SF International Film Fest Celebrates 60 Years

by Sura Wood

This year’s film festival presents more than 181 foreign films from over 50 countries.

On a stormy night in 1957, cinephiles in formal attire gathered for the opening of the first San Francisco International Film Festival at the Metro Theater on Union Street. Sixty years later, the festival is a major, multi-venue event with more than181 foreign films, documentaries, animations, shorts and indies from over 50 countries, plus year-round screenings, filmmaker residencies, specialty programs and series. This month, the festival marks its 60th anniversary in style and with a notable San Francisco-centric thrust. It features an expanded list of music/film presentations, an increased number of films with local pedigrees, and three award recipients who are significant figures in the Bay Area: producer Tom Luddy, co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival; writer/director Eleanor Coppola; and Lynn Hershman Leeson, a feminist artist and filmmaker whose work often focuses on outspoken women. (Leeson’s most recent film, “Tania Libre,” a portrait of the radical Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, is shown during the two-week fest.) 

“It’s going to be a celebration of who we are as a filmmaking community, both the new generation we’ve helped to support, and an older generation that set the stage for the robust film culture we have here,” says festival executive director Noah Cowan. Cowan notes the especially strong contingent of works by filmmakers the festival has supported over the years. They include San Francisco native Peter Bratt’s “Dolores,” an homage to the largely unheralded Dolores Huerta, who, along with the better-known Cesar Chavez, founded the United Farm Workers of America, and Peter Nicks’ “The Force.” Nicks, who spent two years shadowing the controversy-plagued Oakland police department, is the award-winning director of 2012’s “The Waiting Room,” which follows the lives of ER staff and patients at Oakland’s Highland Hospital. These films are the first two of a planned trinity of works about Oakland.

Musicians, either profiled on film or performing in a variety of programs, get their due this year. The Grateful Dead, a band synonymous with the Bay Area rock scene, is the subject of the four-hour, six-chapter opus, “Long Strange Trip.” The “rockumentary,” executive produced by Martin Scorsese, chronicles the group’s three-decade career through the reminiscences of former band members and road managers, archival footage and, of course, their music. “I reached out to the band in 2003 asking to make this film, and it took 14 years to come to fruition,” says director Amir Bar-Lev (“The Tillman Story”). Also noteworthy: The Asian Dub Foundation, a multi-cultural British electronic band that fuses punk rock, reggae, bhangra and hip-hop, accompanies George Lucas’s 1971 directorial debut, “THX 1138,” a bleak futuristic vision of a totalitarian society in the 25th century. The group’s original score incorporates the film’s distinctive soundtrack while adding unsettling flute, guitar, bass and percussion elements to the mix.

There may be no movie more closely identified with San Francisco than Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo.” Recently named “the greatest film of all time” by Sight & Sound Magazine’s critics’ poll, this labyrinthine tale of obsessive love and murder takes full advantage of the city’s scenic locations, from the Golden Gate Bridge and Fort Point to
Dolores Park and the Legion of Honor. “Vertigo” plays a role in two events at the festival. Noted film historian/author David Thomson delivers a clever critical riff on the movie in “Two or Three Things That Frighten Me in ‘Vertigo’: Master Class.” In an event that includes a screening of the Hitchock classic, he retells the story from the point of view of Gavin Elster, the wealthy, cheating husband who orchestrates the Machiavellian plan to murder his wife by transforming his mistress into a look-a-like of his spouse, and duping his old school chum, a detective terrified of heights, into helping him carry out and get away with the crime. In Thomson’s imaginative scenario, Elster discusses the murder with Hitchcock over a friendly game of backgammon. “I’m trying to show that Gavin constructs a pattern of extraordinary self-sufficient cruelty that, in a strange way, parallels the way Hitchcock
made the film,” explains Thomson. “I’m proposing that Elster is actually a surrogate of the director.”

“The Green Fog—A San Francisco Fantasia,” a “Vertigo”-induced fever dream from the inventive Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin, premieres closing night. Maddin’s original, trance-like visual collage is a re-imagining of “Vertigo” with live music from the Kronos Quartet, performing a new score by Jacob Garchik. For the project, Maddin and his team assembled footage appropriated from over 100 films shot or set in San Francisco, drawing from Hollywood movies such as “Basic Instinct,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” and Vincent Price’s “Confession of an Opium Eater” through 1950s noir to 1970s television shows such as “The Streets of San Francisco.” The edited images, from different decades and multiple sources, are structured to mimic sequences from the film and roughly follow the trajectory of the story. “Trying to remake ‘Vertigo’ using only found footage [without using] ‘Vertigo’ itself has been a mad challenge,” concedes Maddin, who says his 40-minute creation simultaneously captures the delirium of cinema and the destructiveness of human passion. “I’ve always considered ‘Vertigo’ [to be] as much a symphony that you feel emotionally as a plot- driven movie,”
he adds. “I see it as a big Wagnerian opera that happens to have automobiles in it. Our film will be a celebration of San Francisco and how the city
dovetails with the cinematic dream.”

Apr. 5 → 19

The 60th San Francisco International Film Festival (415) 561-5000