Photo by John Han
Sentinel Photographer

By PJ Johnston
Sentinel Film Critic
Copyright © 2007 San Francisco Sentinel

The wonderful thing about the San Francisco International Film Festival is that it really is an international film festival. While it has always had solid representation from the homegrown independent film community that desperately needs the venue film festivals provide – along with a dash of Hollywood – SFIFF has consistently catered to San Francisco’s vision of itself as a fundamentally cosmopolitan city.


And that’s a good thing. Because many of its brethren and offspring – it has no progenitor in America, being the U.S.’s oldest film festival – have jumped on the Sundance bandwagon in recent years. That bandwagon, fine in itself, is one that emphasizes the gritty quasi-comedy, the emotionally gripping “outsider’s” tale, in the vein of “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Half Nelson,” to name popular recent examples. As good as it is to help these often great and traditionally challenged films find an audience, the enormous financial success Sundance has had, and spawned, has led to two troubling trends: 1) other U.S. film festivals try to copy the model and overemphasize small narrative “quirky films” over other audience-starved fare, such as documentaries or non-narrative experimental films; 2) the movie theaters themselves, in American cities that actually showcase more than Hollywood blockbusters, have gradually favored the offbeat indie film over international cinema – the kinds of movies from around the world that flourished here and elsewhere throughout the late 50s, the 60s and 70s.

When we look back on those years, we tend to think of them as a golden era of the world cinema – the Bergmans, the Fellinis, the Truffauts, the Kurosawas … ah, the memories! But don’t be fooled: the world hasn’t packed it in and gone away. In fact, the international cinema has consistently thrived and expanded and explored exciting new territory, almost in inverse proportion to the self-aggrandizing rehashing Hollywood has offered (sequels, remakes, comic book characters, ’60s TV shows, etc.). But it was only golden because urbane Americans were going to the art house cinemas and spending their gold there.

But those art houses in San Francisco, New York, Chicago and, I don’t know, Marfa, Tex., are now supplanting the foreign films with quirky little guys out of Sundance, like “American Splendor” or “Hustle & Flow.”

How many of the Best Foreign Film nominees of the past five years played at your neighborhood theater? Where are you going to see this year’s “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” “I Am Curious: Yellow,” “Pather Panchali,” “Empire of the Senses” or “Tin Drum”?

Film festivals are where you have a chance to see these types of cutting edge international movies. Well, the San Francisco International Film Festival anyway. (And you can actually see Satyajit Ray’s masterpiece “Pather Panchali,” winner of SFIFF’s first Golden Gate Awards in 1957, this Sunday at SFMOMA.)

Through changes in leadership, changes in cinema and changes in its namesake city, the SFIFF has nevertheless maintained its commitment to world film, and that continues today. The festival opened its 50th anniversary festival last night at the Castro … with a screening of a new Italian epic, “Golden Door.”


Of course, international fare isn’t the only stuff on the menu. You got your film shorts, your documentaries, your indies, your tributes – to Spike Lee, Robin Williams, George Lucas and Peter Morgan, this year – your opening and closing night parties, your midnight shows, your awards ceremonies and your hip and hipper parties. Whew! Where to begin …

Roger Ebert wrote an essay 15 years ago called “How to Attend a Film Festival,” which one hoped could help the casual movie buff navigate the overwhelming labyrinth that most film festivals present. I love Ebert, but unfortunately his essay was little more than a listing of prominent festivals, a reminder that the vast majority are open to the public and an enthusiastic suggestion that you make a vacation out of attending a film festival. Cool, but … um, how do I deal with this madness? The San Francisco International Film Festival offers more than 100 films across 10 venues over two weeks!

(Incidentally, this may not have been the best subject for Ebert. I once sat behind him at a Sundance screening of “Amandla!: Revolution in Four-Part Harmony,” a spectacular film you should run out and buy on DVD this very moment … and about half-way through I noticed Ebert was snoring. Then, during Q&A after the screening, he fired a bunch of questions at the filmmakers as if no one had noticed his little siesta. They had.)

Well, there is no perfect way to attend a film festival, but I can give you a veteran’s perspective. In addition to attending SFIFF for many years, I’ve often been to Sundance, Mill Valley and Santa Barbara – which is awesome, and not just because my brother is a bigwig at the festival. I’ve also been to Cannes, which is hands-down the best overall experience, but also the most ridiculously expensive and nearly impossible to get into. Still, you haven’t lived till you’ve walked up those carpeted steps in black tie, sat through a three-hour Hungarian epic and three more hours of impolite audience questions en francais, then swilled cosmos on a yacht with Ivana Trump and her well-oiled mimbos…

But I digress.

In my mind, there are three ways to approach a film festival:

Shoot the moon: Go nuts and try to see everything. You can only do this if you’re not gainfully employed and don’t require much sunlight, but some of us can actually sit through four movies a day, day after day, for the entire run of the festival. You can’t see 100 movies, but you can see a goddamn lot of them, and nothing gives you a better taste of the full width and breadth of the cinema today. Or the taste of popcorn, which will last in your mouth for about four months after the festival.

I actually did this one year at the SFIFF. I spent more hours in the Kabuki Theater than Tom Hanks spent in that terminal in the terminally awful Steven Spielberg movie, “The” – ahem – “Terminal.” My seat cushion became a perfect cast of my ass.

Anyway, this option is for the hardcore filmgoer, so I don’t expect many of you to pull it off. You gotta have balls of jujifruit.

Go with a theme: One year at Sundance, I only went to see documentaries. It was cool, because I love documentaries, and there are so many variations on the genre, things you never see on PBS, that it never got boring. And I try to see documentaries because many of them will never make it to video – just as I try to see foreign films because many of them will never make it back to our shores in any format.

So pick up an SFIFF catalog, pick a genre – say, French movies, or period pieces, or films made by Californians – and schedule yourself to see as many of these as you can.

Fly blind: This is my preferred method, and not only because it’s the easiest. If you really love movies, you’re willing to see just about anything. Just show up at the theater of your choice and go see whatever. Sure, you might catch a stinker here and there; but the sweet thing about film festivals is that the selection committees are made up of people who actually love movies, and they usually do a pretty damn good job. And unlike your typical cineplex, which is driven simply by cash, butts in seats, the film fest juries actually try to challenge audiences. You might be surprised or shocked or unnerved by the unusual film you’re seeing, but you’re not likely to be bored.

I’ve seen countless great movies this way, mostly at the San Francisco International Film Festival.


dir. John Carney, Ireland, 88 min.
Saturday, 7:15 p.m., Kabuki (also May 6, Clay)


Glenn Hansard, lead singer of the Frames, gives a scruffy-sweet and thoroughly authentic performance as a struggling singer-songwriter trying to lift his stuff from the streets of Dublin to the big time – or even the medium time. But the real gem here is Markéta Irglová as a quirky Czech immigrant girl who breathes life back into our mopey hero. “Once” compresses the traditional arc of the aspiring musician story into a few working-world weeks and nicely avoids most of the archetype’s clichés, all the while building genuine emotion into the film. A lovely not-quite-a-love story that nails real-life relationships as squarely as the landscapes of Dublin’s working-class neighborhoods, Stephen’s Green shopping zone and Temple Bar nightlife.

PJ Johnston is president of the San Francisco Arts Commission and a former executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission. He served as Mayor Willie Brown’s press secretary and now runs his own communications consulting firm in San Francisco. A former journalist, he has written about movies for several publications, including the San Jose Mercury News and – long ago, in a galaxy far, far away – for the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Email PJ at pj@pjcommunications.com.

Comments are closed.