In a town where overlapping film festivals trip over each other year round, the San Francisco Independent Film Fesival, a.k.a. SF IndieFest, is in the enviable position of having February pretty much to itself. Founder Jeff Ross' brainchild turns 14 this month, with a line-up of 38 Narrative Features and documentaries, five shorts programs and nine parties running from the 9th to the 23rd. While I may not be partial to the genre flicks and no/low budget indies that dominate the festival, I never fail to find programs that interest me. And you've got to admire how they do all this without corporate sponsorship. For the audience, this happily means not being forced to watch some shill from a foreclosure-happy bank yammer on about "community."
What cooler way to kick off IndieFest than with the indie kingpin himself, Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, Go Go Tales), who'll be on hand opening night with 444: Last Day on Earth. Unlike most of his prolific output of the past 10 years (such as Chelsea on the Rocks, which opened SF DocFest in 2008), this one actually has U.S. distribution through IFC. In person, Ferrara is a notorious live wire you won't want to miss seeing at the Roxie Theater. He'll be accompanied by his partner/4:44 co-star Shanyn Leigh. As for the film itself, which was screened for press, 4:44 is a surprisingly intimate – and unsurprisingly obsessive and indulgent – gaze at one NYC couple (Leigh and Willem Dafoe) wiling away the hours before earth is destroyed. They fuck, fight, meditate and Skype (oh look, it's Anita Pallenberg caling!) They have Chinese takeout delivered and battle the urge to shoot smack one last time. Meanwhile a TV newscaster intones, "Al Gore was right." As visions of an approaching apocalypse go, it sure beats hanging with a bunch of annoyingly depressed rich people at a lavish castle wedding.
I've seen one other IndieFest selection on the big screen and it's my favorite of the dozen films previewed. Michael R. Roskam's Bullhead has been nabbing festival prizes left and right (including Palm Springs, where I saw it), culminating in a surprise Oscar® nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Set in the Belgian underworld of illegal, growth hormone-fed cattle, Bullhead succeeds first as a gripping thriller/procedural. On another level it's a psychological mystery whose unforgettable protagonist is a steroid-addicted thug with an excruciating secret (a haunting performance by Matthias Schoenaerts). This is the movie Belgium submitted over the Dardenne brothers' The Kid With a Bike. In the unlikely event it wins over Iran's A Separation, Oscar voters will have nothing to be ashamed of. Don't miss it. Then read Michael Guillén's report on the director's Palm Springs Q&A at The Evening Class.
IndieFest reaches into the recent past with its revival of Gandu, an extremist slice of new Indian cinema that premiered at a 3rd i midnight screening in 2010. I previewed it on DVD screener – midnight being past my bedtime – and was taken by the anarchic punk energy (and very explicit sex) of Director "Q"'s raging look at a Kolkata lay-about who's also a rapping junkie. I later learned that a new, completely re-edited version screened at the festival and people whose opinions I trust called it "genius" and a "masterpiece." I assume it's this second version that will show up at IndieFest. Either way, I can promise you an Indian film like none you've seen before. The title, incidentally, means "asshole" in Bengali.
The festival stretches back even further for its revival of 1967's High, part of a two-film tribute to Canadian indie pioneer Larry Kent. Originally banned for nudity and drug use, this groovy artifact follows a young couple out on a free-loving, dope-smoking petty-crime spree that's replete with lava lamps, crash pads and sitar music. Shot the same year "The Monkees" debuted on TV, the film's once-bold, freewheeling visual style – color filters, stop-motion, pulsating zooms – now appears delightfully quaint. Supplementing the film's retro feel will be IndieFest's presentation of High in 16mm, lamentably making it one of only two non-digital screenings in the entire festival (the other being Toyoda Toshiaki's Monster's Club). The second Larry Kent film on offer is his latest, the 100% improvised Exley, in which a desperate bisexual artist scrambles to find the funds necessary to visit his dying mother. Following a series of tiresome and contentious encounters with potential money sources, Exley gets interesting and jumps down an absurdist rabbit hole. The final cosmic punchline, however, didn't quite pay off for me. Kent will be in town for all his IndieFest screenings. Over at The Evening Class, Michael Guillén has a chat with Kent at last summer's Montreal Fantasia Fest, where Exley had its world premiere.
You may have noticed an element of drug use running through all the films mentioned thus far. So, too, in a pair of worthwhile IndieFest documentaries I previewed. Caifornia 94020 covers everything you wanted to know about the state of cannabis in the Golden State – grow farms, dispensaries, Proposition 19, harvesting, Oaksterdam U, – with enthusiastic young stoners serving as guides. Why, I even learned that there's a term for joints burning faster down one side (it's called "canoe-ing".) The Substance: Albert Hoffmann's LSD is a more serious affair and features an interview with the good doctor shortly before his 100th birthday. (He remained adamantly opposed to recreational use of the drug he created.) The film traces LSD's history as a CIA truth serum, a U.S. Army weapon of mass mayhem (with hilarious footage of soldiers attempting to march in formation), its adaptation by psychiatry in the 50's, Ken Kesey, Timothy Leary and the drug's criminalization in the 60's, right up through its current use curing depression in terminally ill patients. Most fascinating of all, however, are the archival films of people tripping in laboratory test studies.
Although it contains no overt drug usage, the trippiest film in the festival has got to be Sergio Caballero's Finisterrae, which won the top prize at 2011's Rotterdam Film Festival. I caught it last year when the good folks at MUBI offered it as a free stream in conjunction with the Melbourne Film Festival. According to its director, the movie's surreal imagery was shot first and then a script was written around the images. Ostensibly, Finisterrae is "about" two Russian-speaking ghosts traveling the pilgrimage trail to Spain's Santiago de Compostela. I like to think of it as the fantastic journey Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez might have had if they'd ingested 'shrooms during their own identical pilgrimage in The Way.
While I may tend of steer clear of genre and no-budget indies, sometimes the raves given certain films will overpower my reticence. Such was the case with three IndieFest selections. Ben Wheatley's Kill List is smart, nasty and visceral; a tale of two British hitmen that repeatedly morphs into something else entirely. It's Mike Leigh meets, hell, I don't know, Sam Peckinpah? This is one of the most hyped indie films of the year, and for good reason. I'm also hoping to check out Australia's Snowtown during the festival, which has gotten much attention and appears cut from a similar cloth. I'd heard that the Danish film Clown was shockingly funny in its political incorrectness; the story of two married men who drag a 13-year-old nephew along on a "Tour de Pussy" canoe trip. Clown, however, too often crosses the fine line between edgy and infantile. Perhaps I needed to see it with an audience.
For my token no-budget indie I chose Dustin Guy Defa's Bad Fever, in which an excruciatingly awkward and delusional young man named Eddie is obsessed with becoming a stand-up comic. He also fancies himself in a relationship with a sketchy drifter chick who videotapes him in compromising situations. The film's rambling monologs and cringeworthy scenarios would have ordinarily sent me groping for the DVD eject button. But I found myself oddly rooting for Eddie and wishing him well, no doubt due to the intense earnestness of actor (and a director himself), Kentucker Audley. During the festival I'm hoping to catch Alex Ross Perry's
Finally, I want to make special mention of a FREE IndieFest screening of Default: The Student Loan Documentary on Sunday, February 12, 12 noon at the Roxie Theater. Director Serge Bakalian and Kyle McCarthy of OccupyStudentDebt will be featured in a panel discussion following the screening. As someone who attended a state university in the 1970s, working only a part-time job that still covered my tuition, rent and living expenses, it makes me crazy to know that American college students today on average graduate owing $24,000 in student loans that can't be renegotiated, are not subject to bankruptcy protection and have no cap on fees and penalties. Something has to be done and hopefully this film and discussion will offer up some solutions.
Cross published on The Evening Class.