Which Films Deserve to Win at S.F. Film Fest?

The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival enters its final week, with its Golden Gate Awards to be announced Thursday. Given the Festival’s special attention to slightly below-the-radar jewels by up-and-coming filmmakers from around the world, the GGAs can serve as a helpful nudge for such films in nabbing a coveted distribution deal. Two of last year’s winners, the Chinese documentary Last Train Home (dir. Fan Lixin) and the Mexican arthouse sleeper Alamar (dir. Pedro González-Rubio), later found their way to theaters and eventually landed on numerous end-of-year top ten lists.

Given the upside momentum bestowed upon the GGA winners, I delved into all the films competing for prizes in the Documentary and New Directors sections to see which ones are most deserving of an awards boost. Here are the films I’d be pushing for if I were on the jury:

Golden Gate Award: New Directors

At least a third of the films have already won awards or accolades elsewhere, like Circumstance (Sundance Audience Award), The High Life (Hong Kong FIPRESCI and Silver Digital Awards) and The Journals of Musan (Rotterdam Tiger Award). Then there’s Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy, which competed at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and is probably my favorite of the “already discovered” films in competition. An unsettling mix of social realism with surreal horror, Loznitsa’s road-movie fable paves an unpredictable path through a Russian landscape rife with dog-eat-dog brutality and corruption. Chaos seethes throughout the film, even in its swirling narrative stream that spins off into digressions with side characters.  It maintains a loose connection with its protagonist, an Everyman truck driver who initially functions as a silent witness to the absurdity surrounding him, before he is irretrievably sucked in. Offering no escape for the viewer, the film’s nihilistic outlook nonetheless unfolds with brilliant intuition.

For a similarly dark, surreal take on European society, watch Michael Haneke’s The Castle on Fandor.

My Joy’s bizarre proceedings are made credible by Loznitsa’s documentary realist approach to filming, a strategy used by another outstanding entry, Tilva Rosh. But first-time director Nikola Lezaic films his subjects much more sympathetically than Loznitsa: his impressively varied camerawork finds dignity and balance in the otherwise aimless lives of Serbian teens who perform Jackass-like stunts to pass the time. Doting on its characters almost to a fault, its generous chronicling of juvenile episodes slowly builds to that familiar moment of recognition of a naïve age passing imperceptibly, and that once gone can never be retrieved. Lezaic’s camerawork is the redeeming constant, no less so than in an extended sequence of stunningly choreographed long takes that weave through a mass street rally and spill into chaos in a supermarket.

TILVA ROŠ PREVIEW from Kiselo Dete on Vimeo.

Tilva Rosh won the top prize at the Sarajevo Film Fest; but my choice for the top prize goes to a film that hasn’t shown anywhere else. Kudos to the SFIFF programming team for scoring the world premiere of Ulysses, an impressive debut by Oscar Godoy. It’s a film whose deceptive modesty makes it easy to be overlooked, but whose story is precisely about a man who is constantly taken for granted or misperceived. The title’s allusion to Greek myth is no accident; here, Ulysses is a mild-mannered Peruvian history teacher whose immigrant status in Chile consigns him to menial jobs, cleaning a parking garage or working in meat factory. His behavior is not always heroic – he solicits prostitutes, with poor results. But through the steady accumulation of experiences, we come to appreciate the quiet, everyday drama of his odyssey through a society that rarely offers an opportunity for his humanity and talents to shine. It’s a remarkable film, one that strikes the right balance between observation and narrative, as well as empathy and objectivity.

For another powerful film depicting the Latin immigrant experience, watch Mojados on Fandor.

Golden Gate Award: Documentaries

It’s hard to believe that Leonard Retel Helmrich’s Position Among the Stars is a documentary – it seems more like an incredibly well-scripted Indonesian reality drama with camerawork that seems impossible not to be staged. And yet, there it is, an epic real life drama that surges through one intense event after another: family fights, Muslim-Christian showdowns, a stunning neighborhood fumigation sequence that looks like napalm footage from Apocalypse Now. But Helmrich’s patented single-shot cinema technique allows him to stick with his subjects through every unfolding moment, giving the film a palpable immediacy, a screen bursting with life before your eyes. It’s almost unfair that this film is in competition – besides, it’s already won awards at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam and Sundance.

Then there’s Better This World, an ITVS co-production set to air on PBS, and as such carries a heavyweight sheen that doesn’t need awards to reach an audience. But that’s not to take anything away from this stunningly well-researched work of investigative journalism. Directed by Katie Galloway and Kelly Duane de la Vega, the film delves deep into the story of two Texas youths who were convicted for trying to plant bombs at the 2008 Republican National Convention. The catch is that they acted as part of a radical left-wing group headed by an undercover FBI informant – welcome to the War on Terror. Were these impressionable young men plotting on their own, or were they fed ideas by their supposed leader in a case of entrapment? The doc gains remarkable 360-degree access with all players in the case, and assembles a stunning array of archival footage to retrace every step (there’s even security camera footage taken from the Wal-mart where bomb-making materials were purchased).

For another hard-hitting documentary on radical politics in America, watch American Radical on Fandor.

As impressive as these films are, I have to give top honors to a documentary that’s less flashy but manages to be equally insightful and intimate. Florent Tillon’s Detroit Wild City moves more steadily through its spaces, the vast urban wasteland that is 21st century Detroit, littered with shelled-out factories and abandoned houses. Frenchman Tillon lets a host of locals account for the city’s demise, as well as the potential for its resurgence. He finds a remarkable cast of characters: a hipster expeditionist who spelunks through cavernous ruins; a man who’s been leading “fight-the-blight” demolition teams for decades, with a bit of excessive enthusiasm for tearing down buildings; urban farmers turning the land back to how it was originally used by the city’s first settlers; and various social philosophers with contending views on the city’s past, present and future identities. It’s a strangely lyrical film that meditates through words and images on one city’s destiny, with massive implications for the civilization from which it rose and fell.

For more on the environmental and economic crisis of American communities, watch The Town That Was on Fandor.

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