A Day at SFFILM 2019

I’ve been covering the San Francisco International Film Festival for over ten years now, so long that it’s changed its name. Now it’s known as the SFFILM Festival and it’s running now through April 23 at a variety of venues in the Bay Area.

My day began with a “check-in” at the Festival Lounge. This year it’s located at the 111 Minna Gallery. It’s an interesting space located on an “alley” street between Mission and Howard and 2nd and New Montgomery. Part art gallery, part performance venue, and part bar, it’s conveniently located near several of the Festival’s screening venues.

In a change this year, the lounge is open to the public, so anyone attending the festival can pop in between screenings, grab a drink, and relax until their next film. That’s certainly what I did on the day I hit the Festival as the three films I attended all screened at SFMOMA’s Phyllis Wattis Theatre located just a short walk on MInna from the Lounge. Other nearby venues include The Theatre at the Children’s Creativity Museum and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Screening room.

You’d need to grab a Lyft or take Muni to catch something at the Castro, Roxie, or Victoria theatres and make significant travel plans if you are headed to a screening at one of the East Bay venues including BAMPFA or the Grand Lake Theatre.

The first film I screened was Minute Bodies:The Intimate World of F. Percy Smith. It’s part of the “Vanguard” series of films featuring experimental work from emerging artists and explorations of form by established film pioneers. It features the pioneering time-lapse and microscopic photography of British naturalist F. Percy Smith set to a music score by English alternative rock band Tindersticks.

Running only 55 minutes, the photography is fascinating (particularly when you consider some of it is approaching one hundred years old) but the film provides zero context as to what you are seeing. Pulling from such Smith films as The Birth of a Flower and Life Cycle of the Newt, some subjects are obvious, others are vague, and a little of it goes a long way. The music score is entertaining but somewhat repetitive.

The film was paired with an eight minute short from Denmark and the USA entitled Passerine in Time, which featured small birds being trapped, tagged, and released. Yep, that was it.

A short break in the Festival Lounge was followed by a screening of a terrific documentary entitled American Factory, the latest work of documentarians Steven Bognar and Julia Richert. A compendium piece to their 2010 Oscar-nominated short The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant, it tells the story of what became of that plant and the community around it after the closure.

Photo Courtesy of SFFILM

After GM closes their Dayton, OH truck plant, a Chinese industrialist arrives to open an auto glass factory. The clash of cultures, both industrial and social, is told with an equal look at all sides of this not-to-common-these days situation. Working conditions, workplace safety, unionization, commitment, and the role of work in life are all looked at from two very different perspectives. Anyone who remembers the 1986 Ron Howard comedy Gung Ho won’t be surprised by what they see, (surprisingly, that film got a lot of things right) but what I found most interesting were the interviews with Cao Dewang, the chairman of the Chinese corporation. He says some very revealing things you wouldn’t expect from a high ranking Communist business executive.

That component and the personal stories told made this a very effective documentary and one well worth seeking out.

I headed back to the Festival Lounge for “Happy Hour” – thank you Fort Point Beer Company – and some conversation with Festival programmers and fellow journalists.  It’s always great to chat with the folks who regularly attend or curate the Festival. It’s good to get some inside info or recommendations on what to see (or what to avoid.)

The question on whether to head home for the evening or stick around for In My Room was answered by SFFILM Senior Programmer Rod Armstrong so it was back to SFMOMA for one last screening.

In My Room, a German/Italian co-production directed by Ulrich Köhler (Sleeping Sickness) is a tough film to categorize. Part family drama, part end-of-the-world survival drama, and part relationship drama, it actually works as long as you don’t put too much thought into it.  

Armin (Hans Löw) is pretty much a screw up at life. He doesn’t do his job very well, he’s a loser when it comes to women, and he doesn’t seem to get along with his family. He does, however, love his grandmother and is at her side when she passes. Exhausted after standing vigil for a few days, he awakes after passing out in his car to discover he’s alone, as in everyone else has disappeared. Their cars and motor bikes litter the streets, but everyone has just vanished. While animals remain, human existence (but for Armin) appears to have ceased to exist.

Armin quickly figures out what he needs to do to survive and settles into a comfortable solo existence, when…

I’ll let you figure it out from there. It doesn’t end as expected, and I’ll give it credit for that, but their are too many moments that really strain credulity. Nevertheless, it was an interesting take on the genre.

So ended my day at the SFFILM Festival. It’s a terrific festival with screenings of documentaries, shorts, comedies, and dramas from around the world everyday through April 23. For information on all the films and a complete schedule of the remaining screenings, go to sffilm.org

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