Immersion in a film festival is an exercise in community. Perhaps it’s a no brainer, but in a climate of remote viewing practices, being at San Francisco International Film Festival 57 and reveling in cinema socially is a particularly wonderful thing.
I started my festival experience with an intimately personal genre in the first film I saw (after opening night). What Now? Remind Me is a lengthy video diary of Portuguese filmmaker Joachim Pinto’s year of experimental drug treatments, a dour topic that’s explored in unexpected ways. The screening wasn’t anywhere near rush, but those of us there experienced something visually rich, poetically paced and emotionally nuanced—an immersion in someone’s life that you’d be hard-pressed to find in another cinematic context. It was a film by and about an artist, a gay man with activist leanings and aesthetic sophistication. Sure, there were degrees of self-indulgence and there were times that I felt this close to cutting out before the conclusion—there were some who left early, but those who stuck it out encouraged me to do the same, and I am left with an indelible impression of the filmmaker, his husband, and their artful lives.
There was something wonderfully surreal about attending the binge-viewing session of the diary series Agnès Varda: From Here to There, as it became apparent that the audience was such a direct reflection of the adorably digressive director. While no one dared work the director’s two-toned, Friar Tuck-like hairstyle, this was a house full of mature female, poetically inclined artists, and the people who love them. I only caught one episode—for me her sensibility is best experienced in small doses—as I was headed to another screening, but there was something heartwarming about the idea of this as a Varda community that would be in its few hours of heaven during the screening.
The film I dashed out for, Club Sandwich, turned out to be one of my festival favorites. Director Fernando Eimbcke’s poignantly minimalist, knowingly wry view of familial connection and budding sexuality was indeed an enclosed universe—the kind that takes place in an off-season resort in a humid climate. It’s a bubble of pleasure for those of us who experienced adolescent ennui—and who hasn’t? I recalled my own endless summers as an awkward, film-loving pubescent; back then it seemed like a community of one. I marveled that Eimbcke could turn that kind of discomfort into a knowing, witty entertainment that I’d gladly sit through again. His presence there communicated an infectious joy in making films, which he does with spot-on intuitiveness.
I attended two on-stage conversations, which tapped into my artistic proclivities: Isaac Julien’s Persistence of Vision Award conversation with critic B. Ruby Rich offered juicy visuals along with its theoretical discussion while the dialog between production designer KK Barrett and creative director Derek Fagerstrom was a more pragmatic behind-the-scenes look at the collaborative aspects of filmmaking and its historical cues. In referencing his work on Spike Jonze‘s Her, Barrett showed a clip from Jacques Tati‘s Playtime—office cubicles as tone setting devices in two films I adore. In both conversations, it was just as interesting to see who was there to listen—luminaries, scholars, admirers and maybe some skeptics—and each demographic left thinking about something new regarding their subjects.
I’m not sure what to think of the clear subtext of troubling obsessions and mental instability that formed the core of numerous films—coincidence or cultural thread? In James Franco’s surprisingly solid adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, it was a character’s erotic fixation on a corpse, while Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys presents sexual obsession with a young immigrant, albeit one that evolves, in terms that address political and personal implications—both effectively squirm-inducing films. In Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter, directed by David Zellner, the main character has an unerring belief in cinematic artifice that spurs along untenable, tragic acts with non-judgmental observation and dreamy mise en scene. And the highly enjoyable, The Dog, Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s portrait of an entertainingly obsessive character—John Wojtowicz, the dog of Dog Day Afternoon. Despite his apparent madness, he was passionate and tenacious individual as the filmmakers who spent more than a decade on his narrative of early marriage equality activism, and bank robbery as something approaching performance art. All of these films respect their complicated characters through very human choices, and through sharing these stories, are able to grapple and even enjoy their struggles.