Dennis Harvey April 26, 2007

A decade might be long enough in dog years, but in film festival terms it takes a bit more time to impress. Berlin goes back to the early ’50s, Cannes came about just pre- and post WWII, Venice dates to the early ’30s. But in the U.S., where, since that latter era, Hollywood was exporting product that dominated world markets? No film festival at all — until 1957. At which point a second-generation local theater owner and dedicated cineaste decided somebody had to step up to the plate — to affirm San Francisco’s “place in the international arts world,” to underline that film could be a true art form as well as entertainment, and simply to bring foreign movies to the city’s ever-hungry intelligentsia. As you might have heard by now, that makes the San Francisco International Film Festival 50 years old this year. And the oldest continually running such event on this half of the globe celebrates its 50th with a whole lotta hoopla and a cherry-picked selection of current worldwide cinema April 26 through May 10.

Opening wide to say “Ahhh” and take in the whole of the 2007 schedule might well induce lockjaw. So we’ll just hit some highlights here and let you wade through the bulk of the program yourself, as well you ought.

The festival Irving M. “Bud” Levin founded those five decades ago has not, rather remarkably, changed nearly so much as the figurative landscape around it. In 1957 Levin and fellow volunteers programmed an ambitious two-week slate of films from 12 countries (including Nigeria) included works by such emerging masters as Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Visconti, Kurosawa and Wadja.

SFIFF50 finds 54 countries represented by some 200 films (shorts included), with about the same latter number of filmmakers and industry guests expected to attend in conjunction. Naturally the event has expanded geographically as well as numerically — not just to multiple SF venues but Berkeley and Palo Alto as well. Yet the fest’s essence has remained almost shockingly pure all these years: Bringing you the very best in new international cinema, with some retrospective and celebrity-guest elements. SFIFF has always been a great place to absorb artistic (rather than commercial, generally speaking) trends in filmmaking worldwide, particularly those worthwhile but too “challenging” or esoteric to ever achieve U.S. theatrical distribution.

What has changed is the larger world of festivals — now far more crowded, competitive, and frequently market-driven than the late Bud Levin could have imagined. (As early as 1968, SFIFF guests like John Huston and Jeanne Moreau were already applauding its non-commercialized spirit.) By refusing to cave into the trends toward avid pursuit of showy premieres, big-name stars, and luring distributor buyers, the festival has by some estimations gradually lost its “world-class” stature. But locals might disagree, and much-liked current SF Film Society Executive Director Graham Leggat would join them in insisting that SFIFF’s goal is still to program the best in world cinema for an avid SF audience — rather than angling for wider media/industry attention by any means necessary.

Which is not to say this golden-anniversary edition lacks for glitz. Far from it. There will be career-achievement awards given and in-person tributes paid to those two most famous of all Bay Area-residing movie folk, George Lucas and Robin Williams. As well as to Spike Lee, whose breakthrough first feature “She’s Gotta Have It” premiered here in 1986.

The world premiere of documentary “Fog City Mavericks” (a history of the Bay Area’s febrile film scene) alone will bring onstage for post-flick Q&A Williams, Lucas, Carroll Ballard, Philip Kaufman, Brad Bird, Walter Murch, John Korty, Saul Zaentz, Bruce Conner, Chris Columbus, and others. (If you’re wondering why there are no women on this list, rest assured it’s simply because all aforementioned are members of Hollywood’s fabled Gay Mafia. Don’t be fooled by all their marriages and children!)

A “Cinema by the Bay” sidebar will specially highlight local makers — including Les Blank (“All in This Tea”), Lynn Hershman Leeson (“Strange Culture”), Jon Else (“Wonders Are Many”), and a salute to off-commercial-grid veteran Rob Nilsson, who’s pushin’ 70 with more projects on his plate than your average twentysomething filmschool grad could choke on. The “KinoTek” programs highlight a diverse and fun array of new technology efforts (most semi-live film/performance events), while “The Late Show” offers international horror flicks from New Zealand to Norway to Japan to plain old U.S.

Then there’s the bulk of the program, separated into “New Directors,” “World Cinema,” “Documentaries,” and “Shorts.” This is the meat of SFIFF (‘scuse my terminology, vegans), where discoveries are rife, many already laureled from recent European festivals. We’ve heard very good things about Amerindie “Rocket Science,” French D.H. Lawrence adaptation “Lady Chatterley,” Danish doc “The Monastery,” and Egyptian epic “The Yacoubian Building.” And we can attest to the quality of SF-focused documentary “An Audience of One,” disarming Irish musical drama “Once,” and Disney’s 1937 “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (a newly struck 35mm print celebrates its 70th anniversary), because we’ve already seen those.

So much to look forward to, so much as yet unmentioned. In the latter category: Personal appearances by Steve Buscemi (playing a paparazzi in Tom DiCillo’s “Delirious”), Parker Posey (starring in both Hal Hartley’s “Fay Grim” and Zoe Cassavetes’ “Broken English”); “The Queen” and “Last King of Scotland” scenarist Peter Morgan (accepting the Kanbar Award for excellence in screenwriting); famed film historian Kevin Brownlow; the wonderful Euro documentarian Heddy Honigmann.

Wait, there’s more: Alt-rock icon Jonathan Richman playing a live score for restored 1921 Swedish silent classic “The Phantom Carriage;” Guy Maddin presiding over the music-foley-voice ensemble accompanying his new “silent” film “Brand Upon the Brain!;” globetrotting avant-gardist Peter Sellars, who delivers annual “State of Cinema” address; and hot young actors Rosario Dawson and Sam Rockwell, who receive the fest’s first Midnight Awards for “a dynamic young actor and actress who have made outstanding contributions to independent and Hollywood cinema.”

Plus Otar Iosseliani, Bruno Dumont, Armistead Maupin, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jessica Yu, Dominic Angergame, Danny Glover, Les Blank, Rob Nilsson, Ron Howard, Georgia Hubley, Henry Rosenthal, Joan Chen, musicians John Adams and Beth Custer, and many more.

(Please refrain from hugging these people, no matter how thrilled you may be by their proximity. Artists are fragile. They could break. Or sue you.)

SFIFF50 amps up the multi-media and multi-venue aspects considerably. Those looking for a hot party or event-to-be-seen-at can definitely find those here….Starting with tonight’s kickoff, which will move from Castro Theatre opening-nighter “Golden Door” (a.k.a. “Nuovomondo”), a new French-Italian historical epic about Sicilian immigrants to America a century ago, to a party at City Hall itself.

Twelve days later, there’s another big Euro pic (Edith Piaf bio “La vie en rose,” a massive current French hit) and another big honking shindig, this one a wrap celebration at SOMA’s club Mezzanine.

But what’s in between, however, is the real crux of SFIFF, not just for numero 50 but for every prior edition: Exceptional movies from around the globe, largely ones unlikely to show up on a commercial screen (or even a DVD-rental homeview one) near you anytime soon.

What am I most psyched for in this year’s program? Not so much the flashiest events duly appropriate for a major anniversary year — though they’ll surely be exciting if you can still scrounge tickets — but rather individual films I’ve already heard are fascinating. Among them: Hong Kong boy-band spoof “The Heavenly Kings,” Argentina’s personal-meltdown drama “Born and Bred,” and self-explanatory U.S. documentary “Punk’s Not Dead.”

But those are just my own anticipatory faves. No doubt you’ll figure out your own.