What To See @ the SF International Film Fest

by Kevin Langson
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Apr 22, 2014

The San Francisco Film Society is engaged with initiatives and various cinephile-pleasing events throughout the year, but late April is the most anticipated spot on the Bay Area's film calendar as it means the opening of the nation's longest running film festival, San Francisco International Film Festival. The festival turns 57 this year, and Neil Cowan, the Film Society's new director, is here to remind us of the continuing vitality of the cinema-going experience in an age increasingly shaped by new technologies.

"The experience of watching a film in a beautiful cinema continues to be among the most rewarding of contemporary cultural experiences," he says, and SFIFF57 makes it a reliable pleasure to take in world-class cinema from around the globe in some of the nation's finest theaters.

This year the New Voices in Latin American Cinema section throws a much-deserved spotlight on up and coming directors from Mexico and South America - and even the festival’s very first film from Costa Rica ("All About Feathers"). There is also a big nod to James Franco, whose "Child of God" plays at the fest, along with Gia Coppola’s debut, "Palo Alto," which is based on his collection of short stories. It’s the festival’s Centerpiece selection.

There is also a fine selection of LGBT-related films this year, including author Abdellah Taia’s debut, "Salvation Army," ruminating on his own sexual awakening in Morocco and rocky start to his new life as a student in Switzerland; also "The Dog," a documentary account of the infamous story told by Sidney Lumet’s "Dog Day Afternoon," which starred Al Pacino. In the new film, the candid John Wojtowicz, an ex-soldier who attempted to rob a Brooklyn bank to pay for his partner’s sex change operation, tells his story in his own words.

The San Francisco International Film Festival runs April 24-May 8 at Sundance Kabuki, Castro, New People, and Filmhouse in SF and the Pacific Film Archives in Berkeley. Here are a few choice selections worth considering for your viewing schedule:

Abuse of Weakness

Catherine Breillat and Isabelle Huppert, two of French cinema’s leading ladies, work together for the first time in the pleasingly grueling "Abuse of Weakness." Why grueling? Because it is painful to watch protagonist Maud (Huppert) blithely allow herself to be used by smooth talking gangster, Vilko (French rapper Kool Shen). Why pleasing? Let’s just say, that if you are down for some sadism or masochism, you can be in no better hands than Breillat’s. This isn’t a hard-hitting melodrama; Maud unhinges slowly and stoically, both submitting easily to Vilko’s rough-hewn allure and countering with her own arrogance and demands.

Based on Breillat’s own experience of suffering a series of strokes and insisting that a notorious criminal star in her next film as she recovers, the director continues down her path of unnerving audiences with her complex relationships and audacious acts. The dynamic between the director and gangster is hard to pin down. They seem to be tied like a married couple, yet they are platonic; and Vilko actually has a wife who knows about Maud. What exactly does she see in him that allows her to sacrifice her other friendships? How much power does she really have in the strained relationship? The gripping final scene is a sublime encapsulation of her toughness and inscrutability.

Harmony Lessons

Just as it is difficult to watch Maud surrender to machismo-laden machinations, it is discomfiting to follow the bullying in "Harmony Lessons," a sensitively crafted drama from Kazakhstan about a laconic high school student, Aslan, who becomes a pariah following a cruel prank led by the school’s reigning gangster. Bolat is quite precocious as a racketeering alpha male who collects money from increasingly resistant classmates and delivers it to voracious upperclassmen.

Outside of the rural high school, Aslan occupies himself with idiosyncratic, lone activities such as capturing lizards and designing electric chairs for cockroaches. The intrigue amplifies when a city boy arrives at the school, sitting himself down beside the withdrawn pariah. Unlike the others, who cower in the face of the schoolyard gangsters, he is willing, even eager, to confront Bolat and his ilk. At the same time, he takes to Aslan and entices him with tales of Happylon, the city arcade for which he has a gift card. However, with the social tension at school quickly escalating, will these new friends ever make it to this purported Mecca for the teenage male? Director Emir Baighazin’s feature debut is remarkably assured in its austere portrait of a society built on a vicious pecking order, and his young actors effortlessly embody their roles in this stark version of adolescent ambition.

Bauyr (Little Brother)

Another accomplished Kazakh drama details the tribulations of a young male student trapped in a bucolic nightmare of sorts. In the case of "Bauyr (Little Brother)," it is the adults who are the antagonists. And what a callous, self-serving crew they are; from the school principal to the moneylender, every adult in this film is solely occupied with his/her own pleasure of money-making and unconcerned with the fact that young Yerkin is living alone and fending for himself. Yerkin’s father, we learn, is content to live with his new family in a neighboring village.

Meanwhile, the light that ignites in Yerkin’s life when his older brother returns from the city for a visit is extinguished when it becomes clear that his bro, despite teaching him to stand up to village bullies, is really only interested in his romantic pursuit and using Yerkin along the way. The film is effective largely because the bleakness of the circumstances is counterbalanced by absurd or quirky moments (a school principal who plays solo billiards in a field) and Yerkin’s earnestness and unflagging spirit.

South of Nothing

A fiercely independent youngster is also at the center of "South is Nothing." Like Yerkin, Grazia lives in a small village, in this case in the south of Italy. Whereas a single sheep is of extreme importance to Yerkin, Grazia’s life is filled with fish, as she alternates with her father selling fish at his market in the town center. Unlike Yerkin, she has a present father who cares about her. However, there is a rift between these two. Just as Grazia’s gender imbues her persona with a bit of mystery (she is markedly boyish in style and behavior), so does her disaffection makes us wonder what is brewing beneath her surface. Part of the answer lies in the mysterious disappearance of her older brother. What is her father keeping from her, and can the handsome guy she befriends lead her to her brother? Grazia is a force that holds your attention, and it’s refreshing also to watch a character that is gender nonconforming without her sexuality being an issue.

Bad Hair

Caracas-set "Bad Hair" also offers up a pleasing bit of youthful gender deviance in the form of Junior, the young son of Marta, a single mom struggling to raise two sons (the younger one is an infant) while struggling to keep a security job. Junior’s slightly girlish ways are a bit more of an issue than Garzia’s tomboyishness, mostly because it reviles his mother, causing her to seek a doctor’s guidance as she copes with the guilt of presumably turning her son gay.

Like the former film, "Bad Hair" does not dwell on the issue of sexuality and does not definitely answer it. Seemingly, little Junior simply wants straight hair and snappy style. The straightening of his kinky, biracial hair is an obsession; annoying perhaps even to the audience, it is deeply worrisome to his mother. His Black grandmother, however, abets him, forcing him to sing in order to earn her hair-straightening help, and this provides the opportunity for bonding between them. This is jeopardized when she tries to get Junior to wear a formal shirt that he perceives to be a dress. His reaction is a subtle suggestion of the conflicted psychology that is playing out in his mind in response to his mother’s disapproval. Marta is quite harsh; Junior is quite sensitive, though also tough in his own way.

The film becomes a trenchant and entertaining portrayal of the strains in relationships when employment is tenuous and poverty is an ever-present nagging force, as well as the pitfalls of policing gender development.

Salvation Army

If sexuality is downplayed in "Bad Hair", it is made central in the Morocco and Switzerland-set "Salvation Army." This is not to say that the film has anything to do with identity politics or coming out but that Abdellah, the adolescent protagonist growing up in Morocco, is getting off with men almost from the first scene. He doesn’t seem concupiscent; his sexual encounters are mostly like a part of his routine - not without pleasure but also not something he actively seeks out. Perhaps this is because he has already done the work and now has these ties with older boys and men, or perhaps they found him and he surrendered. Either way, the discomforts of his home life - his father beats his mother and his mother and siblings mock his desire to be in their company instead of with his father - are alleviated somewhat by this secret life. In a memorable scene at a bazaar, these two worlds collide when one of his lovers - a watermelon vendor - lures him away from his father to steal an affectionate moment with him, leaving him with a watermelon to carry home with his father.

As with stolen moments, this is a film of subtle pleasures and provocative gestures suggesting something deeper, which is to say that while it is thin in gratification derived from plot development, it is rich in scenes that evoke the bittersweet taste of a singular adolescence. Based on author (and first time director) Abdellah Taia’s autobiographical novel, the two chapters touch on several complexities, such as his lust for his older brother (towards the beginning he is seen lying in his brother’s bed, taking in his scent), his ambivalence towards his father (who is tender with him despite being beastly to his wife), and, in the latter half when he is a student in Geneva, the complication using his sexual power to gain a foothold in a foreign land.

Eastern Boys

Also by a Morocco-born director and about young migrant men trying to gain a foothold in Western Europe, Robin Campillo’s "Eastern Boys" is a fascinatingly unsettling and thought provoking drama about a middle-aged French man whose cozy life in a high rise on the outskirts of Paris is upturned suddenly when he gives his address to an Eastern European prostitute he cruises at the train station. Campillo opens the film with a captivating macro-level observation of the cruising scene, then moves into a rather intimate look at the awkward bonding between Daniel and Marek. What was intended as a simple interaction turns into something much more complicated.

First, Daniel is shockingly placid while his upscale apartment is bombarded by a group of teens ready to party at his expense, the most formidable presence being the truculent Russian ringleader. When he pursues a sexual relationship with Marek in spite of this betrayal, his motivations evolve as he realizes this good-natured youngster is trapped in a noxious gang. Marek relishes the attention and financial assistance, but this new allegiance is bound to conflict with his membership in the rough and tumble gang that resides in a cheap Parisian hotel. Of course, demonizing this gang of young immigrants is shortsighted; Campillo gets this and makes Daniel an astute adult sensitive to their precarious position. Because of this, the suspenseful finale to this film is incredibly impacting. The film is likely to elicit quite different responses depending on your perspective. Is Daniel just gullible and self-serving, or is he admirably big-hearted? Are the young immigrants criminals foremost or would-be law abiding citizens caught up in a regressive system?


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