Docfest: Not to Be Believed?

Susan Gerhard May 11, 2006

How does one come to terms with the reality, when presented with the facts: muskrats will be skinned for entertainment; Dan Aykroyd will sit down for a serious discussion of his personal research on UFOs; Illeana Douglas will describe getting fired from her job as a coat-checker. As SF IndieFest’s nonfiction offshoot, Docfest, extends its versions of reality over screens at the Roxie Cinema and Women’s Building for the next 10 days, I figured Jeff Ross, the founder of the SF Indie empire, had some explaining to do.

SF360: What is a ‘Docfest’ documentary?

Jeff Ross: Well, it’s true we shy away from the usual heavy issues docs in favor of bizarre Americana and pop culture — like “Pizza! The Movie.” Who knew there were people out there that take competitive pizza throwing really, really seriously? But we do include some films that really just need to be told, like “Letters From the Other Side,” about the women left behind when their husbands, fathers, and brothers migrate to America for work. And “Diameter of a Bomb,” a really thorough look into a suicide bombing in Israel. But we like to show docs that are just really fun and/or weird, like “Muskrat Lovely” (about a beauty pageant/muskrat skinning competition in Maryland) and “Beethoven’s Hair” (about the interesting travels of a lock of Beethoven’s hair before becoming the property of a couple of obsessed fans in San Jose….).

SF360: How did you go out and find the films this year?

Ross: We publish a call for entries on our site and go through a service called “Without A” We had about 500 entries this year.

SF360: What are some of the most exciting moments from festivals past?

Ross: We showed a film last year called “Words.” It was somewhat experimental, set up like a word game where people line up and pass a phrase down the line and the last version is often different than the first. It was like that, but done visually. The makers would start to look into something, and then a subject would lead them on another tangent and so on. Anyway, there’s this guy who buys a pass to all of our festivals, comes and watches everything; you know, a regular. So after “Words,” the director is up there doing the Q&A, and this guy is pacing back and forth in the rear of the theater. Finally he just explodes and demands to know What The F&*k Was That? What Was The Point? He’s actually angry. It was an amazing reaction to the film (I really liked it). It took the makers by surprise, and a pretty cool conversation followed. I guess my favorite moments end up happening after a screening during the Q&A, when the public gets to talk about the subject of the film, or in this case, the whole premise behind the filmmaking.

SF360: What are you most excited about this year?

Ross: I expect reactions like that from quite a few of the films this year — such as “Cracked Not Broken,” about a nice middleclass girl who grew up to be cocaine-addicted prostitute. She speaks plainly about her life to one of her few childhood friends that she still talks to. She and the filmmaker are going to be in attendance. “Class Act,” about teaching in public schools, also should get a good reaction. My personal favorite film in the program is “Punk Like Me,” about a guy basically having the ol’ mid life crisis who throws a band together that can’t play and sneaks on to the Warped Tour to live out his rock’n‘roll fantasy. And then the wife comes along on the tour bus. And then their baby comes along. And then the in-laws join them. And the member of the band are trying to be rock stars. And it’s all just really hilarious. And the two principals, the husband and wife, are also just really funny. It’s a great movie.

SF360: What trends are you seeing in nonfiction films?

Ross: Well, the stuff we choose is chosen because it’s well crafted. I think the only trend that’s obvious right now is that everything is documented. The Republican convention in New York City was documented, as was Katrina, and the G8 Summit. Everybody has a video camera, and they shoot everything that might be interesting, and they submit it to us. But to hold an audience’s attention in a theater requires some crafting. So we figure that’s our job, select the well crafted stories and present them to San Francisco.

SF360: What about trends in the nonfiction films people are enjoying?

Ross: Hard to say. I think there’s a stronger interest in nonfiction films these days thanks to the popularity of ‘crusade’ films like “Roger & Me,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Super Size Me,” etc. Also there’s much talk about Reality TV being popular nonfiction. We’re showing a film called “Reality Show” that is about the most disastrous reality TV pilot ever made. But it really showcases the narcissism involved in these films, which really is what they all seem to be about.

SF360: You’ve conquered so many genres and audiences. Where can SF Indiefest go next?

Ross: Trade Secret. But we do have plans for more events. We’ll let you know when the press release comes out!

Docfest runs from May 12-21 at the Roxie and SF Women’s Building.