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San Francisco International Film Festival: Ten Movies to Put On Your Radar

With the San Francisco International Film Festival kicking off this week, prepare yourself with these ten highlights from the lineup.

While most 60th birthdays involve fond life reflections and jocular talk of early retirement, the San Francisco International Film Festival, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, is as fresh and lively as ever, and shows no signs of slowing down, despite being one of the oldest festivals in the US. Boasting nearly 200 films from across the globe, the festival once again offers one of the best foreign cinema programs in the country, along with lauded domestic features and three dozen documentaries.

With SFIFF kicking off this week, we take a look at ten films to put on your radar or, if you’re in the Bay Area, see for yourself in one of the festival’s beautiful venues. The festival runs 5th-19th April. Stay tuned to PopMatters for reviews, interviews and more coming out of the festival in the coming weeks.




Director: Chico Pereira

At the center of the delightfully funny Donkeyote is one of the most fascinating documentary subjects in recent memory. Manolo, a 78-year-old Spanish man with a proclivity for lengthy treks and sleeping under the stars, has a dream of going on one last pilgrimage to cap off his long life of adventure. His eyes are set on the Trail of Tears, the 2,200-mile path across America of the 19th century Cherokee forced march.

To prepare for the gargantuan journey he, his donkey, Garrión, and his dog, Zafrana, trace the picturesque trails of Andalusia. The staggeringly beautiful cinematography is in perfect synchronicity with the poeticism of Manolo’s endeavor, and there’s a grand sense of serenity and purpose driving the film that only intensifies as this remarkable real-life parable unfolds.


Bill Nye: Science Guy

Bill Nye: Science Guy

Directors: David Alvaradom, Jason Sussberg

Treasured by millions as one of the most inspirational figures in science entertainment and education for over two decades, Bill Nye now finds himself the subject of the revealing documentary Bill Nye: Science Guy. His widely beloved television show of the same name had a four-year run in the mid-'90s and had a lasting cultural impact, replaying in syndication, in classrooms, and on YouTube in subsequent years.

The show’s cancellation, however, left Nye to find a new avenue for spreading his “Science Rules!” mantra, ultimately committing his career to debating creationists and climate-change deniers, giving lectures across the country, and acting as CEO of The Planetary Society. Filmmakers David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg follow Nye’s adventures as a science advocate and give an intimate glimpse into the mind of a science education icon, beyond the bow-tie.


The Cage Fighter

The Cage Fighter

Director: Jeff Unay

Following Joe Carman, a middle-aged man who sneaks away from his family at night to step into a cage and fight much younger men in bloody mixed martial arts competitions, The Cage Fighter is a documentary that, despite its sub-culture context, resonates with staggering universality. Joe’s wife and children fight through tears, begging him to give up the punishing sport, but he can’t help but answer his calling in the cage.

A classic underdog story punctuated with some terrifying, poignant moments of triumph, defeat, and compassion, filmmaker Jeff Unay’s uncommonly cinematic documentary is a can’t-miss highlight of the festival.




Director: Navid Danesh

A musician seeks out an ex-lover to address the loose ends left dangling from their rough breakup in Duet, the feature debut of Iranian filmmaker Navid Danesh. The estranged exes’ intense encounter is so disruptive that the negative energy spreads to their current spouses, sparking subsequent, emotionally draining hashing-outs. The quartet of characters each reckon with the past in their own way, and Danesh builds the story with care, piece by piece, until the drama grows to operatic proportions.


World Without End

World Without End: No Reported Incidents

Director: Jem Cohen

Perhaps the most transportive film of the entire festival is World Without End: No Reported Incidents, a city portrait by the incomparable Jem Cohen (Museum Hours). In less than an hour, he reveals the heart and soul of Southend-on-Sea, a tiny town on the Thames estuary, just outside of London. The film is a tapestry of lingering, unadorned views of the area, shots of empty streets, street-lit storefronts, and lonely beaches. Denizens are interviewed seemingly on the fly, giving a sense of what the community is like rather than what it is.

The intimacy and sensuality of Cohen’s style make what would be in another filmmaker’s hands a solely touristic film an enveloping, slightly eerie peek into a cloudy, quiet corner of the world.


Maliglutit (Searchers)

Maliglutit (Searchers)

Directors: Zacharias Kunuk, Natar Ungalaaq

John Ford’s The Searchers gets a left-field, loose reimagining with Maliglutit (Searchers), which transplants the classic Western tale into the Inuit tradition and milieu. Director Zacharias Kunuk assembles an all-Inuit cast that speaks exclusively in Inuktitut, refurbishing the bones of the original story with new themes and ideas. Here, the kidnappers and the kidnapped mother and daughter belong to the same tribe, eschewing the original’s racial overtones for a distilled good-guy-bad-guy story of justice and revenge.

Kunuk wields long takes expertly, using them to let the characters’ fear, doubt, anger, and love resonate louder and longer than most filmmakers would feel comfortable. A sensibility Canadian director shares with Ford is a reverence for nature and landscape; the environments are uninviting and yet almost spiritually beautiful, the punishing Arctic conditions playing a key role in the search party’s expedition.


Heal the Living (Réparer les vivants)

Heal the Living (éparer les vivants)

Director: Katell Quillévéré

A mother and father grieve as their son is barely buoyed by life support; a woman with an acute heart condition is running out of time. Heal the Living, the lyrical, moving drama by French director Katell Quillévéré, follows these two ailing patients, their families, and the hospital staff who connect their lives in a most miraculous way.

Focusing on the ethical and emotional complications involved in the practice of organ donation, the film boasts stunning performances from front to back and churning, hypnotic cinematography that lends it more striking visual style than your typical hospital drama. The multiple storylines are elegantly woven together to spotlight the struggles and virtues of organ donation and the intrepid parties involved.


The Paris Opera (L'Opèra)

The Paris Opera (L'Opèra)

Director: Jean-Stéphane Bron

Renowned as one of the world’s preeminent ballet companies, the Paris Opera Ballet puts on some of the most elaborate, immaculate, dazzling ballet performances anywhere. Swiss director Jean-Stéphane Bron gives us a behind-the-curtain view at the birthplace of classical ballet in the riveting The Paris Opera. The documentary chronicles the tireless work of the women and men working day and night to make each performance as close to perfect as possible. Over one season, we see the various challenges and controversies -- from financial and labor disputes to figuring out how to get a live bull onstage -- that the various artists, designers, and managers tackle to make each show possible.

Bron juggles the myriad storylines well, whipping them into a fascinating portrait of backstage ballet drama.


Score: A Film Music Documentary

Score: A Film Music Documentary

Director: Matt Schrader

One aspect of cinema that too often gets taken for granted is the score, the invisible scene-enhancer that so often manipulates our feelings and makes a movie soar without us even noticing. In Score: A Film Music Documentary, director Matt Schrader provides a comprehensive, mesmerizing examination of the art and craft, picking the brains of some of the most gifted composers of the past and present, with over three dozen composers sharing their ideas, inspirations, and artistic processes.

From the Mad Max: Fury Road flamethrower guitars to the child toys used in the theme to the ‘90s classic Rugrats, the film covers all aspects of the art form, from every angle a movie-music buff could want.


The Human Surge (El auge del humano)

The Human Surge (El auge del humano)

Director: Eduardo Williams

Argentinian filmmaker Eduardo Williams makes his feature debut with the slippery, strange The Human Surge. The three-pronged story follows three young men, each living in a different country: Argentina, the Philippines, and Mozambique.

Without spoiling much, Williams uses a fascinating, mysterious cinematic device to connect the three protagonists’ stories and emphasize their common, magnetic attraction to smartphones and the internet. The inky, shadowy cinematography and elusive narrative may not be for everyone, but Williams’ wild trip will delight those looking for a wholly unique festival experience.

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