San Francisco Independent Film Festival, or SF IndieFest, one of the Bay Area’s leading celebrations of off-kilter, underground cinema, returns this month for its 25th anniversary. The festival kicks off Feb. 2 and will screen films in person at the Roxie Theater and online until Feb 12.
Predictably unpredictable, the festival’s 95-film lineup comprises names big, small and overall niche. Some filmmakers include Bruce LaBruce, a staple of the 21st century’s queer arthouse; Moby, presenting his biographical documentary “Moby Doc”; and Charles Lyons, whose “Rough Edges” is the opening night narrative feature.
SF IndieFest has earned a reputation for its adventurous spirit — a penchant to screen films that would, in all likelihood, never end up on its audience’s radar. These films frequently tend to shock: LaBruce’s name crops up here, though there’s more than the outré in the lineup. Mirissa Neff’s “This Is National Wake” promises an astonishing archival effort, stitching together the story of a multiracial band that defied apartheid in 1970s South Africa. It’s a lineup that asks to be explored with as few preconceptions as possible.
This year, deputy arts editor Dominic Marziali and arts reporters Maida Suta, Emma Murphree and Piper Samuels covered the festival online and in person. Here’s what they watched.
Iranian director Faezeh Azizkhani’s “The Locust” is a fascinating, aching meditation on the life of a female creative in Iran haunted by both her past and her present. Hanieh (Hanieh Tavassoli) is a woman in her early 40s trying desperately to pursue a career as a scriptwriter and maintain her creative ideas in the face of relentless scrutiny. While her current script is sold off, she finds herself enduring increasing criticism from her colleagues, who find the main character — a stand-in for Azizkhani herself, with the script a rendering of her life story — unsympathetic due to seemingly disgraceful decisions regarding her own autonomy.
The film blurs the line between fiction and reality, as the viewer is challenged to distinguish between when the dialogue is rehearsed from Hanieh’s fictional script and when the actual characters are actively talking and engaging with each other. These dialogue-heavy exchanges, combined with claustrophobic shots, place the viewer in an environment equally as suffocating as Hanieh’s own workspace, where she is constantly challenged about her art. As the film progresses, the audience also begins to understand Hanieh’s troubled familial relationships, as she struggles to interact with both her siblings and her opinionated mother.
“The Locust” is not only for those who know the pain of pursuing their career aspirations while attempting to retain their artistic integrity. The insightful film is also for those who wish to meditate on the position of women in film — an industry where, although space is being carved out, women continue to face multitudes of obstacles.
— Maida Suta
“The Affairs of Lidia”
If there was a companion film to Renaissance’s “Alien Superstar,” it might bear a slight resemblance to “The Affairs of Lidia,” Bruce LaBruce’s latest, unsparingly erotic comedy. Lidia (Skye Blue) is a “mastermind in haute couture.” There are no “label whores” to clock her, because who needs them? She’s obscure and cunning, endlessly passive aggressive and sensually fashionable.
The poster is something of a giveaway as to how the film ends: Five friends, altogether not much more linked than by a man they’ve hooked up with, end up in bed together. The story of how they get there is delightful, though it’d be good to know it involves copious amounts of sex. (The softcore cut was invited to screen at the festival; the hardcore cut is rumored to give much more to the gays.) The sex usually has something to do with a fashion photographer named Sandro (Drew Dixon), whom boxer Michelangelo (Markus Kage) has been cheating on Lidia with.
Lidia, like any good porn character blessed by intuition and serendipity, plays the sleuth in this raunch about lies and fashion. She works to intricate herself into others’ affairs, befriending Sandro and his husband Pietro (Sean Ford), who runs a small couture boutique. The film samples from reality television, the soap opera and John Waters against a backdrop of gossip, high fashion and sex. It’s not LaBruce’s most sophisticated work, but it knows what it’s going for.
— Dominic Marziali
“Son-Mother,” a heart-wrenching, two-act film, examines the life of widowed mother Leila (Raha Khodayari), whose circumstances force her into a dilemma that threatens to tear her family apart. Working at a failing factory, Leila lives on minimum wage as she attempts, and often fails, to provide for her infant and 12-year-old son Amir (Mahan Nasiri). After the company bus driver, Kazem (Reza Behbudi), asks for her hand in marriage with the stipulation that Amir must be sent away for the foreseeable future, Leila must decide between the independence of her family or the security she desperately needs.
Deeply poignant, “Son-Mother” explores the life of an Iranian woman who is judged by society for circumstances entirely out of her control. The audience accompanies Leila on her journey as she struggles to make ends meet despite incessant scrutiny, propelled forward only by intense devotion to her children. In the second half of the film, the viewer also becomes privy to the life of an ostracized Amir, who must grapple with the consequences of his mother’s actions, an experience that amounts to nothing short of a tragedy.
Mahnaz Mohammadi’s “Son-Mother” is not meant to excite, but it is a somber and realistic film that comes at a time where the world must meditate on the tragedies and resounding consequences that befall women in Iran.
— Maida Suta
There’s no question as to why feminists loved Sophie Galibert’s directorial debut at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. Following Cherry (Alex Trewhitt), an aimless 25-year-old in Los Angeles who recently discovered that she is 11 weeks pregnant, the aptly named “Cherry” paints an honest portrait of life with a uterus. With only 24 hours until she is no longer eligible for an abortion by pill, Cherry must decide whether or not to keep the baby.
Despite the lofty decision ahead of her, Cherry is childish. She spends all her time managing a precarious relationship with her boyfriend Nick (Dan Schultz), a weed dealer and unsuccessful musician. She can’t seem to nail down a steady job — not even as the balloon artist for a local mom-and-pop costume shop. And worst of all, Cherry doesn’t have health insurance because she missed the deadline to file for Obama Care.
The upside of Cherry’s naivety is her free spirit. With great innocence comes great joy — the wide-eyed Angeleno is notorious for her stellar roller skating skills, and even has a potential European skating tour around the corner. As the walls close in on this frazzled female protagonist, she must ponder her relationships with ideas such as childhood, adulthood, family and independence in order to settle her maternal fate.
A collection of handheld shots around North East Los Angeles, the cinematography of “Cherry” comprises a flimsy yet earnest representation of LA — a fitting stylistic choice for the main character’s whimsy. But through all the film’s images of freeways and flower crowns, Galibert reminds her audience that difficult reproductive decisions are normal, nuanced and most importantly, human.
— Piper Samuels
There isn’t really a playbook for how to navigate relationships that originate with kink: an absence that afflicts Robert (Timothy Huls) and Kate (Phoebe Jones), the central Bay Area millennials “Rough Edges” follows. Robert and Kate meet at a sex party in San Francisco with a peculiar dearth of sex.
During the film’s opening sequences, one gets the impression that the cinematographer must have been told to shoot a commercial rather than an indie film (but with the budget of the latter). After avoiding actually having sex or frankly engaging in anything particularly sadomasochistic, which is ostensibly the purpose of attending the event, Robert and Kate go home together, and audiences glimpse the headwaters of the garden-variety modern love story that will unspool.
A lopsided willingness to be truly vulnerable or intimate is the nail in the coffin of Robert and Kate’s relationship. This fact is evident to viewers from the very beginning, but it is tediously stretched out until it fills the length of a feature film. The particulars of what kneecaps their ability for intimacy are never elucidated, only vaguely alluded to. Perhaps, this allows for a “choose your own adventure” reading of their doomed romance.
The most compelling facet of “Warm Blood,” the narrative feature debut of director Rick Charnoski, is its style. Shot on grainy 16mm, the camera agitates the stoic rows of Central Valley almond trees and unassuming gas stations as it follows Red (Hayley Isaacson), a teenage girl from Modesto.
Red is physically and figuratively on the run: hopping in and out of strangers’ cars and flitting between seedy hangouts in an attempt to flee a tumultuous home life and her crumbling sense of self. But Red is only hazily the film’s focus. Charnoski is easily distractible — fashioning a patchwork of vintage cable news clips, moody Lana Del Rey-esque voiceover and commercials. Ultimately, the whole affair is very “the center will not hold,” shaping a California and America in a state of spiritual confusion.
Such distractions keep the film fresh and on its toes, but would better serve the creative vision if they were supplemented with even a crumb of plot. Kindred filmmakers like Sean Baker and Harmony Korine are able to attain the American grit and dread Charnoski is so invested in while still producing work that endures rather than evaporates.
Still, “Warm Blood” is a good first film, and the kind of film that is exciting to see on the festival circuit.