Monday, April 4, 2011

SFIFF54 2011 Opening Press Conference

This year's San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF54) will be my 35th since arriving in the Bay Area in the mid-1970s, as well as my fifth year as accredited press. I look forward to the Opening Press Conference each year because for starters, it involves a vertigo-inducing thrill ride to the top of the St. Francis Hotel via exterior elevator. As I zoomed up to the 32nd floor last Tuesday, I was contemplating what a friend and fellow blogger had just told me. For five days, SF Film Society (SFFS) members had been privy to the entirety of this year's line-up, save for which director and actors would be receiving the festival's special awards. My friend had just told me who was to receive the Founders Directing Award and I could hardly wait to blab the fabulous news to a select few at the reception. Alas, humble pie was not among the breakfast buffet options.

The press conference began exactly on time, as all SFFS events happily do. An invigorated Executive Director Graham Leggat welcomed the crowd, then proceeded to justifiably boast about the expansion of SFFS' programming activities since 2005. "We now provide dynamic, daily year-round programming in the core areas of education, exhibition and filmmaker services. And in so doing we've created an organization unparalleled in scope and vision, by any in the country except those in the much larger markets of New York and Los Angeles." Calling the Bay Area a "great region of film culture and cinematic activity," Leggat placed the SFFS squarely alongside such organizations as the Tribeca Film Institute, Sundance Institute, American Film Institute (AFI) and the Film Society of Lincoln Center (for whom Leggat was Director of Communications before coming to San Francisco).

Then came the announcement that the recipient of this year's Founder's Directing Award was in fact, still a TBA. "Wrangling talent, I can tell you, is the single most important part of my job – getting people to appear at the festival, on time and under budget. The process was compounded this year by a couple of late cancellations and detailed negotiations, all of which I will not go into. The Peter J. Owens Award for acting, the Founder's Directing Award and the Midnight Awards involve players to be named later." Leggat revealed that one potential awardee dropped out after learning that San Francisco was not located in Los Angeles! Should Leggat write his autobiography, I pray he'll reveal who this dum-dum was. I'm pretty darn certain it wasn't the director I'd been misled into anticipating, whom I later learned had indeed signed on, but then cancelled. Hopefully, she will make an appearance at a future festival.

Before turning the press conference over to the programming team, Leggat thanked numerous sponsors and made mention of three noteworthy milestones associated with this year's SFIFF. "This year marks the 45th year of involvement by George Gund, the festival's chairman of the board. In 1967, he walked into Claude Jarman's office and plunked a check for $1,000 down on the table – unsolicited, unbidden, with no strings attached. That sort of enlightened patronage has marked George's association with the SFFS and the International for 45 years. This year we'll hold a special tribute to him at the Film Society's Awards Night, and we've marked a screening by one of his favorite directors, Otar Iosseliani, as a special tribute to George. I think you'll whole-heartedly agree with me he's a saint, and the Film Society would not be here today if not for his unstinting support over these last five decades." The other two milestones noted by Leggat were the 20th anniversary of Schools at the Festival, and the fifth anniversary of, the Film Society's daily on-line magazine. "It's the only independent, regional film magazine in the country. Funded solely by the Film Society, but categorically not a house organ, SF360 surveys the length and breadth of a vibrant SF/Bay Area filmmaking scene. We would like to think it gives identity, character and strength to that scene, as much as it draws from it."

"There are 189 films in this year's festival from more than 40 countries, with plenty of highlights to mention. In the next hour we'll run through many of them – being comprehensive but not exhausting, enlightening but not highhanded, humorous but not frivolous, informational but not dry, modest but not sanctimonious, and impressive but not boastful." And with that intro, Leggat brought to the stage Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, programmers Sean Uyehara and Rod Armstrong, and Golden Gate Awards Manager Audrey Chang. I won't relay much of what they said, because I'll be posting my own overview of the SFIFF54 line-up in just a few days. (You can find my write-up of the awards, special events and competition films announced prior to the press conference, here.) Rosen did start off by clarifying the absence of a Cinema by the Bay section in the festival. "We decided this year that the local productions, much as we love them, should take place alongside their international compatriots. So local films made by San Francisco filmmakers can now be found in the New Directors section, the documentary section and the Late Show section." Rosen also provided insight into this year's special spotlight on world cinema, which benefits from an annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences grant:

"This year our spotlight is called "Painting with Light." We found that there were three very unusual films about "flat art" and it's representation through film. What's interesting is the different ways they bring this flat art into full dimensionality, and also the way they enliven the history of the time in which the art was created. The centerpiece of "Painting with Light" is Werner Herzog's new documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams, a wonderful 3-D exploration of French caves that have 30,000-year-old drawings. Mr. Herzog has been entrusted with showing these drawings to the world, and of course he does it in his inimitable way. Also in the spotlight is the Polish film The Mill and the Cross, which brings to life Brueghel's 16th century painting, "The Way to Calvary," and also a wonderful new Indian film called Nainsukh, which is about an 18th century Indian miniaturist."

Before the Q&A portion of the press conference got underway, Rosen presaged and addressed the inevitable question about trends in this year's line-up. (Last year's trend, if you remember, was individual films directed by three or more people). "We don't set out an agenda in order to find a theme or make a point. We're really just looking for the individual films that we love, and try to put them together in a group for San Francisco audiences. But I would say the trend this year is "films that find their own length" – or the "correct length" for their stories. So we have five films in the festival that are 75 minutes or shorter, and then we have seven films that are 130 minutes of longer. They run the gamut from A Cat in Paris at a lean 65 minutes to Raoul Ruiz' Mysteries of Lisbon at 257 minutes if you don't include the intermission." Other possible trends noted by Rosen include more films than usual from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and a number of films set in a vague near future, which "create an off-kilter feeling, or a sense of dis-ease – not with special effects, but with the wonder of good filmmaking craft and storytelling."

When it came time for the Q&A, I was the first called upon with a question about the decision to show Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1973 World on a Wire digitally in San Francisco and in 35mm at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive. Rachel Rosen responded:

"Part of it is circumstance. It was a digital restoration of a film that was shot on film, for television. So already we're already in an area where – in terms of what to show – it's not clear. But it really was a practical decision in that the restored film print has to be shown reel-to-reel, making our options for theaters in San Francisco either too large for the future distributor, or too small for what we thought the audience would want. Having the opportunity to show digital, we chose to go with a slightly larger theater and the PFA has reel-to-reel, so they decided to show it on film."

Here's how I'm guessing that translates. Most archival restorations must be shown using a reel-to-reel projection system, which the Sundance Kabuki is not equipped for. The Castro Theater can handle it, but the 1400 seating capacity is too large for a distributor hoping to eventually release the film theatrically. (I've been told the Roxie Theater plans/hopes for a one-week run this summer). On the other hand, the VIZ Cinema at New People (which the fest is using as a first-time venue this year) has reel-to-reel capability, but is too small for the size audience anticipated by the festival. Hence, SF fest-goers get digital at the Kabuki. For me the choice is clear. Fassbinder shot World on a Wire in 35mm and this restoration was supervised by the film's original cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus. See you at the Pacific Film Archive on Saturday, April 30.

Speaking of New People, Hell on Frisco Bay's Brian Darr asked a question about the festival's discontinued use of Landmark's Clay Theater and this year's deployment of New People in Japantown. Personally, I'm thrilled by the switchover. New People is closer to the Kabuki (the festival's main venue), it has stadium seating (no tall people blocking the subtitles) and top notch projection (digital projection could be extremely dicey at the Clay). Plus, it's subterranean and has space-age toilets. Here's Graham Leggat's response:

"As you may know, the Film Society has been very interested in running or purchasing the Clay Theater. Those negotiations are currently in a holding pattern. Outside of the Letterman (Digital Arts Center), the Lucas (Skywalker Ranch?) and the Dolby Theater, New People is the best equipped theater in town. We thought that we would go there, in part because the size fits us better. We've only been in the Clay for the last three years, and last year the turnout was not quite what we wanted it to be. So the New People with its smaller house size enables us to save us thousands and thousands of dollars. We hope that you will come to the screenings there. We've got it for two weeks, whereas we only had the Clay for one week last year. New People is a wonderful theater. It's part of a four-story, mini-department store complex devoted to Japanese popular culture. And it's a block away from the Kabuki so it really centralizes our operations."

I asked another question regarding which directors had confirmed their attendance at the festival. Given the long list of expected guests, Rosen understandably directed my query to the appropriate press release. She did confirm that all but one of the 11 filmmakers competing for the New Directors Prize would be here (The Place in Between director Sarah Bouyain has a good excuse – she's getting married). Later scanning the Guests Expected to Attend list, I came across these "names" that should be recognizable to any diehard festival-goer: Mathew Barney, Patricio Guzmán, Miranda July, Otar Iosseliani, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Mike Mills and Christopher Munch.

Someone else asked the programming team about this year's seven shorts programs. I rarely see shorts at film festivals, but my ears did perk up at the mention of several familiar names. Rocker Lou Reed has a short (Red Shirley, in which he interviews a 100-year-old cousin), as does noted documentarian Ondi Timoner (Library of Dust). Both are part of Cupid with Fangs, a program which also includes the winner of this year's Oscar® for Best Animated Short Film (Luke Matheny's God of Love). In the "experimentally-minded" program Mind the Gap, you'll find one from Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette, which stars Chloë Sevigny (All Flowers in Time), as well as the latest from Bay Area filmmaker (and Program Director of the SF Jewish Film Fest) Jay Rosenblatt (The D Train). Emily Hubley's Hail appears in the Get with the Program program of animated shorts.

Other Bay Area journalists asked about the number of films by Black directors and how many films had LGBT content (very few, in both instances). Another inquired about an SFIFF54 iPhone app. There isn't one, but the fest does have a very nifty mobile website at, so be sure and aim your smartphone browser there. Graham Leggat posed a question to actress/New Burlesque artiste Suzanne "Kitten on the Keys" Ramsey, who stood up and set off a mad flurry of camera clicking. Ramsey appears in the festival's closing night film, Mathieu Amalric's On Tour, and she attempted to define New Burlesque for the San Francisco press corps. What I took away is that many of its key players call the Bay Area home, including one Roky Roulette who is the world's only pogo-stick striptease artist. I can hardly wait to see what sort of on-stage antics go down at the Castro Theater on Thursday, May 5.

Finally, Leggat was asked if he had a favorite film in festival. "That's a good question. I mean most people hedge when they're asked that, but I don't have a problem. The one that I thought was pretty nifty was The Mill and the Cross. Also, if you liked Tristram Shandy:A Cock and Bull Story by Michael Winterbottom, you will very much like the sketch comedy The Trip, with Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan. They are hilarious together."

Programmer Sean Uyehara also willingly chimed in with his choice. "Well, not my favorite film, because you can't have one of those. But-my-favorite-film-is Letters from the Big Man, just because it's so completely confounding. It's about a woman who develops a metaphysical communication with a Sasquatch – and it's completely earnest. You can actually learn quite a bit about yourself while you're watching it – like – why are you resisting this movie?"

Cross published on The Evening Class and Twitch.

No comments: