The San Francisco Independent Film Festival is truly, unabashedly weird. Among the bevy of film festivals — both in San Francisco and around the U.S. — SF IndieFest showcases and celebrates all forms of left-field, independent cinema worldwide. Adventurous film buffs and audiences bored by run-of-the-mill Oscar bait will all find something to like. And who knows? Maybe the next cult classic will be shown on the SF IndieFest stage.
“Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory”
In “Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory,” a solitary girl’s television turns into a hot guy and they fall in love, bringing new meaning to the phrase “Netflix and chill.” The short, strange film by Japanese director Lisa Takeba is a truly bizarre series of cartoonish gags and bright pop imagery that never quite come together as a greater whole. There’s something here about love and disconnect in the modern world, but it gets lost in the frenetic, candy-colored mess of Takeba’s film.
Haruko (Moeka Nozaki) lives alone and spends most of her time relatably lounging around in pajamas and yelling at her TV. She’s an outsider, viciously bullied in high school for being a nerd, denoted by giant wire rim glasses, and for her embarrassing family. Haruko’s father is also her calligraphy teacher and plays favorites, singling out his daughter for praise. Haruko seeks escape in the hope of a paranormal encounter, also prompted by “the X-Files”-esque alien abduction of her brother. Haruko gets what she wants. One seemingly average day, her room begins to shake and her TV turns into a man, a handsome one at that.
Though the film is billed as something of a love story, Haruko and Mr. TV (Aoi Nakamura) have sex almost immediately and the light, breezy silliness of the movie’s tone doesn’t leave much room for character development or emotional investment.
As a dizzying 74 minutes of visual inventiveness, the movie works. A dance battle between Mr. TV and a man with a videocamera for a head is pure fun. But as a narrative, “Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory” works less well. Whimsy has little long term sustainability, and because “Laboratory” is a full length film, patience runs out quickly. Without any real stake in Haruko’s life, the parade of the strange becomes exhausting.
“Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory” tries to talk about technology, about how real our virtual love can feel and about the need for connection and family, but not only are all of these ideas well-treaded territory, here they cross the line from meaningful absurdity to actual nonsense. There’s a place for surrealism and vivid originality, but they feel lazy when untethered to any emotional core whatsoever. It’s hard to keep watching when you just don’t care.
“MA” is a modern day retelling of the pilgrimage of Mother Mary. But the film is only faintly religious in meaning, instead opting to use the story of the Virgin Mary before she gives birth to “our savior” as a metaphor for the mistreatment of women in today’s society. With no dialogue or easily understandable plot and repeated surreal imagery, “MA” is a confounding experience.
From the opening shot, debut director/writer/producer/choreographer/star Celia Rowlson-Hall casts an arresting mood that, despite its bizarre images, is never less than compelling. “MA” sets its tone from the first image on screen, a quote from Proverbs 31:30: “Who can find a virtuous woman?” This is followed by a beautifully composed, sun-drenched wide shot of Ma (Rowlson-Hall) wandering in a southwest American desert wearing nothing but an oversized sweatshirt and a white rag over her head, looking noticeably ragged.
From here, she meets a random passerby, Daniel (Andrew Pastides), on the road as she lays on the hood of his car hitching a ride to the nearest cheap motel. At this point most people will be prompted to ask what this all means.
As the film progresses, we see Ma and Daniel’s relationship develop. But not in a typical manner of “boy meets girl” and they fall in love. Because the director has decided to rescind all dialogue from the film, there is a strong reliance on dance performances to portray inner emotions of the characters.
Things only get more incomprehensible as Daniel has an affair with a sinister motel clerk with Ma in the room. As this is happening, a group of men, including a soldier, a priest and a weightlifter enter the room and begin to sexually harass Ma. While nothing is shown, because of quick edits, Rowlson-Hall creates a palpably uneasy mood in the film. After this shocking scene, all the men including Daniel and the female motel clerk take everything away from Ma, literally.
The film ends up becoming a commentary on the glass ceiling and gendered abuse that women face, but because the film lacks a logical structure, it’s open to interpretation.
The lasting impression about “MA” is that, despite the opaqueness, Rowlson-Hall is entirely in control of what she wants the film to look and feel like. The way she stages major scenes with wide angles of two or more actors interpretively dancing out the transgressions, the arguments, the horror and the redemption makes for unforgettable sensory images. There is a fever dream-like quality inherent in all of the shots and performances.
“MA” is a type of film that rarely gets made. There appears to be no intention to find a wider audience and make back the financial burden of an independent production. Instead, the film solely exists to represent its filmmaker’s personal voice. This uncompromised vision is something only independent cinema could give.
“The Winds that Scatter”
Written and directed by Christopher Jason Bell, “The Winds that Scatter,” which was made possible through a successful Kickstarter campaign, is a film that follows a brief moment of time in the life of a Syrian immigrant, Ahmad (Ahmad Chahrour). Throughout the film he struggles in finding work, dealing with being separated from his family in Jordan and being away from his home country, Syria, as he watches its political strife unfold on the television.
There is a stark light that is placed on the realities and hardships that Ahmad deals with, and it provides a profound appreciation for the workingman. The film is further relatable as it depicts real problems that immigrants have to face, such as living paycheck to paycheck. Ahmad luckily has a Syrian friend, Mohammad (Mohammad Dagman), who becomes a support for Ahmad during his current troubles.
The slow melancholic film is strongly driven through the provocative silences — that last for minutes — along with Ahmad’s facial expressions that capture an emotional look into a man who is merely trying to live his life in a new country, all while being connected to the places he came from. There are also scenes that capture natural landscapes and then juxtapose them with human creation, while Ahmad finds solace and beauty in these places, so does the viewer.
Ahmad speaks quietly, in both Arabic and English, yet translation is needed, at times, for both. He is a man that doesn’t want to step on people’s toes, so through his quietness it may seem as though he’s a character that should fade into the background rather than leave the profound impact that he does. He is everyman; he seeks connection and has a need for his home, family and religion. Overall, “The Winds that Scatter” is an emotionally beautiful film that will resonate internally.
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