The San Francisco Documentary Film Festival is back, screening films in San Francisco and Berkeley from Nov. 8-21. Visit sfindie.com for showtimes and tickets.
Working Class” is loosely based on Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” in that there are two cities (San Francisco and San Diego), brief passages from the novel are read aloud and the Dickensian issues of politics, religion, family and women frame conversation. The comparison is dilettantish at best but easily forgiven because we are quickly endeared to the leads, SF street artist Mike Giant and his San Diego counterpart Mike Maxwell. The purview of the film is not restricted to street art; the Mikes wax poetic on Victorian architecture, Mexican food and jail time. When their riffs do not suffice, Jeffrey Durkin enlists others (a historian, Buddhist monk, family members) to elucidate. One such history lesson on the origins of Labor Day articulates the film’s theme: democratization of art and the glorification of the worker. Or in Giant’s words, “I’m gonna draw some stuff, I’m gonna sell it. I don’t need you.”
— Neha Kulsh
Stephanie Riggs’ “The Standbys” offers a glimpse into the high-octane world of Broadway from the perspective of standbys — those who hover in the sidelines in case a performer cannot go on. Rarely does this happen though, which makes for a dull few hours backstage: “Your seat partner is always a chair or a wall. It’s always an inanimate object,” explains Ben, one of three shadowed standbys. Reverence for the craft makes most grateful for the proximity to the leading role. But factor in the sundry jobs, unforeseen demotions and precarious finances, and reality seems far-removed from an illustrious career. For one, Alena, dissatisfaction breeds motivation, compelling her to orchestrate her own show. Father first, thespian second, veteran standby Merwin cannot indulge in such creative mobility. Fortunately, supportive friends and family are on deck to temper rejections. “The Standbys” is heartwarming without being maudlin — which, given the milieu, is no small feat.
— Neha Kulsh
In “Global Home” director Eva Stotz allows wanderlust to lead her on a journey across several very different countries in search of a sense of belonging. However, over the course of her travels and interactions with locals and fellow outsiders, Stotz sheds light on what it means to be at “home.”
A unique range of nationalities and ethnicities is presented. Mamatal is a Saharan Tuareg living in Mali, Michiko is a Japanese nature-enthusiast struggling to find comfort in the urban jungle of Tokyo, Alice is a British professor working on ecological aid in the West Bank and Clara is a Brazilian dancer trying to thrive off of her passion in Turkey. Each lives in surroundings that are in some way alien, but they all find ways to cope.
This film emphasizes the impact that technology has had on human globalization. With creations like the website Couchsurfing.org (which Stotz uses to find these people), anyone can make friends in any part of the world, and the entire Earth can become an extended home.
— Erik Weiner
“Literacy” isn’t typical of revolution. But “Maestra,” a documentary by San Francisco-based filmmaker Catherine Murphy, proves that knowledge is subversive. The film collects archival footage and present-day testimonies of teachers from Cuba’s 1961 national literacy campaign, perhaps the most successful literacy campaign in history.
But this isn’t some dry doc about the ABCs. Murphy, who was raised on her grandmother’s and great aunt’s stories of Cuba, lovingly collects the tales of the urban maestras, or teachers, who taught the Cuban countryside to read. The brigadistas, as they were called, were mostly teenage girls who worked alongside the rural families and taught by candlelight.
At times the film can feel a little too loving. Murphy makes her love for proficiency evident. But it should be. The Cuban maestras are a joy to learn from. Their effusive passion bleeds through the screen. “Maestra” is the best kind of learning experience a movie could give.
— Natalie Reyes
A Girl Like Her
Set to the saccharine soundtrack so characteristic of ‘50s sitcoms, “A Girl Like Her” opens with idyllic shots of 1950s suburbia: A family piles into a station wagon. A homemaker places a casserole in an oven. This is Betty Draper’s airbrushed America — economically at least. “Between 1945 and 1973, 1.5 million women in the United States lost children to adoption,” the film reports. Most of these women came from well-to-do white families. Through a collective voiceover, several women describe in detail how they were coerced by social mores to surrender their children. In this puritanical atmosphere, parents and faculty had seen to it that women had a tenuous grasp of sex education. Pregnancy was no venial sin; exile to maternity homes was mild compared to the lifelong trauma that followed. In using educational videos and advertisements, Ann Fessler has culled the best archival footage for this anti-nostalgic portrait of millions of stigmatized women.
— Neha Kulsh
Usually if something is endorsed by Jay-Z, people don’t question it. But as in the case of the new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, perhaps the idea of a new stadium for the Nets is more complicated. In “Battle for Brooklyn,” activist Daniel Goldstein illustrates to viewers the depth of the Brooklyn community, the same community that he argues builders are abusing through illegal use of eminent domain. That the Ratner company wants to evict blocks of apartment buildings just for a new sports arena to Goldstein is ironically “very American” and as the David fighting the political-bureaucratic Goliath, he makes the issue about more than just keeping his new apartment.
In a chronicle spanning over five years, we see people stake reputations and invest more than just money into the fight to preserve Brooklyn. Seeing as the center is built now, it is important to understand what was taken away in order to get something brand new.
— A.J. Kiyoizumi
If you’re looking for a scientific approach to love addiction, this is not the film. But if an intimate portrait of irrational attachment is what you desire, “Love Addict” is the movie to see. From unhealthy stalker tendencies, to the on-and-off relationship that won’t choose to stay or go, to long-distance love and the all-too-human desire to stave off loneliness, “Love Addict” is a painful look at the anxiety of adoration. It’s a depressive, exhaustive feature but one worth the watch.
— Natalie Reyes
The word “piracy” usually brings to mind swashbuckling adventures, the Jolly Roger, and a drunken Johnny Depp. The reality, however, is a far cry from the romanticized version of piracy often seen in movies. Thymaya Payne’s “Stolen Seas” documents the rising conflict between merchant vessels and modern-day pirates along the Somali coast. Found-footage and first-hand accounts from pirates, sailors, hostages, ship owners and negotiators detail the real-life heist of a Danish shipping vessel, the CEC Future, in the Gulf of Aden.
Aside from profiling specific hostage situations, “Stolen Seas” explores the political and economic factors within Somalia that have contributed to the rise in high-seas extortion. Although the film seems, at times, overly sympathetic toward the plight of the criminals and their negotiators, it effectively puts Somali piracy into the context of the widespread famine and human suffering within the East African nation.
— Grace Lovio
What is Nonchalance? Where is Eva Lucien? And what do these have to do with the mysterious and possibly evil Jejune Institute? These questions form the central focus of Jeff Hull’s reality-blurring interactive art project documented by Spencer McCall in “The Institute.”
Inspired by a fairytale playground, Hull sought to create a sense of childlike wonderment that adults could experience in the framework of the real world. In doing so, he produced a project pitting “inductees” in a metaphysical battle against the cult-like Jejune Institute to preserve the force of Nonchalance and enter the plane of Elsewhere. Inductees are led on scavenger hunts and gathered into flash-mobs and protests. Seeking answers, they are met with more questions. Even in the film, it’s hard to tell which interviewees are sincere and which are playing along.
While Hull’s mission falls into place, the players in his project begin looking at the world through different eyes. As the Institute’s motto goes: “For those dark horses with the spirit to look up and see, a recondite family awaits.”
— Erik Weiner
Well, you have to start with all of the things she was going to be when she grows up … normal things like a teacher or a wife of a farmer,” explains a mother of her cartoonist daughter. Enter White River Junction, the snuggly, powdery-white Vermont town in which The Center for Cartoon Studies — a ramshackle university with brightly colored awnings and doodles for signage — and all of its twenty masters students are stowed. This is the world of “Cartoon College,” a documentary from director/producers Josh Melrod and Tara Wray. Cleverly constructed and snark-free, the film is a nuanced examination of the modern-day aspiring cartoonist. With an upbeat original score by Jason Zumpano (of the band Attics and Cellars), the documentary takes a warm and empathetic glimpse inside the lives of these eccentrics — koolaid-stained hair, armwarmers and all — and their grueling journey toward finding success in the highly specialized world of comics.
— Hannah Levy
UC Berkeley alumna Kelly J. Richardson finds hope and inspiration under the Big Top in “Without A Net,” the true story of four Brazilian kids who dream of escaping a life of poverty and crime by joining the local circus. Djeferson, Barbara, Rayana, and Platini live in the drug-controlled Praca Onze neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. While many of their classmates have already been seduced into a life of crime, the subjects of Richardson’s film avoid similar fates by devoutly practicing juggling, trapeze, contortion and gymnastics in a circus tent illegally set up in an abandoned parking lot. The circus director, Junior Perim, trains the disadvantaged children and teenagers for free as part of a community uplift program.
“Without A Net” follows the young performers as they prepare for opening night, documenting the triumphs and challenges they face along the way. Although their stories are touching, the highlight of the film is the circus itself.
— Grace Lovio
The Challenge of Venice
With not-often-shown scenes of high tides taking over the city center of Piazza San Marco, not to mention the houses and shops all over Venice, armpit-high rain boots can’t be the only solution for much longer. Although the small population of 60,000 is used to the floods, real solutions are needed to save the city. In comes a solution of enormous industrial barriers to block the lagoon from water, but it is hard to see if that is a true solution, or just another ephemeral fix.
Although the fix is not addressed until the last couple minutes of the film, it brings hope after so many failed attempts to save the city.