular films this year, including closing night selection This Teacher. Showcasing a stunning neo-realist performance by Hafsia Herzi (who plays a French Muslim woman named… Hafsia) as she meets up with her childhood best friend Zahra (played beautifully by  Sarah Kazemy), who now resides in an upper class New York. Director Mark Jackson’s third feature is a seriously discerning look at Islamophobia through countless subtle, yet distressing situations. Plus, any movie that presents a musical performance by Rebekah Del Rio (Mulholland Drive) has me absolutely transfixed.

Cat Sticks (Ronny Sen, India)
Definitely the most unique movie at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival (which was celebrating its 25th Anniversary) was Ronny Sen’s debut feature Cat Sticks. Digging deep into the dark alleys of Calcutta’s  “brown sugar” addicts (a cheaper form of heroin, averaging only 20 percent pure content), the film’s inhabitants fumble their ways through hauntingly drawn out sequences, punctuated by static B&W cinematography. Sen’s ominous tone and languorous pacing give you the feeling that you are in the film itself. Fans of slow cinema (Lav Diaz, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Bela Tarr) take note. This 94-minute Bengali film is an absolute must see (and probably more than once.)

Hands and Wings (Byun Sung-bin, South Korea)
My absolute favorite film at Slamdance this year was an 18-minute magical-neorealist South Korean film Hands and Wings directed by 28-year-old Byun Sung-bin. Shot in extreme B&W close-up and with the purposefully minimal catalog description of “one day, a disabled son rejects his mother’s help,” not much can prepare you for the stirring depths of empathy on display here. Byun is a filmmaker to keep your eyes on. In fact, take a look at his spoiler-free trailer above; It’s as unique as the film itself.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot, US)
While you’ve perhaps read more reviews and think-pieces about this Bay Area sensation (even deciding how you feel about the film before having even watched it), Joe Talbot & Jimmie Fails loving tribute to San Francisco is well worth all the hullabaloo. Awarded both the Best Directing in the US Dramatic category and a Special Jury Award for Creative Collaboration, this spirited and highly stylized quest, exploring the rapid transformation of our unique communities, was in fact, surprisingly, quite heartbreaking. Many of the most powerful scenes in the 120-minute film come from newcomer Jonathan Majors (who is an absolute revelation on every acting level) and Jimmie Fails (who literally plays himself) as they talk sensitively and sincerely to one another.

With the Bay Area being the living metaphor for “gentrification in America”, each new film that gets released (Carlos López Estrada’s Blindspotting, Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You, and now Joe Talbot’s The Last Man in San Francisco) seem to be attempting a near impossible task of speaking up (and to) all people gentrification is harming. No matter how passionate your feelings are towards this modern day, American “land grab”, make sure to actually watch The Last Black Man in San Francisco and then after, we can have a vigorous discussion as to how to push things even further.

1. The Mountain (Rick Alverson, US)
2. Hands and Wings (Byun Sung-bin, South Korea)
3. Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska, Ljubomir Stefanov, Republic of Macedonia)
4. The Nightingale (Jennifer Kent, Australia/Canada/US)
5. This Teacher (Mark Jackson, US)
6. Cat Sticks (Ronny Sen, India)
7. Midnight Traveler (Hassan Fazili, US)
8. Honey Boy (Alma Har’el, US)
9. The Farewell (Lulu Wang, US)
10. Acid Rain (Tomek Popakui, Poland)
11. Hail Satan? (Penny Lane, US)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and curates/hosts the MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS series. He is part of the SF Film Critics Circle and is the film festival critic for 48hills.