20th annual San Francisco Documentary Festival dusts off facts

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At the 2021 San Francisco Documentary Festival, or SF DocFest, fact remains stranger than fiction. Films such as“Who is Lun*na Menoh” explore the ethics of the “narcissistic and masturbatory” meta-documentary with considerable, frustrating deception. Fact isn’t just strange, however. It’s ordinary, as in “Lost and Found in Paris,” which catalogues the Paris Lost and Found Office’s banality and archive-like surprises; or in “Victoria,” which turns a poetic eye on the outline of California City, the desert mega-city that never filled. 

Getting to the point: A few duds are scattered in the lineup, but most of these films have something more interesting to say about their world than half of the year’s narratives. Read about a few of our favorites below.

“Joychild” 

One of the best entries in the lineup is a petite, six-minute lollipop. “Joychild,” from director Aurora Brachman, juxtaposes a child’s narration of the moment they came out to their mother with everyday scenes. It’s shot in gorgeous and delicate black and white and filled with wisdom few other seven-year-olds are burdened with. 

The narration is spare, set over timeless and quintessentially childish scenes. As the child comments, “If you still have that heavy weight of caring about (what people think) too much, then it’ll stop you from being who you are,” Brachman nails the simple individuality of identity and the winding path that leads there. Half the point of “Joychild” is giving this child space, but there’s so much they could expound on. A few more minutes couldn’t have hurt.

“Taming the Garden”

A tree is a community for its ecosystem and for humans. Memories are made under trees, and for the people on the Georgian coastline, those memories are being taken away. The documentary “Taming the Garden” lingers on nature’s tranquility — and the powerful man uprooting its majesty. Worth watching if only for its ability to turn canopies into jolting images, director Salomé Jashi’s feature engrosses itself with the bizarre and absurd prospect of a man digging up trees, then sailing them across the sea to his private garden. 

The environmental film genre has been having a moment. Where many of the films, such as “The Dry,” dote on the diffuse causes of climate change, “Taming the Garden” hones in on the actions of one person. A garden of transplanted trees is a graveyard of towns’ prides, voyeuristically killed and assembled by a single person. “Taming the Garden” meditates on the pull between one man — humans, more broadly — and nature with beautiful conceptions of space, arresting long shots and an artful plea on behalf of the less-advantaged, including the trees. 

“Guinea Pig Diaries”

It’s been a fruitful year for animal documentaries. February brought us “Stray,” “Gunda” in April and next month a bovine documentary (“Cow,” fittingly) will premiere at Cannes. Until Andrea Arnold’s “passion project” drops, “Guinea Pig Diaries” will tide this reviewer over. Not at all as experimental as its contemporaries — and lacking because of that — “Guinea Pig Diaries” has the vibe of someone who watched “Fleabag” and plunged down a guinea pig-obsessed rabbit hole. 

The film is mildly comic in its exploration of everything guinea pigs — “We have a bit of news: Cameron Diaz (the name of one of the guinea pigs) is pregnant,” one owner reports — but leans hard into its informational side. The film tends to lose balance as it dives into guinea pig rescuers and competitions (it’s a big deal when a guinea pig earns a wow from the judges). The moments of individuality shine, but they’re often subsumed by seas of guinea pigs and talking heads that border on ubiquity. Still, the film treats its human subjects as they do their guinea pigs: persons to portray with respect, ensuring the right impression. 

Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].