By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Special to The Examiner
The oldest film festival in America returns to in-person movies and events this year, beginning Thursday and running through May 1.
As ever, the SFFILM Festival offers a healthy selection of Bay Area films — films shot ‘round these parts or made by locals. This year’s spotlight on Bay Area Voices shows a remarkable level of quality as well as an impressive diversity of subjects.
If there’s anything common running through these 14 films — which range in length from 5 to 102 minutes — it’s the ghostly whirring of BART trains, either in the background or in the foreground as characters ride (and sometimes dance) in its familiar cars.
Starting with the shorts programs, we have Nicolas Pereda’s “Dear Chantal” (5 minutes) and Morgan Mathews’ “Half-Day” (17 minutes), playing as part of “Shorts 1,” Saturday, April 23, at 12 p.m. at the Roxie.
Lovely, but also slyly funny, “Dear Chantal” is a kind of homage to the late filmmaker Chantal Akerman, presented as a series of letters written to the great filmmaker from a property owner, regarding her supposed rental of his beautiful apartment in Coyoacán.
“Half-Day,” about an Oakland boy whose estranged father has remarried, is directed by Morgan Mathews. (Courtesy SFFILM)
The fictional short “Half-Day” tells the story of Dom (Fred Ferguson), a streetwise kid whose estranged father has remarried. Preparing to spend the weekend at his father’s house, with his new step-brother Kyle (Christian Walton), Dom goes through a wildly varying series of emotions. The young performers turn in honest work, and the film quietly devastates.
“Shorts 2” includes TT Takemoto’s experimental “Ever Wanting (For Margaret Chung)” (6 minutes), a swirling work that pays homage to the first known American-born Chinese female physician, using “hand-processed 16mm, 35mm film emulsion, ink, paint, glue, tape, found footage, and digital video” and including luminous footage of early cinema star Anna May Wong. This program plays Tuesday, April 26 at 5:30 p.m. at the Roxie.
Both empowering, inspiring works, Lamar Bailey Karamañites, Pascale Boucicaut and David Felix Sutcliffe’s “Miss Panama” (28 minutes) and Rivkah Beth Medow’s “Holding Moses” (16 minutes) screen at the “Shorts 3” program Sunday, April 24 at 2 p.m. at the Roxie.
The short documentary “Holding Moses” delicately explores the story of queer dancer Randi, whose son Moses was born with a rare disability, and her struggle to discover how to love him.
Another doc, “Miss Panama” tells the story of the first Black woman to win the Miss Panama competition, in 1980, even though that country is predominantly Black. Gloria Karamañites appears on camera today, still glorious, and fearsome in her resolve. This doc packs a great deal of information and commentary into its brief running time, and it’s not easy to forget.
Patricia Lee’s “Hannah’s Biography” is a highlight of “Shorts 4,” which screens Thursday, April 28 at 5:30 p.m. at the Roxie. It’s a sweet, 11-minute work of fiction focusing on a 75-year-old divorcee who has moved in with her daughter. Grandma Hannah (a delightful Irene Kim) decides to follow her dream of becoming a stand-up comic, with unexpected results.
“Shorts 5,” which screens Tuesday, April 26 at 8:30 p.m. at the Roxie, features another standout: Baggio Jiang’s “Live,” a twisty, shocking little crime film about retribution involving a brutal live-stream from the dashboard of an Uber. At 21 minutes, it packs a gut-punch that many feature-length films can’t touch.
Our final local short is A.K. Sandhu’s “For Love and Legacy,” which screens alongside “American Justice on Trial,” on Friday, April 22 at 6 p.m. at the Roxie. Both films celebrate the legacy of Black Panthers founder Huey P. Newton.
“For Love and Legacy” (20 minutes) tells the fascinating and deeply touching story of the creation of a public bust of Newton. As sculptor Dana King skillfully shapes the piece, we watch and, at the same time, witness the deepening friendship between King and Newton’s widow Fredrika, as she offers her opinions and memories.
Andrew Abrahams and Herb Ferrette’s gripping, profound “American Justice on Trial” (40 minutes) chronicles a different Newton story, a 1968 trial in which Newton was accused of shooting a white police officer. But on the day of the verdict, Black jury foreman David Harper also made history.
“American Justice on Trial” and “Miss Panama” offer similar themes: just because something isn’t a full-blown victory, doesn’t mean it’s a failure.
My-Linh Le’s Oakland-set “Mud Water” is fascinating mix of fiction and documentary, telling the story of a dance crew suffering a rift (Courtesy My-Linh Le/SFFILM)
Part of the Mid-Lengths section, and screening with two other films, My-Linh Le’s Oakland-set “Mud Water” (31 minutes) shows Friday, April 29 at 5:45 p.m. at the Roxie. A fascinating mix of fiction and documentary, this film tells the story of a dance crew suffering a rift as one of their number considers a change; it contains dazzling moments celebrating the art of storytelling, as well as a unique dance number on a BART train.
Oakland filmmaker Reid Davenport brings the daring “I Didn’t See You There” (76 minutes), a meditation on what it means to be a person with a disability. It’s entirely shot by Davenport from his wheelchair, never showing his own face, but rather demonstrating his everyday experience, haunted all the time by the arrival of a circus tent near his apartment. This one screens twice, Friday, April 29 at 6 p.m. at the Victoria and Saturday, April 30 at 3 p.m. at BAMPFA.
Screening for free on Thursday, April 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Castro (RSVPs required), Jon Else’s raucous, entertaining documentary “Land of Gold” (82 minutes) depicts the step-by-step process of putting together the San Francisco Opera’s “Girls of the Golden West.” Writer John Adams and director Peter Sellars are on hand, as well as soprano Julia Bullock and soprano-mezzo J’Nai Bridges, both forces to be reckoned with. With impressive attention to detail, the film covers everything from music, singing and dancing, to one performer conquering a fear of heights.
Sara Dosa’s “Fire of Love” (93 minutes) is another treat, delicate and moving as well as occasionally funny and often breathtaking. It’s a National Geographic documentary telling the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft, a lovable, romantic couple who also worked together as volcanologists, forever changing the way that the natural phenomena are viewed. Miranda July’s poetic, purring narration is a perfect compliment. “Fire of Love” plays twice, on Saturday, April 23 at 1 p.m. at the Castro and on Sunday, April 24, at 5 p.m. at BAMPFA.
Finally, we have Debora Souza Silva’s powerhouse “Black Mothers Love & Resist” (102 minutes), a burst of life fired against hopelessness. It begins by catching up with Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant III, whose life was taken by BART police in 2009 at the Fruitvale BART station. She has remained active, organizing a community of Black mothers who have suffered similar losses. The film then turns to Angela Williams, whose son Ulysses was brutally beaten by police officers in Troy, Alabama. As these stories converge, they complete a tale of racism and brutality that ought to be the shame of the nation, as well as the fight to end it. “Black Mothers Love & Resist” plays Friday, April 29 at 8:30 p.m. at the Roxie.
That’s a wide range of material, swinging from personal to historical to social to political, and all of it accomplished with passion and precision. These are films to make any Bay Area resident proud.
IF YOU GO:
65th San Francisco International Film Festival
When: April 21 through May 1
Where: Castro Theatre, Vogue Theater, Roxie Theater, Victoria Theatre and BAMPFA in Berkeley
Tickets: $18 for general admission, $16 for students, seniors, and ADA, $15 for SFFILM members and $10 for children ages 12 and under
Jon Else’s documentary “Land of Gold” depicts the step-by-step process of putting together the San Francisco Opera’s “Girls of the Golden West.” (Jon Else/Courtesy SFFILM)