GOING ON NOW: The San Francisco International Film Festival

2012 film Inspiration local San Francisco San Francisco International Film Festival

The 55th Annual San Francisco International Film Festival is underway as I write. If you happen to be a cinephile (we are!) or even just a casual film appreciator, there are selections and programs for everyone. Showcasing everything from narratives to documentaries to avant-garde shorts, the San Francisco International Film Festival is comprehensive in bringing the best films the world over to the San Francisco Bay Area. I had the opportunity to speak with Rachel Rosen, Director of Programming at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and she filled me in on the history of the film festival and some of the many thrilling events included in this year's fest. Swing by Revolver to pick up your SFIFF mini guide.

Can you give us a brief history of the San Francisco International Film Festival? How many years has the film fest run?

The San Francisco International Film Festival is the oldest film festival in the Americas. We’re celebrating our 55th anniversary this year. The festival was started in 1957. It showed a lot fewer films back then, but basically, its core mission was remarkably similar to what it is 55 years later which is to bring a great showcase of international films to the San Francisco Bay Area.

There was a founder of the film festival whose name was Irving “Bud” Levin. He had put on some screening series in the city and then he came up with the idea of having an international film festival here.

How were the selections made? Is there a curatorial theme behind the choices?

Well, themes emerge as we’re programming but, again, the real idea behind putting the program together is to have the broadest possible selection of excellent films from around the world to bring to San Francisco. So we’re looking to remind audiences, or offer audiences, a selection that includes all kinds of films so we don’t shun Hollywood mainstream cinema if it’s great and we have everything from that down to avant garde shorts and shorts by young filmmakers, all kinds of documentaries, all kinds of narrative features.

Do this year’s film fest differ from years past? If not, how are they similar?

Every year there are variations which is what keeps it exciting. So in each crop there are subtle variations; I would say this year we saw a bit more good comedy then we’ve seen in past years. It’s hard for me to trace back a “why” to that. Because of the production cycle of filmmaking, it’s hard to say whether things are getting better and so we are able to laugh about them, or things are getting worse and we need to laugh about them.

The other thing I would say for this year is that we always showcase a lot of Bay Area work in the festival, but somehow the participation of Bay Area talent is really well integrated into the festival this year. For instance, last night [Monday, 23 April] we had a really great program at the Castro Theater. We always do something with silent film and live music. Just by happenstance, the musician we wanted to work with, Merrill Garbus, from tUnE-yArDs, lives in the Bay Area. And we would have wanted to work with her no matter where she’s based, but it was an extra treat that she’s local. Similarly, we give a bunch of awards and tributes during the festival and the screenwriter that we’ve chosen to honor this year, David Webb Peoples, happens to be a long-time East Bay resident. As I said, we would have wanted to honor him no matter where he was from but it’s great that it’s another local talent.

As you’ve mentioned, there are several live events that tie into other realms of filmic experience. (There was the tUnE-yArDs performance alongside Buster Keaton shorts Monday night, as well as the Master Classes and Salons, the lecture by Jonathan Lethem this past Saturday, and the upcoming performance by Yo La Tengo that will complement and provide live soundtrack to the documentary about R. Buckminster Fuller.) How did these live events come about? It must take a huge effort to create such comprehensive programming.

The programs that involve a live element are always the most rewarding and take the most effort to put together, but I think they are most exciting because you never know what’s going to happen. They are once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Festivals always have a live element to them, or most of them do, and we certainly do by having as many filmmakers as we can come and talk about their films before and after their screenings. But these programs, mainly in our Tribute section and our Live and Onstage section, are really designed to create a unique experience for the audience: a once-in-a-lifetime thing. They involve a whole extra level of production. There were multiple musicians on stage [Monday] night for the Merrill Garbus performance. And Sam Green’s documentary, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, not only involves musical accompaniment by Yo La Tengo, but it’s what he calls a “live documentary” so he does the narration himself, live, during the performance.

Some of [the programs] are more low-key. One thing we’ve been doing for the past few years is having Porchlight at the film festival. If you’re not familiar with it, Porchlight is a storytelling series that takes place around the city in different venues. The one we do at the festival, the theme is, and all the stories have to do with, filmic experiences, so that we can both draw upon locals who have been involved in film productions and get tons of our visiting filmmakers to tell stories.  

That sounds like such a cool event. I saw Beth Lisick, one of Porchlight’s SFIFF hosts, read two weekends ago as part of Sister Spit in Oakland. She’s wonderful.

She’s great, really great. I’ll say that we had a Porchlight two years ago that kind of went awry. it became very uncomfortable and very strange. Even at the time that it was happening, I was really glad that we were doing it because of that element of danger; things can go really great or really wrong and that's part of what adds to the excitement of the evening. 

Rachel Rosen, director of programming for the San Francisco Film Society, with Benoit Jacquot, director of FAREWELL, MY QUEEN, the Opening Night film at the 55th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 19, 2012.
Photo credit: © Pamela Gentile, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

What are some of the stand out films yet to screen? What are the films you would absolutely recommend that viewers not miss?

Of course this is always a really hard question to ask a programmer because I like so many of the films in the festival. It’s a relatively long running festival so most of the festival is yet to come and there are some really great things to see. Kind of in line with what I was just saying, a lot of our special events are still to come. We have Judy Davis who is going to be here on Wednesday, 25 April, doing a live, on stage interview which will be followed by a new film that she’s in. I think she is one of most interesting actresses out there so I really look forward to those programs where people can get the experience of hearing someone and seeing them that they don’t normally get.

And I also would recommend one kind of obscure program that people might not think about which is we give an award each year which is called the Mel Novikoff award and it’s [for] someone who works more behind the scenes to promote audience’s appreciation of world cinema, so it could be a journalist, or an archive, [etc.] The guy that we’re honoring this year is not well known in the mainstream. His name is Pierre Rissient and he’s been in the film business forever. He’s been an assistant director to Godard. He’s been both an official and unofficial advisor to Cannes Film Festival. He helped start many careers by discovering and promoting filmmakers' work. So I think his onstage conversation is going to be really interesting. I mean, this is a guy who’s been out on the town with John Ford and Fritz Lang. For people who are into film history, he’s a great raconteur so I think there will be some good stories at that event.

How and why were the Centerpiece and Closing Night films (Your Sister’s Sister and Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey) chosen?

The Centerpiece film is just a pleasure to watch so it was a pretty easy pick. Lynn Shelton is a director who works in a certain mode;  it’s semi-improvisational. For me, personally, sometimes I find that mode works, and sometimes it doesn’t, even though I always find those films interesting to watch. This film stars Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemary Dewitt. They are all just really fantastic to watch play off each other. I think the performances are really what shines in the Centerpiece.

The Closing Night was a really easy choice. It’s a documentary about a guy named Arnel Pineda who at one point was living on the streets of Manila and was in some cover band, sort of about to give up on his musical career, when he was discovered on Youtube, and chosen to become the new lead singer of Journey. Not only is it an incredible story, but it’s an incredible story about a local band. Even though obviously they are internationally-renowned, we think of Journey as a San Francisco band. That and the fact that part of what the film is about, it covers their first major tour with this new singer, the sort of the unintentional internationalization of the band and what that means for its fans and how it gets new fans out of it. For all those reasons, that just seemed like a great Closing Night film for the festival.

Plus, the band is all going to be here. They’re not going to play, but Arnel is going to be here and the rest of the band is going to show up. That’s going to be a fun extra added bonus for the closing night.

Whoa! Has the band already seen the documentary or is it the first time they will be seeing the film? 

They’ve seen it already. This will be only the second public outing for the film, but it won’t be the first time they’ve seen it.

Is there anything you’d like to add for our readers about the San Francisco International Film Festival?

It’s a great opportunity for people who are interested in film to experiment a little bit. I always encourage people to take a chance because seeing a film at a festival is a unique experience. Some of these films may open eventually, but some of these films will never come around again. The atmosphere of the festival, with enthusiastic audiences and filmmakers in person, will make it a memorable experience, whether you end up loving the film or not.

The film I’m interested in seeing is the Christian Petzold film, Dreileben- Beats Being Dead. Its set in Thüringen, where I lived for some time.

That’s a really interesting film. It’s an interesting idea, too- because it’s part of that trilogy. I really like his work. I think there’s a lot of really great German work going on right now, a lot of really interesting German films. Well, once you’ve seen that one you’re going to want to see the next two (Don’t Follow Me Around by Dominik Graf and One Minute of Darkness by Christoph Hochäusler.)

Closing Night of San Francisco International Film Festival at the Castro Theatre.
Photo credit: © Tommy Lau, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

Photo credit: © Pamela Gentile, courtesy of San Francisco Film Society

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