Preview: San Francisco International Film Festival

April 22, 2011, 12:48 a.m.

Preview: San Francisco International Film Festival
A scene from Jean-Loup Felicioli and Alain Gagnol's A CAT IN PARIS playing at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival, April 21 - May 5, 2011. (Courtesy of The SF Film Society)

The 54th San Francisco International Film Festival runs from April 21 to May 5, featuring a series of master classes, salon discussions and Q&A sessions with filmmakers, in addition to a hefty 189 films from over 40 countries. Not sure what to check out? I recently had the pleasure of attending its inaugural press conference, where Executive Director Graham Leggat, Director of Programming Rachel Rosen, Golden Gate Awards Manager Audrey Chang and programmers Sean Uyehara and Rod Armstrong talked festival highlights, programs and their top picks.

The New Directors division, showcasing works from first- and second-time directors, offers strong female representation with 12 out of 28 features directed by women. (This may seem low until one considers the fact that only two out of this year’s 10 nominees for Best Picture at the Academy Awards were directed by women, and neither of them received nods for Best Director.) The buzz this year centers around “Sound of Noise” from self-proclaimed “sound-and-image anarchists” Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, Jo Sung-hee’s pregnant teen drama ,”End of Animal,” from South Korea and Michelangelo Frammartino’s ode to rustic Italy, “Le Quattro Volte.” Additionally, Ahmad Abdalla’s “Microphone” and Maryam Keshavarz’s “Circumstance” provide snapshots of individuals struggling for self-expression in the contemporary Middle East. All but one of the directors in competition for the New Directors Prize will attend the festival and provide post-screening Q&A sessions.

The roster for World Cinema features more recognizable names, ranging from restored prints of Frederico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita” and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “World on a Wire” to Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, the Oregon Trail story “Meek’s Cutoff,” featuring Academy Award-nominee Michelle Williams.

With 12 features and 48 shorts in competition for the Golden Gate Awards, this year’s selection of documentaries is an eclectic mix of old and new with a prevalent emphasis on places. Look out for the international debut of “The Tiniest Place,” which chronicles the rebuilding of a Salvadorean village in the aftermath of civil war, and “Cinema Komunisto,” an exposé of the Yugoslavian film industry. Within our own borders, “Detroit Wild City” and “Foreign Parts,” the latter set in Queens, explore cultural rebirth and urban renewal in the face of industrial heritage.

This year’s World Cinema Spotlight, supported by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to highlight trends in international filmmaking, features Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” a rare glimpse into the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc caverns and the world’s oldest prehistoric art; Amit Dutta’s “Nainsukh,” a tribute to the 18th-century Indian painter; and Lech Majewski’s “The Mill and the Cross,” which brings to life Pieter Bruegel’s “The Way to Calvary.” (Incidentally, the latter is one of Leggat’s picks for festival favorite.) Dubbed “Painting with Light,” this program explores film representations of two-dimensional art and the power of cinema to provide depth and tease out historical context.

The Late Show, an exhibition of “extreme” cinema, features “The Selling,” an unusual tale of the real-estate crisis with the paranormal thrown into the mix, in its world premiere by local filmmaker Emily Lou. Or, for fans of “Jurassic Park,” consider Norway’s “The Troll Hunter” (directed by Andrew Ovredal).

For films highlighting gay and lesbian identity, Leggat recommended Mike Mills’ “Beginners,” which is playing on the festival’s opening night, the aforementioned “Circumstance” and Marie Losier’s “The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye.” If you’re looking to satisfy your inner human rights activist or environmentalist, check out Alrick Brown’s “Kinyarwanda,” which tackles the Rwanda genocide from both Hutu and Tutsi perspectives; Oliver Schmitz’s South African coming-of-age story, “Life, Above All”; and Risteard Ó Domhnaill’s documentary “The Pipe,” about an Irish community’s struggle against the construction of a natural-gas pipeline. And for a unique look at the filmmakers of tomorrow, “Youth Media Mash-Up” features shorts (narrative, documentary and animated) by artists between ages 14 and 18. On that note, if you’re looking to bring your own youngsters along, the animated feature “A Cat in Paris” is sure to please audiences of all ages.

The Live & Onstage segment consists of four programs ranging from a tribute to musician and writer Leonard Cohen, “New Skin for the Old Ceremony,” to a presentation of selected works from short film auteurs, the Zellner brothers, in “From A to Zellner.” For insights into the film industry, “Porchlight” is a nonfiction storytelling series with guests including filmmaker John Herschend, and Christine Vachon, acclaimed producer of “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and HBO’s “Mildred Pierce,” will provide the “State of Cinema” address. For those looking to get more involved, topics for this year’s master classes include film criticism (with French critic Jean-Michel Frodon), the producer/director collaboration (with Alison Dickey and Azazel Jacobs) and screenwriting (with Frank Pierson). And if you’re feeling passionate about either French cinema or social justice documentary, be sure to register for the newly implemented salon discussions.

So there you have it, a snapshot of this year’s SFIFF, but of course, there are plenty of wonderful films and events that didn’t find their way into my mini-guide. Visit for the complete lineup as well as ticket and venue information.

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