Highlights: Sue Jean Halvorsen puts some concentrated energy and bold colors into figuring out what movies to see in the San Francisco International. (Photo by Susan Gerhard)

Cinemania at the SF International

Susan Gerhard May 5, 2008

The Jules Feiffer quote that sits at the bottom of film festival superfan Sue Jean Halvorsen’s email reads, "Movies are better than real life. If you go to enough movies — movies become real life, and real life becomes a movie." Strangely enough, Halvorsen, caught mid-festival at a pizzeria near the Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, still seems firmly rooted in reality, even though—at six days into it—she’s likely already got 50 films of the San Francisco International Film Festival under her belt.

A Cinevisa holder, Halvorsen has a special method for choosing her films, maintaining her energy, and seeing the absolute best work possible. She attends many festivals in San Francisco, so the complicated sorting-and-decision-making process is pretty routine by now. Her tastes are eclectic, from bleak nihilism to political nonfiction to big-budget entertainment to specific ethnic/national cinema niches. She calls the International "my window on the world (cheaper than airfare)," adding, "I love seeing the international community show up for various films—no matter how remote."

SF360.org sat down over a slice to find the method behind Halvorsen’s madness in putting together a cinemaniacal film festival viewing schedule. What follows is her explanation of the highlighter-happy SFIFF mini-guide seen above.

In the words of Sue Jean Halvorsen:
"As a friend called it, this is my ‘schedule on acid.’ I pick up the schedule and I mark every thing that is one night only in purple. And crossed out are all the No’s. Like PFA might as well be in L.A. I had gone over to the PFA once, but that was to see Claire Denis’ Intruder (L ‘Intrus) a second time, and I had a ride, so we went over. The Castro/Kabuki dance: This year, I didn’t do Mike Leigh. I have gone to, say, Chris Cooper, then boogied out and came back to the Kabuki. And I had always given my Closing Night tickets away, but we don’t have them any more now. Because I’m over here trying to see the last films. So then I go through and I mark. The orange ones are docs. The blue ones are shorts . Sometimes they turn green because they went over the yellow. The yellow are films I want to see. Doesn’t mean I can see. But it’s got an interest. And it changes. It changes drastically because we all consult.

I get into the Schools Programs because I’m pretty passionate about the program and a potential volunteer—and want to see more of them in the main program! Which means I’m here from 10 a.m. to midnight. I like seeing how the kids react to the films [and the films they make]. Then I’m director-driven. I look for directors, but I also look for storyline. I go to all the shorts, unless I can’t get ‘em in (I’m a lit to film gal & short stories are my fave genre). I go to a lot of the docs, not all (even bad ones give you something).

[Ed., Two of her favorites in the program are Stranded, I Came from a Plane in the Jungle, and Flow, for the Love of Water, both, she says, are "incredible."]

Any of the South American [films] I see because they’re mostly all political or passionate. I also do a "D" and mark what’s got distribution, because I don’t go for any film that’s got a distributor, unless the director’s going to be here, or I have an empty slot. The primo driving force of film choice is to see films from other countries that will never open. And I mark 1st, 2nd or 3rd (screenings) next to the title to help me re-configure. So then it goes by storylines. I like to see new directors, especially Bay Area filmmakers. Country of origin (or sense of place) will determine a film (like Aquarium—how else will I see Cairo) as will a film that deals with moral quandaries or life choices (What’s it all about Alfie?).

Perversity will draw me in. I will go see certain stars. I was just thinking, I saw Operation Turquoise, which is about the French forces in Rwanda, and the hypocrisy. Supposedly, they were on a humanitarian mission, but, you know, the complicity of it. The guy who was in it, (Aurelian Recoing) he’s been in, Time Out, The Long Winter Without Fire, a Russian/French film, 13 Tzemetis and more. He’s sort of the Everyman. It’s like, There he is again. I like to see any of the Latin American films, any of the Scandinavian films, most of the Asian (the Koreans are making the cutting edge films lately)—I’m the go-to-gal for Indian films (I work with 3rd I)—to name a few.

Sometimes you make your choices totally by what house the film was in. Yesterday, I was in House 1 all day long. You’ve got a choice between Film A and Film B. You know what, it’s in House 1, I’m going, unless I can work it in elsewhere. The other thing is, Calcutta My Love takes up three films. Then you have to ask around. Or if you’ve got a conflict. Barcelona and Ice People were opposite each other two times. So then, I went and saw Ice People the one time it wasn’t. I’m going to see Barcelona again tonight a second time.

I saw Frozen—not only is it an incredible Indian film, it’s got incredible black-and-white photography—a second time. Those are my two top faves. Although I have to say Medicine for Melancholy has moved up to third place. They’re all for different reasons. Any film that mentions ‘No on 98’ has got my vote. [Ed. Note: to save Rent Control.] He didn’t say it, but you knew that’s what he was talking about—Redevelopment in the Western Addition.

I was actually buzzed, because Claire Denis is one of my favorite directors, and it’s one of his. In my film discussion group, we just did a film theme about walking around Paris and films on women by women. We just did Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7 and then we did Claire Denis’ Friday Night. So I thought he has got to have seen Friday Night but then Graham asked what inspired him and I didn’t have to ask the question, he said it.

He also had some of the score in it. He really talked about class issues. Anything that hits a class issue, I’m on it. I’m a former union organizer. I’m a former stage manager. I’m the oldest grandchild on both sides of the family—I’m used to organizing siblings, cousins— (I’m a pushy broad; my energy can knock you over. A friend once said that small towns in the desert could use my energy to run their generators)—which means I end up "assisting" in the house, so attendees think I am staff. And I always go see something that I don’t know if I’d want to see; I push the envelope go for the edge. I just bailed out on a film I realized I had already seen. So I can go see Children of the Sun at that time because it was going to overlap, which means I can release Children of the Sun because I’m seeing it here [Ed., points to a time slot on her calendar], I can see All is Forgiven, which means I can see The Judge and the General here. It’s really a domino effect. You also hear from friends, and they’ll say, ‘I saw that film and it sucked,’ or ‘I saw that film and it’s a must-see.’ So you shift. It’s funny, you know, for being such a Chatty Cathy, I like minimal dialogue, non-linear films. Like Frozen.

I love the Korean comic book gangster films, but I really like subtle films. Yet I’m pretty right-there-in-your-face. I’m here from 10 a.m. to midnight. You’re packing lunches. You don’t have time to go out and get something to eat. The Cinevisa holders, we’re all seat Nazis. We want to sit where we want to sit. That’s why we pay to get this pass. We drive the House Managers wild until they get used to us."

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