SFIFF Spotlight: Documentary Cinema

The best documentaries create empathy without leaving the audience to believe that the problems or issues presented have been 'fixed' by the cathartic act of viewing. PopMatters picks five documentaries that engendered empathy in the very best way at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival.

San Francisco International Film Festival

City: San Francisco
Venue: Various
Dates: 2013-04-25 to 2013-05-09

A very mixed, highly acclaimed group of documentaries were screened at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. Docs about individual struggle and triumph ran alongside big-issue pieces about national and international struggles. Whether they looked at a microcosm or macrocosm of life, most of these stories highlighted larger social issues that lie just underneath our everyday lives. The five documentaries I've chosen to highlight here represent the best, most interesting films about wider social issues from this year's festival.

Sofia's Last Ambulance

Sofia's Last Ambulance is the first feature film by director Ilian Metev, whose quiet passion for his subject is apparent in his hand's-off approach. The documentary is the story of a lone paramedic crew in a rickety ambulance who attempt to handle the emergency medical demands of the entire city of Sofia, Bulgaria. The breakdown of reliable, systemic services on a city-wide level is evident in the haunting frames of this documentary. Metev recorded footage with Doctor Krassimir Yordanov's team over the course of two years to assemble the film. The majority of scenes are shot via three dash cameras in the aging ambulance, fostering a sense of intimacy between the viewers and the emergency medical crew. Sofia's Last Ambulance works for diverse audiences as a story about the scarcity of medical services in much of our world.


The Kill Team

In 2011, five American soldiers who had served in Afghanistan were brought in front of a military tribunal after they were accused of killing Afghani civilians for sport. The group, calling themselves the "Kill Team", sent shockwaves through society and encouraged contemplation about what had gone wrong (and some questions about whether we even still needed to contemplate that). Documentary filmmaker Dan Krauss tells the story of these soldiers, placing emphasis on not only the driving forces behind the killings, but also the government response to the accusations. Much of the documentary focuses on Adam Winfield, who was charged in the murders, but claims he was an innocent bystander and whistleblower. Nothing is clear as this haunting documentary unfolds, making it all the more powerful. Krauss eschews simplistic explanations, allowing the film its own life. The Kill Team won the Golden Gate Award for Best Bay Area Documentary Feature.


God Loves Uganda

Called by some "the pearl of Africa", Uganda recently came to the attention of the international community when lawmakers introduced a bill that would make being gay a criminal offense punishable by death. In order to understand some of the foreign forces driving the legislature in Uganda, director Roger Ross Williams speaks with activists, religious figures, and evangelical missionaries in the country. He presents startling footage of missionaries who say they want to do good in the country but are consistently shown making sinister suggestions to Ugandans about 'expelling' homosexuals from the country. At its heart, the film is a disturbing study of moral authority gone wrong. Through interviews with both locals and missionaries-in-training in the U.S., Williams explores what has happened in Uganda over the past decade without being heavy handed.


A River Changes Course

A quiet film with strong ethnographic sensibilities, A River Changes Course won the Festival's Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature. A refugee who escaped during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror, director Kalyanee Mam takes the audience on a tour of traditional life in rural Cambodian villages. Mam tells the stories of three families who are attempting to eek out a living in an ever-more-difficult world. The farmers and fishermen featured in the film are no longer able to live off the land and water. As some of their children praise the coming of factories, the elders worry that Cambodian culture will be wiped out by garment factories run primarily by Western companies. Viewers will appreciate Mam's eye for well-composed, organic shots that seem to bring out the personalities of her subjects.



Leviathan isn't your typical documentary or even your typical ethnographic film. It's not here to tell us something grandiose about the commercial fishing industry in the American Northeast. It's here to show us that industry. Composed of hypnotic shots that often verge on the mundane, the film asks us to question the veracity of narrated information. No voiceovers tell us what is happening. We see the fishermen at work on and below the decks of the ship in weather that always seems to be stormy and portending doom. Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel shot and edited Leviathan so that it provides an immediate, visceral experience; the deep-seated emotions that come to us as we watch the haunting imagery of industrial fishing is both frightening and so very familiar.


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