Cinema by the Bay, the San Francisco Film Society’s climactic festival of its fall season, inaugurates its fifth edition with a potent blend of family dysfunction, guilt and religious fanaticism in the opening night feature Holy Ghost People. A letter from her troubled, long-gone sister Liz leads Charlotte (Emma Greenwell) to the Church of the Accord, a congregation part People’s Temple, part Manson Family, all Southern Gothic and under the sway of its charismatic, rattlesnake-handling preacher Brother Billy (Joe Egender). Seeking answers to Liz’s whereabouts, Charlotte and her troubled friend Wayne (Brendan McCarthy) insinuate themselves among the faithful, seeking answers among a flock that is about as stable as nitroglycerin. Director Mitchell Altieri delivers a tense, atmospheric thriller.
Holy Ghost People presents a number of themes that binds many of the feature narratives and documentaries that are part of the 2013 Cinema by the Bay, held this year November 22-24 at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. Searching for her lost sister, Charlotte embeds herself with a religious cult. In other works, a woman responds to sorrow by abandoning her old life; a couple on opposite sides in a war fall in love and face separation; strangers meet on a road trip and forge a transient intimacy; a family copes with their matriarch’s decline; a gay teen rejected by his family runs away to the promised land of San Francisco. Loss, hope and the urge to connect are some of the themes that run through this latest festival.
Cinema by the Bay is a festival born out of a burgeoning local film scene and a sense of regret. In recent years, more and more strong entries from Bay Area filmmakers or set locally have poured into the San Francisco International Film Festival, too many for SFIFF to program into the spring festival. Cinema by the Bay carves out a place for those films and celebrates the talent and diversity of the region.
Programmer Sean Uyehara notes that in five years there has already been a shift. During the festival’s early years, the focus was more on experimental and documentary films, but fiction films have become a big part of the three-day event as the range and quality of narratives submitted continues to grow.
Holy Ghost People is proof of that high caliber and so is Britta Sjogren’s Redemption Trail, in which Oakland ob/gyn Anna (Lily Rabe) and Sonoma vineyard caretaker Tess (LisaGay Hamilton) play women haunted by tragedy. Heartbreak isolates them, even from those who love them, but their unexpected friendship opens new possibilities. Sjogren has created a deeply meditative, character-driven drama that offers a compelling take on grief and the challenge to move past it.
Reservoir Dogs‘ Mr. Blonde, actor and poet Michael Madsen, has a cameo in Zoran Lisinac’s Along the Roadside, as Jerry, a flamboyant and cheerfully sinister desert motel dweller. That should give some indication of the level of quirk in this road movie that pairs an odd couple—ambitious, dour San Francisco graphic artist Varnie (Iman Crosson) and flighty, cheerful Austrian tourist Nena (Angelina Häntsch)—on a trip from the Bay Area to a Southern California music festival. The most uneven of Cinema by the Bay’s features, what eventually transcends Lisinac’s oddball excesses is the central relationship, surely temporary, yet intimate and revealing.
Local screenwriter Joon Bai penned the screenplay for Cinema by the Bay’s most unusual entry, Hak Jang’s The Other Side of the Mountain. Billed as the first ever U.S./North Korean co-production, it is a glossy Korean War drama with musical numbers and a romance shot through with propaganda. A South Korean soldier abandoned by his platoon behind enemy lines falls in love with a North Korean nurse. Eventually, he must go home, but his heart remains on the other side of the demilitarized zone.
A not-quite-Mrs. Robinson upends the staid existence of a shy postman in Dear Sidewalk, a comedy of tremendous heart and charm written by the Bay Area’s Jake Limbert. Gardner (Joseph Mazzello) has walked nearly the circumference of the world on his route, but he’s never stepped outside his own hometown. About to turn twenty-five, he is already stuck in a life of dull routine until he meets Paige (Michelle Forbes), middle-aged, newly divorced and eager to turn Gardner on to life’s possibilities.
This edition of Cinema by the Bay boasts only three documentaries, two of them concerned with Alzheimer’s in very different ways. Berry Minott’s The Illness and the Odyssey looks at Lytico-Bodig, a disease found among the indigenous population of Guam that mimics Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ALS. Thought to hold the key to curing those conditions, the cause of the disease has eluded researchers, including UCSF Memory and Aging Center director Dr. Bruce Miller and neurologist Oliver Sacks, for decades.
A more personal look at the condition is found in Banker White’s poignant The Genius of Marian. White’s mother Pam was writing a memoir of her mother, artist Marian Steele, when at 61 she received a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer’s. White began filming after he returned home to help care for her, so that he could record the memories of Marian that Pam could no longer put on paper, but his camera also captures the effect of the illness on Pam and her loving, supportive family.
The final documentary in the Cinema by the Bay program packs an emotional wallop. In American Vagabond, Finnish director Susanna Helke introduces us to James, a Chico teenager rejected by his family who runs away with his boyfriend Tyler to San Francisco. James thinks he’s coming to “the city at the end of the rainbow,” only to find himself homeless on the sidewalks of a gentrified Castro where faces the indifference of a city that has no place for him. A young man’s modest dream of a happy life and a community that accepts him crashes headlong into harsh reality in an impressionistic film that records an inexorable downward spiral.
In addition to the features are two shorts programs. Uyehara promises moves that “defy gravity” with Street Smarts: YAK Films’ Dance Then and Now, a compendium of films from a group of Oakland-based filmmakers whose focus is on the athleticism and grace of urban “turf” dancers. The SF State of Cinema: Shorts from SFSU Alumni is a retrospective of San Francisco State student shorts. While the majority of the 10 films in the collection date from the turn of the new century, it also includes Irina Leimbacher’s 1991 experimental rumination on assimilation and motherhood Mothertongue and Scott Bartlett’s 1967 abstract masterpiece OffOn.
Rounding out the festival is Essential SF, a program honoring people, films and institutions the Film Society deems indispensable to the Bay Area film scene. This year’s honorees, who will be feted during a presentation on Sunday, November 24, are sound designer and mixer Richard Beggs, an Oscar-winner for Apocalypse Now; San Francisco Silent Film Festival Artistic Director and longtime Bay Area film programmer Anita Monga; Kontent Films, a collective of filmmakers whose works spans the gamut from feature films and television to commercials and everything in between; experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky; and the master of the Castro Theatre’s mighty Wurlitzer, organist David Hegarty.