A Feast of Film Coming to a Screen Near You

By Catherine Barry

Local Talent Shines in Upcoming Sundance and SF IndieFest Festivals

There’s no doubt that our arts world has become smaller in the last year, but online and hybrid events are certainly having their day in the sun. Who would have imagined we’d have The Sundance Film Festival available on our doorstep? This has to be up there with the best pandemic-related news we’ve heard all year.

From January 28 to February 3, for the first time in its more than 20 years, The Sundance Film Festival goes virtual - and national - with screenings and events in 30 cities.

It’s fitting that The Roxie - one of the oldest movie theaters in the country - is a chosen official partner, and will bring a selection of the program to San Francisco’s Fort Mason in partnership with the FLIX drive-in team from January 28 to February 2.

"The Roxie is honored to have been designated as the California State Satellite Screen for Sundance 2021, and thrilled that we will be presenting 12 festival features at Fort Mason FLIX drive-in looking out onto the San Francisco Bay,” Rick Norris, Roxie Programming Department, told SF/Arts.

Before you go in search of drive-in tickets, the bad news is the first batch sold out almost immediately, the not-so-bad-news is they will be releasing more tickets on January 25th, and the better news is that a lot of these films are available for streaming through the Sundance website, with some already lined up for Bay Area releases over the next month or so.

Roxie/Fort Mason FLIX tickets are $49 per car, with 100% of the proceeds benefiting The Roxie.

Films with Bay Area connections feature strongly in this year’s lineup, with a handful in the 15 or so world premieres.

Directing duo Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp’s “First Date” is one such gem to look out for. The dark, coming-of-age teen romance is the story of a date night with unexpected results and uninvited guests including a criminal gang, a pair of cops and even a cat lady. A whole heaping of excitement and car chase thrills in a trusty ’65 Chrysler.

All the filmmakers and producers are from Sacramento or the Bay Area. "There’s no reason not to make it homespun," says co-director Darren Knapp of this first feature film. “It was shot in Valley Springs, and almost the entire cast and crew consists of individuals from the greater Sacramento and Valley Springs regions. We knew our local area was full of talent, so why not highlight them? We both felt that screen presence and chemistry amounted to more than an IMDB star rating. Let's give everyone their shot!”

January 31, February 2 Sundance Streaming
February 1 Roxie/Fort Mason FLIX

Photo: West Side Story copyright 1961 MetroGoldwynmayer Studios Inc.

Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” chronicles the life and work of the Tony, Oscar, Grammy and Emmy awards winner Moreno who throughout her 70-year career has acted, danced and sang her way into the spotlight, all the time avoiding being pigeonholed and stereotyped thus paving the way for future Hispanic-American performers.

Director and fellow Puerto Rican, Mariem Pérez Riera considers Moreno “a great personality with vast knowledge; she’s a woman of great conversations, very happy and very knowledgeable about a woman’s place in the United States, and in Hollywood where she was sexually harassed and faced prejudice for being Latina and female.”

Moreno is among the guests taking part in Sundance’s virtual “Cinema Cafe” on Saturday, January 30.

January 29 Roxie/Fort Mason FLIX; January 29, 31 Sundance Streaming

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by KPJR Films.

Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir” is the final film directed by James Redford (recently deceased son of Robert) and is an Official Selection of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. The biopic takes us on the life journey of Amy Tan, the Chinese-American literary great and author of “The Joy Luck Club,” whose 1989 novel about the relationships between Chinese-American women and their Chinese immigrant mothers set in San Francisco, put her on the map. The work was adapted into a play and a film directed by Wayne Wang in 1993.

Born to Chinese immigrant parents in the 1950s, Tan takes us through episodes in both her childhood and adult life that reflect on matters of immigrant representation and multigenerational trauma, as well as her own debilitating health issues and her mother’s suicidal tendencies associated with the ancient Chinese tradition of concubinage.

February 2 Roxie/Fort Mason FLIX / February 2, 3 Sundance Streaming

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Two Bay Area high schools are featured in documentaries at this year’s festival, both examining the pressures of college applications and effects of senior student anxiety and stress. “Homeroom” directed by Peter Nicks, was started in 2019 with the intention of observing students trying to navigate the urban educational process at Oakland High School. Originally focused on students’ challenges around test scores and college admissions, the film took a sharp turn as the 2019-2020 school year saw the dramatic effects of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement on the high schoolers’ lives. The result is a revealing coming-of-age story that taps into the collective experience of a nation undergoing dramatic change.

January 29, 31 Sundance Streaming

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Lou Nakasako.

Meanwhile, across the Bay students at Lowell High School take center stage in director Debbie Lum’s documentary “Try Harder!” Seniors at one of the most competitive, largely Asian American public high schools in the country push the already high bar of achievement to extremes in the effort to stand out and covet placements at the country’s top colleges.

As part of the Festival Village’s Talks & Events, filmmaker Debbie Lum, Lowell students and experts in the field explore the intersection of education and mental health and anxiety. Sunday, January 31 at 2pm.

January 30, February 1 Sundance Streaming / February 2
 Roxie/Fort Mason FLIX

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

While the heat is turned up for Bay Area students, so too seasonal wildfires continue to rage in California. “Bring Your Own Brigade” is filmmaker Lucy Walker’s take on the topic as she turns the lens on communities affected and the losses suffered in recent fires. Following the devastation of the 2018 fire season’s Camp Fire that took out the town of Paradise, and the Woolsey that raged through Malibu, the documentary examines the effects of climate change, history of suppression policies, complexities of preventative measures and the influence of corporate interests. As the threat continues and increases year after year, Walker’s film looks at ways to balance development and nature and explores what it will take to restore this delicate equilibrium.

January 29, 31 Sundance Streaming

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

In her directorial debut Robin Wright also stars in her adaptation of the screenplay “Land,” a dramatic account of a woman’s search for meaning and renewal in the aftermath of a near-death experience in the majestic Rockies’ wilderness. Sundance organizers describe the film as “…a quiet yet masterful journey into the complex desire for solitude as a woman searches for meaning in the vast and harsh American wilderness.”

Robin Wright will be taking part in Sundance’s virtual “Cinema Cafe” on January 31. The film is set for general release February 12.

January 31, February 2 Sundance Streaming

Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute

Another local talent, Oakland-based Ryan Coogler (a fellow Mahershala Ali St. Mary’sCollege alum) is one of the producers of “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The story is of FBI informant William O’Neal who infiltrates the Illinois Black Panther Party and is tasked with keeping tabs on their charismatic leader, Chairman Fred Hampton, played by the wonderful Daniel Kaluuya. The movie will have its virtual world premiere at the festival and will be released by Warner Brothers in theaters on February 12 and also be available starting then on HBO Max for a limited time.

February 1, 3 - Sundance Streaming

The best way to figure out how to navigate online options for this year’s festival is to check out our very own Boots Riley’s walk-through video here on the Sundance website. The Oakland film director (“Sorry to Bother You,”) rapper and community activist gives a practical and highly entertaining on “how to fest.” Check it out!

Cover story photo courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Manuel Crosby.

2021 SF Indiefest Stronger Than Ever in its 23rd Year

This year’s SF Indiefest also features a smattering of Bay Area cinematic talent among its 80 independent films. Oakland filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes will be awarded this year’s Vanguard Award for his hybrid documentary/fiction piece, “499,” that follows a 16th-century conquistador on a modern-times journey through Mexico where he travels from countryside to bustling cities seeking out relatives of murdered activists and detailing the effects of colonialism and dehumanization on societies. The dream-like cinematography earned Reyes Best Cinematography Award at Tribeca Film Festival last year. SF IndieFest prides itself on recognizing unconventional, risk-taking filmmakers that are redefining the cinematic form, so Reyes is someone to watch. Tickets

Another Bay Area-connected film is “Truth Be Told: Irving Norman and the Human Predicament" which profiles the life and work of Lithuanian/San Francisco Bay Area Social-Surrealist artist, Irving Norman (1906-1989).

Through well-crafted interviews with Bay Area art curators, the film explores 80 of Norman’s works offering his personal social commentary that began after his first-hand experience of the Spanish Civil War. The artist went on to depict life as he saw it - in terms of good and evil, man’s inhumanity to man, the horrors of totalitarianism in the 20th century - through technically intricate and colorful drawings, oil paintings and watercolors created at his Half Moon Bay home where he lived with his wife Hela until his death in 1989.

“I don’t want the horrors of war to ever be forgotten,” says Hela on the importance of her husband’s work. A refugee from wartime Germany, and undoubtedly the great woman behind the great man, she adds a gentle and powerful tone to this well-crafted documentary by Half Moon Bay-based filmmaker Ray Day.

“People want to turn a blind eye to the reality of a world rapidly growing smaller and smaller and seemingly more violent around them. Norman’s work calls for them to open their eyes.” Day told the Half Moon Bay Review on release of the film in 2018. Tickets

On the subject of lifetime achievements, director David Licata’s documentary “A Life’s Work” features four visionary souls who have undertaken projects so great that they are unlikely to complete them in their lifetimes. The film allows us a glimpse into the work of all four: Astronomer Jill Cornell Tarter and her lifelong search for extraterrestrial intelligence through monitoring electromagnetic radiation for signs of transmissions from civilizations on other planets; Professor Robert Darden seeks out, preserves and catalogs the most unknown and at-risk music from the 1940s to the 1970s the "Golden Age of Gospel”; Architect Paolo Soleri and his ambitious architecture-meets-ecology “urban laboratory” project, Arcosanti, located in the Arizona desert; The Milarches, a father and son duo of tree farmers who set out to replenish the country’s diminished forests and have successfully cloned old-growth redwoods (previously thought undoable) The project has already planted 75 Champion Coast redwood saplings in the Presidio that have the potential to grow into the world’s largest trees.

Lofty goals all, and the benefits of preservation and exploration of architecture, music, nature and science - well captured in this documentary - will serve us all. Tickets

The festival closes with “Puppy Love” a semi-biographical film from director Michael Maxxis that stars Hopper Penn (Sean Penn and Robin Wright-Penn’s son, and a Marin native) and Paz de la Huerta.

A young brain-damaged man and a homeless drug-addicted prostitute take a dark romp through the gutter together, resulting in a strangely sweet and poignant tale of depravity and loneliness. And a bonus is the impressive musical score by Portugal the Man. Tickets

Photos courtesy of SF IndieFest

The San Francisco Independent Film Festival (Indiefest) takes place February 4-21, 2021. For information and tickets visit the festival website

Catherine Barry
Catherine Barry
Editor at SF/Arts
Editor at SF/Arts
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