Tuesday, June 4, 2013

SF DocFest 2013

For its 12th edition, the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival aka SF DocFest has chosen to withdraw from the Bay Area's cramped autumn festival calendar and relocate to a spacious sweet spot in between the SF International Film Fest and Frameline. With a line-up of 40 features and three programs of shorts, this year's event remains anchored at the Roxie Theatre, while adding three-day mini-fests at S.F.'s Balboa Theatre, Oakland's New Parkway, Landmark's Aquarius Theatre in Palo Alto and the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz.

DocFest 2013 kicks off on Thursday, June 6 with Spark: A Burning Man Story and concludes two weeks later with Cullen Hoback's Terms and Conditions May Apply, one of two internet-related docs I previewed on DVD screener. This unnerving exposé on internet privacy and personal data abuse begins with a look at those interminable "Terms of Service" agreements we all click to "agree" without reading. In a cogent and entertaining fashion, Hoback's film shows how those clicks, combined with a lobbyist-influenced Congress and de-anonymization have dragged us into the chilling era we're stuck in today. Facebook is now the C.I.A.'s biggest information source and the film's inarguable conclusion is that any notion of online or telecommunications privacy is officially d-e-a-d. I also took a look at TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard, Simon Klose's scrappy look at the unsavory Swedes behind the world's largest peer-to-peer file-sharing website, and the $13 million copyright infringement lawsuit brought against them by Hollywood's film studios. No matter which side of the piracy vs. copyright divide you fall, there's plenty to chew on here.

The internet also plays a tangential role in Fuck for Forest, which DocFest is billing as its most controversial entry. The film's title comes from an "erotic, non-profit ecological organization," whose members create self-produced porn for a paid-subscription website. The profits are earmarked to protect rainforests. The tiresome first half of Michal Marczak's film is spent introducing FFF's core members, a very sincere but completely self-absorbed band of Berlin-based, dumpster-diving neo-hippie libertines. Things perk up in the film's second half, when after amassing a war chest of €420,000 the group jets off to the Amazon to play Santa Claus. Some hilarious culture-clashing ensues, along with surprising revelations about the actual desires of the indigenous people they've come to help.

As someone who rides the subway four times on an average workday, I zeroed right in on Trains for Thoughts when selecting the handful of docs to review for this piece. While director Timo Novoltny's mix of handsomely photographed images, upfront electronic score and spoken passenger reflections never quite achieves the poetry it strives for, the ride is worth buying a ticket for. Trains for Thoughts begins with New York City's 24-hour subway system and then heads West, with stops in L.A. (where the stations look like movie sets), Tokyo (sexual harassment, suicides and "pushy" uniformed platform attendants) and then Hong Kong. The latter is the only system which actually makes money, largely from the housing developments and shopping malls that spring up around stations. The best is saved for last, as we vicariously experience Moscow's palatial subway stations as part of an Italian tour group.

A special highlight of DocFest 2013 is a retrospective of pioneering queer experimental/non-fiction filmmaker Tom Joslin, who's most vividly remembered as one-half of the A.I.D.S.-stricken couple seen in 1993's Silver Lake Life: The View from Here. That unforgettable Sundance Jury Prize-winning doc, which Joslin co-directed, will screen at the fest along with 1977's Blackstar: Autobiography of a Close Friend. In this earlier autobiographical work, Joslin employs home movies, family interviews, vintage cartoons and inter-titles to create a portrait of growing up "different" in post-WWII New England. Following a mid-film title/credits sequence – 25 years before Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours, mind you – Blackstar shifts focus to Joslin's homosexuality, his family's reaction to it and his lovingly contentious relationship with life partner Mark Massi. In an extended sequence that closes the film, the couple lies naked in bed covered with film stock, struggling to find a non-sexual way to express their intimacy on camera. Their solution, which I won't spoil except to say it involves Laura Nyro and Labelle's cover of "I Met Him On a Sunday," is perhaps the loveliest movie moment I've experienced this year. The third work in DocFest's Joslin retrospective is the posthumously assembled Architecture of Mountains, described as a "film on the nature of dreams and dreaming."

The above-mentioned titles represent only the tip of the DocFest 2013 iceberg, so be sure to check out the entire line-up. Out of the three dozen remaining titles, I'm most looking forward to Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, which is also set to open HBO's Docs Summer Series 2013 on June 10. Other docs I'm intrigued by include the portrait of a legendary American fetish pin-up model (Bettie Page Reveals All), a look at Americans who have their dead pets taxidermied (Furever) and a saga of mass murder atop K2 (The Summit).

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