Monday, April 9, 2018

SFIFF 61: Weekend One


I went in hoping for an ethnographic documentary in the tradition of past festival favorite The Iron Ministry. But the intimacy of this film, with its singular attention to one man (Kabwita Kasongo, a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo) and one activity (manufacturing a load of charcoal and taking it to market 50km on his bicycle), gives the movie a conflicted identity. It seems to aim for a fully observational mood, with no interviews or recognition of the camera by the people onscreen. Yet being so close to the subject throughout an arduous journey makes it hard for the audience not to wonder why the director (a white Frenchman, unseen but keenly felt due to constant fluid camera movement) doesn't offer Kabwita a helping hand. I found the end result uncomfortable to watch, even if the film itself is compelling and well-crafted.

Some online research suggests that this may be a "hybrid" film, with the protagonist playing a fictionalized version of himself, and if that were so, it would make me feel better. I appreciate a "show, don't tell" style, but this is one place where just a little bit of context would have improved the experience greatly.

Claire's Camera

I still can't grok Hong Sang-soo.

Winter Brothers

The biggest disappointment of the festival so far, this did offer great visuals and atmosphere, as promised. But the story, about a miner whose moonshine starts to make his coworkers sick and who pines after his brother's sister, did not develop coherently. And the characters offered the audience nothing to hold on to.


A universal tale, out of Brazil, of the way children eagerly leave home, and how parents (especially mothers) cope. Fernando, a high school handball star, gets an offer to join a professional team in Germany; he has to leave in three weeks. Meanwhile, his mother Irene is about to finally get her high school diploma. What stands out most from this piece is the palpable sense of family-ness, especially between the four brothers (two young twins, an awkward 12-year-old, and Fernando) and between Fernando and his mother. On paper, this would be all-too-heartwarming for me, but the end result, with such a specific sense of place (a crumbling house, next door to a house yet-to-be-built) and feeling, won me over.

Composed entirely of shots of stars, compiled from hundreds of films, this exceeded my already-high expectations. Like any compilation, one of the joys is identifying familiar scenes. Sometimes this is straightforward enough, but the similarity of the shots, and the refusal to show anything other than stars, makes it amusingly maddening at times. But as fun as it is, what really struck me was how this is actually a history of cinema: the clips are arranged in chronological order, beginning at the dawn of the medium and going straight through to the present. You can see tropes emerge and develop over the time, sometimes for technological reasons and sometimes just for storytelling purposes. As soon as it ended, I wanted to watch it again, but so far it seems to be a festival-only phenomenon, but I intend to closely follow the movie's website to find out when it'll be nearby. I recommend you do the same.

Bonus content
Guy Maddin: State of Cinema Address

Always something of a wildcard, this annual festival tradition fell to Guy Maddin this year (the programmer introducing Maddin jokingly noted that it was just an excuse to bring Maddin to San Francisco, since he doesn't have a new film this year). Clearly uncomfortable with the responsibility of talking about something as momentous as the "State of Cinema", Maddin nonetheless mostly succeeded in giving a fascinating lecture on the psychological vulnerability and openness inherent in authorship, and how that ties into the history and present of cinema, from Finnish melodrama to Ed Wood to Tarnation, and on into the YouTube era.

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