Local Film Fests Celebrate Milestones

by Sura Wood

Two locally generated, very different niche film festivals celebrate milestones this year.

The San Francisco Independent Film Festival (SF IndieFest), which turns 20 this month, offers its usual slate of oddball, underground fringe films unlikely to be found at traditional venues; and the popular, week-long Mostly British Film Festival, now 10 years old, features classics and first-run movies from across the pond. Both celebrate milestones in 2018.

“We started with a devoted, sophisticated audience who’ve stuck with us, and we’ve built on that audience,” says Ruthe Stein, the former San Francisco Chronicle movie editor who established Mostly British. “San Francisco has had so many festivals over the years and…so I asked, ‘What kind of festival does the city not have?’ and I came up with the idea of films from Britain and the countries it once ruled… a foreign film festival without the subtitles. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no other festival like ours.”

Mostly British opens with “Mad to be Normal,” a biopic with a top-flight cast about the radical 1960s Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing. Laing’s revolutionary theories advocated against electroshock therapy and anti-psychotic drugs (with the exception of LSD) to treat the severely mentally ill, whose symptoms, he believed, were a reasonable response to a harsh society and dysfunctional families. A counterculture celebrity who partied with the Beatles and Sean Connery, the egotistical Laing (played by Scottish actor David Tennant of the British TV series “Dr. Who”) was adored by his patients, two of whom are played here by Michael Gambon and Gabriel Byrne.

Controversy of another sort informs “Una.” The intense drama, adapted by David Harrower from his stage play “Blackbird,” wades into the taboo relationship between an underage girl (played by Rooney Mara), and a man in his 30s (Australian character actor Ben Mendelsohn). Fifteen years after their brief, heated affair, for which he was imprisoned, she unexpectedly turns up at his workplace and confronts him about the emotional repercussions that have defined her life. 

Two films mine the U.K.’s rich literary tradition. Brian Cox, a lion of a man with a booming voice, appears in “The Carer” as a cantankerous Shakespearean actor raging against the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s disease. He alienates almost everyone around him except for one companion/caregiver, a young refugee who shares his passion for the theater. In “A Fanatic Heart,” Irish rocker and political activist Bob Geldof charts the life of poet W.B. Yeats, from his holidays in County Sligo, which engendered his love of fairy tales, and his fame as Ireland’s Poet Laureate and winner of the Nobel Prize to his later involvement in the formation of the Irish Free State. The documentary is foremost a tribute to the transformative power of poetry and its ability to elevate the spirit and shape the world around us. Along the way, Yeats’ beautiful verse is performed by luminaries such as Sting, Bono, Liam Neeson, Bill Nighy, Damian Lewis, Van Morrison and Colin Farrell.

Mostly British Film Festival

Feb. 15 → 22

Vogue Theater

3290 Sacramento St., San Francisco

For 20 years, Indiefest has attracted—and tailored its programming to—a young, hip San Francisco demographic seeking alternative cinematic fare, says founder/director Jeff Ross, who has presented more than 1,600 films since he organized the festival in 1999 to help a friend who couldn’t find a venue for his movie. Back then, the fest screened only a dozen features during a four-day run at the Roxie and Victoria theaters. However, in spite of its longevity and its growth—today, it presents 100 movies over two weeks—the ethos remains the same. “We’re still in the discovery business,” Ross maintains. “I’m always looking for something different and new and well-made with interesting characters—something that will be a unique experience for the audience. Our focus hasn’t really changed that much since we started.”

Over the years, Ross has bet on some dark horses and scored a number of coups. “Paranormal Activity” (2007), a supernatural horror thriller produced on a shoestring, was screened at a midnight show and went on to make a fortune for Paramount. Ross was also the first to show David Lynch’s “Inland Empire” and Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park.” “We Sold Our Souls for Rock ’n’ Roll” (2001) screened once and sank from sight because director Penelope Spheeris had failed to get clearances from musicians on the soundtrack. 

This year’s program kicks into gear with “Stuck,” a roughhewn hybrid of “Rent” and “La La Land,” in which a cross-section of New Yorkers meet, reveal their stories and break into song aboard a subway train stalled in a tunnel. And, in honor of Indiefest’s anniversary, a retrospective series highlights a movie from each year of the festival. The series includes “Funny Ha Ha” (2004), an early example of mumblecore, a genre of low-budget indies often with improvised dialogue and nonprofessional actors, focused on relationships between twentysomethings, that Ross says his festival helped launch. But the fest’s biggest hit may have been a crowd-pleaser with an irresistible, follow-your-dreams backstory: “Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation” (2005). The shot-by-shot remake of the 1981 Steven Spielberg blockbuster was created with scarce funds and a ton of imagination by three Mississippi teens who used their houses as sets and backyards as stand-ins for the South American jungle. They embarked on the project in 1982, nearly finished it seven summers later, shelved it, and it was all but forgotten until 2003, when a bootleg version made its way to a screening at an Austin, Texas, movie theater. (A copy also landed in Spielberg's hands.) The aspiring filmmakers have since formed their own production company. 

SF Indiefest

Feb.1 → 15

Roxie Theater; Victoria Theater
518 Gallery, San Francisco