Nestled within the city’s bustling Mission District between Valencia and Guerrero streets, the Roxie Theater is unlike any other film venue in San Francisco. As the oldest continuously operating movie theater in the United States, the Roxie stands as a historic landmark; as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization aiming to unite individuals of diverse backgrounds through film, the venue serves as a cultural gathering space. And as the primary host of the annual San Francisco Frozen Film Festival, or SFFFF, the Roxie demonstrates its commitment to the founding tenets of SFFFF — supporting independent and young filmmakers, especially those from underserved communities, in uniting and presenting their work to as large of an audience as possible.
Conceived in 2006 and named for San Francisco’s notoriously chilly summers, SFFFF defines itself as “an independent grassroots movement.” Each summer for the past eight years, SFFFF has brought filmmakers behind selected shorts to the Bay to screen and discuss their work. This year’s lineup, which screened July 18-22 at the Roxie and at PianoFight, featured shorts from more than 80 directors, grouped into topical screenings.
Especially notable for the purposes of The Daily Californian, a publication committed primarily to local coverage, were SFFFF’s Bay Area-themed selections, the “Bay Area Local Short Film Collection of 2018.” Composed of 12 shorts and split into two segments, the collection featured the work of directors with a range of levels of experience — some still in college or even high school, and some with multiple IMDb mentions. The films themselves also differed greatly from one another, in terms of subject matter as well as quality — some successfully brought narratives to the screen in unique and intriguing fashions, while others presented promising concepts but stumbled in terms of execution. Some fell flat altogether.
Jan Haley-Soule’s “Smoakland,” which follows the short stint of a middle-aged woman (Haley-Soule herself) as a driver for a marijuana delivery app, landed among the least potent of the films. After a nightmare convinces her she has fallen deep into the life of a criminal drug dealer, the woman decides to delete the app and apply for a job at Starbucks. Unfortunately, with flat, awkward acting from Haley-Soule and Ryan Soule, her son both in the film and in reality, “Smoakland” more stumbles than glides through the plot. In fact, at points, the film reads as downright problematic in its portrayal of the Bay Area. When Haley makes a stop in Oakland during a drug delivery, the dealer accompanying her (Solomon Johnson) scoffs and tells her to keep driving: “Homeless people don’t use my app. Get your ass to Piedmont,” he demands in a line that casts broad generalizations about East Bay cities.
Many films in the category presented intriguing setups but struggled in terms of execution. These included Mohamed Kheidr’s “Cabled,” the tale of a San Francisco cable car conductor of 30 years, Johnny Jackson (Edward Williams), on the day before his retirement. Looking into the personal life of a worker essential to this popular San Francisco tourist attraction held potential as an oft-overlooked narrative. But awkward scene cuts and an overly convoluted plot (for instance, Kheidr reveals Jackson’s deafness only at the very end of the film) distract from this potentially potent investigation.
A few films did manage to present thought-provoking storylines in a succinct manner carried by competent actors. Craig Smith’s “Emergency Exit” ranked as one of them. A meditation upon the many individuals one witnesses but often ignores on public transportation, “Emergency Exit” delves into the experience of one such observer (Austin Bath). Upon falling asleep on a San Francisco Muni train, Smith opens his eyes to find himself still on a tour bus-style open-top vehicle, surrounded by the same oblivious fellow passengers as before his nap. As those around him distract themselves with their own diversions — reading, cutting coupons, writing in journals — the man gazes in wonder at the city and people around him. “(On Muni) there’s kind of an urge to connect with people, and sometimes you never do,” Smith explained after the screening. The film is an enchanting consideration of what we miss when absorbed in our own little worlds, an exploration of the feeling of watching the world alone even while technically surrounded by people.
Ultimately, the directors involved in the Bay Area-themed segment of SFFFF floundered at times to coherently and effectively communicate their films’ messages. At the same time, some films in the collection excelled in their field, shedding light on a variety of Bay Area experiences. Most of all, the showing spoke to the commitment of the Roxie and SFFFF to showcase the work of a broad range of artists, giving dozens of filmmakers a well-deserved chance to exhibit their work.