Wednesday, October 13, 2010

SF DocFest 2010

In addition to being a hotbed for documentary filmmaking, the Bay Area is also a paradise for avid doc watching. Most non-fiction films with U.S. distribution show up in our cinemas, while our dozens of film festivals lean towards being doc-heavy. But the real meal comes each autumn when the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, better known as SF DocFest, pulls into the Roxie Theater for two full weeks. This is the DocFest's ninth year, and 2010's program boasts 28 features and four shorts programs from 12 countries. It starts Thursday, October 14 and runs up until October 28.

The festival kicks off with Chris Meltzer and Lev Anderson's Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone, which looks at the influential (Red Hot Chili Peppers, No Doubt) L.A. punk/ska band and is narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne – no relation, but a friend of the band who first heard them while working as a Hollywood club bouncer. Following the screening, Fishbone themselves will play a full set at DocFest's Opening Night Bash at the DNA Lounge. Closing out the festival will be Alexandre O. Philippe's The People vs. George Lucas, described as a "no-holds-barred, no stone unturned, completely uncensored, yet balanced cultural examination of the conflicted dynamic between the great George Lucas and his fans." The fest's Star Wars themed closing night party happens at Cell Space, complete with Tatooine cocktails and a costume contest with cash prizes.

In between Fishbone and George Lucas, DocFest goers will take in non-fiction films with wildly varied subject matter. My Beautiful Dacia is the portrait of a ubiquitous Romanian automobile, while Dreamland profiles a rising shift toward corruption and greed in Iceland. Visit a small Mexican family circus (The Tightrope) and the Mexico City slum made famous in Luis Buñuel's Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Tree). Closer to home there's an inquiry into grotesquely huge pumpkins (Giants), a rapping cowboy yarn (Roll Out, Cowboy) and an examination of the most potent psychedelic on earth, DMT (The Spirit Molecule). Also for the taking at DocFest is a chess champion bio-doc (Requiem for Bobby Fisher), a revival of the best punk/new wave concert movie of the early 80's (Urgh! A Music War) and a trip to an unusual Cambodian beauty pageant (Miss Landmine) – and so, so much more. Plus, don't forget the festival's celebrated annual Roller Disco Costume Party!

For this year's DocFest I only managed to preview three films on screener DVD, but they're all recommended. Maryam Henein and George Langowrthy's The Vanishing of the Bees is the third documentary on honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) I've seen in the past six months. It's at least as good as Queen of the Sun, which just screened at the Mill Valley Film Festival (my capsule review), though it's less artsy and more thorough and sobering in its presentation of information – which is not to say it's dry. Jonathan Schell and Eric Liebman's Sex Magic is a sometimes embarrassingly intimate gaze at 50-year-old "Sacred Sexual Healer" Baba Dez and his "sexual shamen training center" in Sedona, Arizona. You might roll your eyes as these uniformly hot-looking healers carry on about their dakas and dakinis, yonis and lingams and tantric mantras, but there's no doubting their intense sincerity. And yes, the film has nudity and nookie galore, but it's rarely presented in a leering manner. Finally, Dutch filmmaker Willem Alkema turns an obsession with Sly and the Family Stone into an exhaustive search for one elusive Mr. Sylvester Stewart in Coming Back For More. His reward – and ours – is the first filmed interview with Sly in more than 20 years. Alkema intercuts the story of his quest with terrific archival materials and interviews, tracking the band's rise to fame right up through Sly's career implosion and descent into reclusivity. The interview takes up the film's final 15 minutes, with a surprisingly lucid Sly holding forth on many subjects, including his acquaintanceship with Doris Day.

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