Dozens of docs on tap, plus "surprise secret screening" April 12: 'I can tell you nothing... All will be revealed on the evening.'
The 60th edition of the San Francisco International Film Festival gets underway Wednesday (April 5) and for documentary lovers there will be loads to experience.
"One of the goals of SF Film is to celebrate the world's greatest films and filmmakers and documentary film is part of that landscape," Rachel Rosen, the festival's director of programming, told us. "Really there are so many interesting and important nonfiction films in the world and recently so many hybrid and innovative uses of fiction and nonfiction that there would be no reason not to program a really rich selection."
This year's rich selection includes world premieres, a number of documentaries that won acclaim at Sundance and SXSW and a special screening of the classic 1929 silent documentary The Man with a Movie Camera with music composed and performed live by the group DeVotchKa.
"They're composing a score specifically for this event so it's really a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience the film," Rosen told Nonfictionfilm.com.
On Saturday, April 15 SF Film will host the world premiere of the documentary Defender by Jeff Adachi and Jim Choi, which focuses on Adachi's long career as a public defender in San Francisco. The film explores Adachi's representation of Michael Smith, a 22-year-old African-American man who was arrested at a BART station following an incident recorded on police body cameras.
"Adachi employs the images from the cameras to advance the case that Smith’s arrest and the rough treatment he received on the BART platform were racially motivated," SF Film programmers wrote of Defender. "Moreover, he avers in the documentary, his client’s odyssey in the criminal justice system was evidence of black-crime bias in ostensibly liberal SF."
Notwithstanding Defender, Rosen says the festival is not preoccupied with programming only world premieres.
"I would say the premiere issue is not of paramount importance to us overall. Our goal really is to put together the best festival that we can in a way that serves our audience and the general public and the industry," she commented.
The Cinema Travelers, for instance, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May and will screen at SF Film on April 9, 10 and 15. The documentary by Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya won a special award at Cannes recognizing its masterful portrayal of a dying tradition in India -- rickety caravans that bounce around remote parts of the country, showing films the old-fashioned way, with vintage projectors and reels of celluloid.
"Our film talks about traveling cinemas in India which have been there about seven decades now," Madheshiya told Nonfictionfilm.com at Cannes. "The experience of the film is that it will take you back to the very beginning of cinema. It's like being in a time travel." [For the full podcast interview with Abraham and Madheshiya click here].
Madheshiya and Abraham will be on hand for the film's first two screenings, on April 9 and 10. Noah Cowan, executive director of SF Film, told us it's not hard to convince directors to come to the event in person.
"Our location is such a defining force for this festival and provides so much interest to the filmmakers around the world who want to know what's going on here and to have us as shepherds or helpers in that quest for knowledge," Cowan said, adding the festival "really reflects our values here and the filmmakers and directors around the world we feel would enjoy participating in an event around those values."
Fresh from its world premiere at SXSW, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg's documentary Bill Nye: Science Guy will screen at SF Film on April 10 and 18. To further conversation around climate change and the importance of scientific inquiry, Rosen noted the festival has arranged a Q&A to follow the April 10 screening.
"We'll have Bill Nye here who makes a very good case about why facts are relevant," Rosen said. "But we also are having special guests who are people who work on these issues in the real world."
Similarly, the April 13 screening of City of Ghosts -- Matthew Heineman's film about citizen journalists covering deadly violence in the Syrian city of Raqqa -- will feature a Q&A with Heineman and, Rosen said, a special guest: "We'll have the expert on Syria from Human Rights Watch participate in the discussion."
There is one documentary in the festival about which the SF Film team is saying very little -- a "Surprise Secret Screening" to be held on Wednesday, April 12.
When we asked Rosen if she might be willing to shed a bit more light on the event, she demurred, saying, "I can tell you nothing beyond what's online. All will be revealed on the evening."
We do know the film runs 120 minutes and will be shown at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission. As noted in the program online, the festival insists, "Ticket holders agree not to write, talk, or tweet about this highly anticipated film before its official premiere."
Below is a selection of some of the other 30+ documentaries in the festival. For the full list of nonfiction and fiction titles -- plus info on venues, ticketing, times, etc. -- click here.
A selection of nonfiction movies playing at the San Francisco International Film Festival:
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.