The San Francisco Independent Film Festival caters to alternative tastes

Patricia Kim/Staff

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Currently in its 14th year, the San Francisco Independent Film Festival is one of many transgressive film forums our Bay Area has to offer in the spring. Along with SF International and the SF International Asian American Film Festival, among others, IndieFest offers an array of diverse films by international directors — some well-known, like Abel Ferrara, and others obscure but up-and-coming, like Ben Wheatley. But IndieFest is the only one dedicated to the low as well as highbrow, the extreme, the perverse, the cultish and the experimental, often in one film.
Of all the festival’s films that I have seen, I’ve noticed that each one of them is provocative in their own way. They all have something distinct to say about the world we live in today, in both the mainstream and in subcultures.

Devotees and newbies of IndieFest likely belong to the latter category, so naturally this year’s crop of fantastic films caters to the daring and intrepid. Audiences will find a tangle of genres, ranging from post-apocalyptic sci-fi to backwoods hillbilly horror and beyond.

This festival also has a couple other curiosities up its sleeve, including a special program by the Bay Area Derby Girls and a live theater performance by Everything is Terrible. From February 9 to 23 at the Roxie Theater, enjoy this alternative festival in the most alternative city in the world. It’s no Cannes, but that’s a good thing.

Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.

“The Disco Exorcist” — February 11, 2:45 p.m.

Cocaine. Tits. Skinny, pale, thrusting, sweaty ass. More cocaine. More tits. How about some thick red corn syrup and bad porn? And then some more coke. If you envision the most grotesque depiction of these things, combine them — whether you’re on coke while doing this is up to you — and add some disco music, then you’ll have a pretty good sense of Richard Griffin’s “The Disco Exorcist.”

This grindhouse-influenced satire follows the exploits of a 1970s lothario by the name of Rex Romanski (Michael Reed) as he fucks his way through all of the female patrons of the least enticing disco club ever captured on screen. After giving the Romanski to one Rita Marie (Ruth Sullivan), Rex leaves her for porn star Amoreena Jones (Sarah Nicklin), the lead in such classics as “The Disco Ball Delivery” — yes, the gargantuan man grapes are included. From here, the film goes even further off the rails as the scorned Rita enacts her revenge by engaging in voodoo and/or witchcraft (it’s never really all that clear).

Now, after being dragged through this film like a scared child on a leash at Disneyland, not knowing whether to laugh, cry, or both, it is difficult to determine whether there is any message embedded within it. Maybe there are some feminist undertones in the climactic orgy scene. Or maybe a guy getting his dick ripped in half is exactly what it is — sick, twisted and shamefully hilarious.

James Bell

“Deaf Jam” — February 18, 12:30 p.m.

“How do you define ‘deaf’?” asks high school student Aneta Brodski in Judy Lieff’s documentary “Deaf Jam.” For Aneta, an ASL (American Sign Language) poet, the answer isn’t as simple as the dictionary’s definition of “can’t hear.” Instead, she offers something less negative. Deaf is a “different perspective.” And, it is a perspective director Lieff highlights with her utterly engrossing focus on deaf students and their involvement in the ASL poetry movement.

Now, what exactly is ASL poetry? Like Brodski’s question earlier, the answer isn’t so simple. Without using the spoken (or even written) word, it blends the captivating physical movements of performance art with the wit and energy of slam poetry (hence the title’s pun). It’s a completely fascinating form of expression only made more so by the film’s cast and Lieff’s competent direction.

For much of the film, we experience the world is silence like those featured in the documentary. And, despite this lack of auditory engagement, Lieff’s creative incorporation of captions coupled with the enthusiasm of students like Aneta or established ASL poets like Peter Cook provide material dynamic enough to rival the most cacophonous of movies. It’s a shame the film is so short. At 70 minutes long, it feels rushed and only briefly touches on the history of ASL poetry and the deaf community. But, despite these minor issues, “Deaf Jam” remains, like the poems it features, a work of inspiring passion.

— Jessica Pena

“The Color Wheel”February 12, February 13, 9:30 p.m.

One of the best films at IndieFest, “The Color Wheel” was “At the Movies” critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s pick for best undistributed film of 2011. His mention will no doubt catapult the film into a wider indie market of viewers, and deservedly so. A black-and-white film concerning two jaded, estranged siblings, one a sellout brother and the other a wayward sister, “The Color Wheel” is eloquent mumblecore at its finest. When JR (Carlen Altman, a co-writer as well) asks Colin (Alex Ross Perry, also the director, producer and co-writer) to accompany her on a road trip to her ex-boyfriend’s house to “pick up some boxes,” a simple favor turns into a fraught interplay between people who know how to push each other’s buttons.

“The Color Wheel” is a slice-of-life, plotless indie about relatable (and related) people fumbling and bumbling down the Road of Life — until it’s not. It takes a bizarre third-act detour you won’t know what to make of, but Perry’s eagerness for formal and narrative experiment is what sets this indie symptom-of-the-times apart from its mumbling brethren. As an unflinching take on the onset of late-’20s slump-dom and unemployment blues, “The Color Wheel” is the most honest of them all, and it’s hilarious thanks to the beautiful rapport of its lead actors. With her spastic wit and unduly mannerisms, Carlen Altman practically reinvents the manic pixie dream girl. After seeing this film, you’ll want to hug her.

— Ryan Lattanzio

“Girl Walk // All Day” — February 9, 8 p.m.

There’s a scene in “Dirty Dancing” where Baby dances her way up this set of stairs at the end of one of the movie’s pivotal trial-to-triumph montages, and you know she’s happy because she’s moving her body in the sort of carefree way one only does when no one’s watching. That scene would have fit right into “Girl Walk // All Day”, because the whole film is about pure, unadulterated dance — unselfconscious and carefree.

“Girl Walk // All Day” has an unusual premise. Three dancers — introduced as The Girl, The Gentleman and The Creep — leap, slide and crunk their way through New York City, bumping into various personalities along the way. Oh, and the whole thing is set to Girl Talk’s latest album, All Day.

The 71-minute music video’s highlight is The Girl, played by Anne Marsen, who exudes am energy that is simply infectious. While vestiges of her classical training peek through occasionally, her dancing is mostly of the hybrid, goofy type — more hip thrusts and head bangs than pirouettes and plies — although there is plenty of the latter as well.

The whole thing has a loosely developed storyline, one that’s endearingly simple in its good-guy-bad-guy mentality. In any case, the music and movement are more of a guiding force and attention-getter than any semblance of a plot. In the end, Marsen’s movements are so natural, so in with the beat, you wonder why more passerby around her aren’t dropping their iPods and briefcases and joining in.

— Michelle Ma

“In Organic We Trust” — February 12, 2:45 p.m.

A stroll down the supermarket aisle involves making weighty choices about what reaches the dinner table that evening. With labels like “organic,” “all natural” and “locally grown,” it is difficult to discern what is truly most healthful, environmentally friendly and cost-effective.

Directed and produced by Kip Pastor, “In Organic We Trust,” begins by exposing the contradictions in the organic industry. What began as an effort by smaller farmers to purify the growing process has been taken over and turned into a marketing ploy by corporate giants. The twisted economics and politics of growing food in America have created a defective system, exacerbating health and environmental problems.

To depict this food crisis, the documentary synthesizes interviews, footage from the proccesses of food production and easy-to-understand animations. It confirms that a food revolution is stirring, and puts the power in the hands of the individual. Growing at home, buying from farmers markets and supporting urban gardens can bridge the gap between the soil and the meal on the table. According to Pastor and the other experts, making these decisions is very doable and will cultivate a healthier and more sustainable food nation.
The film is an effort to spread this revolution in food philosophy and move towards a culture based on a deep connection with food, how it’s grown and how it can be enjoyed together in its purest and most delicious form.

— Anna Carey

“Without” — February 19, 9:30 p.m.

Mark Jackson’s contemplative mood piece “Without” feels like an undercooked version of an older movie like “Repulsion” and newer flicks about psychosexually tortured, paranoid heroines like “Black Swan” and “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” But like those movies, there is a strong performance at its center. Joslyn Jensen is Joslyn, a supple-skinned hipster who offers her services as a caretaker in the middle of nowhere for a catatonic geriatric. If Joslyn had seen any movies at all, she would not have taken this job. There is no Internet or cell phone reception at her employer’s sparse home, so naturally, as we young folks do, Joslyn descends into hysteria.

But this is a slow climb down the K-hole of crazy indeed, as Jackson’s film moves at a viscous pace to match his equally languid, cold-to-the-touch imagery. The screenplay relies heavily on ambiguity as a cover-up for not knowing what it really wants to say. It’s clear that Joslyn is dealing with some sexual confusion and obsession as she makes herself sexually available to the old man in the wheelchair. And he’s no doubt fucking with her, too. Jensen’s plaintive face lends itself well to Jackson’s overlong takes and close-ups. She packs a lot of emotion into a single sly gesture or protracted blink. Fans of the films I previously mentioned will find something to like in here, but this one isn’t as full-fleshed. “Without” makes for great student film fodder, but is ultimately without much substance.

Ryan Lattanzio

“The FP” — February 17, 7:15 p.m.

In Frazier Park, CA (the FP), electronic dance music blasts through speakers and florescent lights cast a harsh glow on industrial debris. Two rival gangs battle it to the death in the dance video game Beat Beat Revolution to gain control of the FP. In this futuristic wasteland, the rivalry roars loudly and dangerously: “Shit’s tough in the FP.”

Shot alternately like a video game and music video, “The FP” is an action flick, racy romance and raging dance party rolled into one way over-the-top cult movie. From the 248 crew of the north, JTRO must avenge the death of his brother, who lost a BBR battle against L Dubba E of the 245 south. Since his death, the 245 has taken over the FP, and JTRO must restore it to the 248. Although the plot is predictably formulaic and the dialogue is drenched with cheap smack talk, the film’s ridiculousness translates as both comical and chilling. Throughout the film, this uncomfortable dichotomy pulses powerfully below the action.

Despite a hollow storyline, the film incorporates outlandish, eye-popping visuals complete with outrageous costumes. The characters sport gelled hair tied with bandanas, fingerless gloves, shredded jean vests, neon eye makeup and fur-trimmed bodysuits. The fashion is only a faint echo of the film’s wild raunchiness. Bringing to the screen their outrageous and nightmarish imaginations, directors Brandon and Jason Trost completely let loose on this high-energy trip of a movie.

— Anna Carey

“Juko’s Time Machine” — February 18, 7:15 p.m.

Ah, the independent-film love story. A sensationally awkward guy is hopelessly in love with a girl from his childhood, but appears to have lost his chance with her. He tries everything in his power to win her heart, but alas, can’t even form a coherent sentence in her presence. He loses her to an unquestionably cooler guy. So, after some soul searching, he comes up with a brilliant plan: He builds a time machine, of course.

This is the story of “Juko’s Time Machine,” which, despite its predictability, overflows with charm. Though the viewer is hard-pressed to put up with Juko’s monumental social ineptitude — there are several laborious moments in the film where we watch Juko searching for words — it’s impossible not to adore him. There is a striking sincerity in Juko’s love for Rory, one that inspires plenty of smiles as we watch Juko travel back in time to win her over.

The film’s cinematography is minimalist and understated. The acting in particular is basic and unembellished. Yet this accomplishes the goal of the movie extremely well, which goes to show that the bare bones of cinema can stand up by themselves. The characters’ interactions are by no means dramatic or intensely emotional, but are rather touching in their simplicity. When Juko says to Rory, “I could climb a mountain for you, build a dam for you” or “you’re more beautiful than a sea breeze,” the viewer can’t help but succumb to a pleasant, bubbly sensation.

Eytan Schindelhaim

“Snowtown” — February 10, 9:30 p.m.

With last year’s Oscar-nominated “Animal Kingdom” and now “Snowtown,” Australia has proven itself a stentorian voice of international cinema. Directed by Justin Kurzel and written by Shaun Grant, “Snowtown,” like “Kingdom,” is a crime film often endured rather than seen. Kurzel’s film is a dramatic account of a real-life serial killing spree that happened in the eponymous town in South Australia.

This film sticks closely to the facts as it traces the development of teenage James Vlassakis (Lucas Pittaway in a performance that’s skilled in the art of the slow boil) from a laconic loner to a psychologically conflicted psychopath. His murderous mentor is John Bunting (Daniel Henshall), a Jim Jones-type who assumes the role of father figure while caring for James’s negligent mother. After James and his two younger brothers are molested by a neighbor, and James is raped by his older brother, John gathers a few impressionable cohorts to start killing who he believes to be pedophiles and homosexuals in the neighborhood. Weak-willed and passive, James proves an easy target for indoctrination. As the film lurches on, shot with the handheld aesthetic of stark kitchen-sink realism, the bleakness meter keeps rising, and our stomachs are tested. But director Kurzel, like David Fincher with his “Zodiac” (2007) before him, maintains complete control of the material, turning a gruesome crime flick into a moral meditation, where good and evil are one in the same.

— Ryan Lattanzio

“Kill List” — February 17, 11:45 p.m.

One of the most talked about films on the Internet this year, “Kill List” works as, if nothing else, a curiosity. Directed by Ben Wheatley, this little shocker, which starts as your typical contract killer yarn, bursts from the U.K. and onto our soil like an angry bird out of hell. Draped in moody, Lynchian atmosphere and an unshakeable feeling of dread, “Kill List” stars Neil Maskell as Sam, a seemingly innocuous family man with a haunted past possessing his present. Dinner parties are not without screaming matches with his wife (MyAnna Buring) and plates being thrown, so Sam is easily persuaded to resume his life as a hitman to jettison domestic distress. But his “kill list” comes with some pretty tall orders, like decapitation and ritual sacrifice.

The film is populated by a desultory rabble of characters often hard to understand (literally) but the screenplay by Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jumpy rarely bothers with talky exposition. What matters here are the images, which harvest terror in the banal. A simple stroll through the woods becomes fraught — though when isn’t it, really? Wheatley seems to know this, playing on our basest fears as the film devolves from standard genre exercise into what-the-fuck-did-I-just-see. I won’t prattle on about the ending: See it for yourself. Be prepared to feel appalled and invaded because “Kill List” will rattle your bones. This is really saying something, as the film’s target audience is, like myself, not easily shocked.

— Ryan Lattanzio

“High” — February 19, 7:15 p.m.

There’s not much dialogue in “High,” but the few lines that are spoken are pretty indicative of the rest of the film’s freewheeling vibe. At one point, dashing lead rogue, Tom, says to his girlfriend-in-crime, “You know, Vicky, I think I like you better when you’re not thinking.”
Screened as a tribute to director Larry Kent, “High” came out in 1967, to great controversy when it was banned in Quebec but simultaneously touted by Warren Beatty as a work of fine art. Kent’s vision is evidently art house in parts, with his film dabbling in different color schemes — black and white mostly, with some color here and there, and an occasional switch into full-on saturations of concentrated red — as well as experimentation with photo stills and dizzying pans of the camera.

The plot follows deadbeat Tom and his newly-inducted-into-the-fast-life girl of the moment Vicky, who used to be a librarian before she got picked up and swept away into his world of drugs, petty theft and endless spontaneity. At one point, she exchanges her long, brown hair for a pixie cut, and it’s like the ending of “Grease” all over again. This ending  is surprising, and what happens also makes you realize that this trippy,  mostly pieced-together film has a storyline and a point after all. One gets a sense that Kent has an opinion on the psychedelic lifestyle, and it’s not a particularly positive one after all.

Michelle Ma