Picturing Politics at SFIFF50

Robert Avila May 1, 2007

A shot in veteran filmmaker Jon Else’s documentary “Wonders Are Many” — a behind the scenes look at composer John Adams and director-librettist Peter Sellars’ opera Doctor Atomic — makes visual reference to Picasso’s “Guernica” as apt shorthand for art’s awesome charge to speak for the voiceless in the age of total war and total exploitation. For an opera about the Manhattan Project and the birth of the atomic age, the Picasso quote is fitting enough. But Else’s documentary, which screens this year as part of the 50th San Francisco International Film Festival, not only broaches pressing questions about art’s role in a time of threat and crisis; its very appearance here helps highlight the place of film festivals themselves as forums for political debate and discourse.

It’s a function that film festivals have arguably always had, including North America’s oldest, but this year Sellars, the outspoken artistic director and multimedia maverick, truly embodied the role. His indefatigable pass through the festival began Saturday with a Q&A at a screening of “Wonders,” followed by his introducing two powerful films in the festival (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s “Daratt” and Garin Nugroho’s “Opera Jawa”), which he commissioned as director of the New Crowned Hope festival (Vienna’s 250th birthday celebration of Mozart). It ended roughly 18 hours later with his delivering of SFIFF’s annual “State of Cinema” address before a large SFIFF audience.

Just as tireless, renowned actor and activist Danny Glover, accompanied African director Abderrahmane Sissako’s “Bamako” to the festival. Glover co-executive produced the film, a brilliantly sly channeling of the global dialogue on “development” as orchestrated by Western institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. Set in a poor neighborhood of Mali’s capital, “Bamako,” in the very courtyard in which the filmmaker grew up, the film deploys actors, real-life representatives of African civil society, and government officials to debate the system and the status quo from both sides of the equation. With an effortless and offbeat sense of humor, including a wacky film-within-the-film sequence in which both Glover and Palestinian filmmaker Elia Suleiman (“Divine Intervention”) make cameo appearances as cowboys stalking the desert plains of “Timbuktu,” Bamako manages to get across a complex but vital picture of the relationship between Western capital and governments, their allies and proxies in local government, and the increasingly impoverished and desperate populations of the Global South. Glover was on hand to make the most of the film’s potential, introducing the film at a press conference Saturday preceding the screening, and returning afterward as part of a panel discussion packed beyond capacity at Sundance Cinemas Kabuki.

That panel, “Picturing Development,” also included Priority Africa Network’s Nunu Kidane and Global Exchange’s Walter Turner, who together with Glover broadened the discussion to include, among much else, the role of cinema in facilitating a global dialogue on the effects of so-called development in the Global South. It’s a discussion that opens up basic concepts like “aid” and “structural adjustment” to social, historical, and moral scrutiny. These issues, the panelists made clear, are hardly abstract or far removed from life in the United States. Moreover, given the disproportionate role of the U.S. in the current system, drawing more Americans into that global dialogue is crucial. As Kidane succinctly put it during more than an hour of conversation, “We need to change here for change to happen there.”

More than a few other features in this year’s lineup add to the chorus of otherwise marginalized voices that give such festivals as SFIFF unique importance as a locus for challenging dominant and homogenizing commercial media images, voices that make cinema, in Sellars words, “the greatest art form at present for penetrating deeply across cultures.” Horace Ahmad Shansab’s 2006 feature “Zolykha’s Secret,” for instance, follows an Afghani family coping with life under the extremely repressive rule of the Taliban. Marion Hansel’s quietly involving “Sounds of Sand” follows an East African family forced, when their well runs dry, into itinerancy through a landscape of unremitting desert and social turmoil. And Egyptian director Marwan Hamed’s “The Yacoubian Building,” billed as the biggest-budgeted film in Egyptian history (which is saying something), is a politically pointed melodrama that follows the overlapping fates of various occupants of a single Cairo apartment complex.

Of nonfiction and documentary, that traditional bastion of activist filmmaking, several are worth mentioning in a political context. Echoing both Sellars’ flagging of genetically modified foods as a crucial battleground of the new century, and his conviction that the cinema of the 21st century must be one of hope, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s “Strange Culture” looks at the ongoing case of American conceptual artist and bio-activist Steve Kurtz (played in recreations by actor Thomas Jay Ryan). In an astutely self-conscious layering of various “representations” by government, media, and filmmaker alike, the film (which also features actress Tilda Swinton, who delivered last year’s SFIFF “State of Cinema” address) docu-dramatizes a group of artist-academics standing up to the provocations of a national security state bent on justifying expansion of its powers at the expense of dissident voices and, ultimately, individual rights and freedoms generally.

“Everything’s Cool,” from directors Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand, notably uses humor in its tackling of issues surrounding the earth’s warming, underscoring the way comedy — which has always functioned as a weapon to lay low the mighty (or anyway bring them down a peg) — can also be a useful vehicle for the discussion of otherwise daunting and unpalatable (let alone inconvenient) truths. (An upcoming Festival panel, “It’s a New (Green) World,” takes up the issue of connecting media to public action.)

In more unconventional fare, the recent Israeli war on Lebanon receives treatment in a North American premiere by Living Cinema’s Pierre Hébert (images) and Bob Ostertag (music). “Special Forces,” a live cinematic performance which will take place at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on May 4 and whose world premiere occurred in April as part of Beirut’s Irtijal ’07 festival of experimental music, is an audiovisual montage combining pop cultural detritus like video games with images of war and original recordings made in Beirut. Judging by Living Cinema’s “Between Science and Garbage,” a piece which evolved through a series of concerts staged in the U.S. and Europe from just after 9/11 to the days just prior to the U.S./U.K. invasion of Iraq in 2003, “Special Forces” should prove a stimulating and politically provocative admixture of sound and image.

As it happened, Sellars delivered his trenchant talk on the relation of global cinema and culture in the 21st century just one day shy of the 70th anniversary of the German bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica, an act that not only rehearsed the Nazi war machine’s expansionist designs (and inspired Picasso’s outraged response) but signaled in its indiscriminate slaughter of civilians the terrible degradation of individual sovereignty in the present age. Sellars, for his part, came repeatedly back to the rise of fascism in Europe to underscore the challenges facing art and humanity today. Stressing how digital media empower global voices in the new century, giving rise to the “alternative vocalization” underway in cinema that brings “traditional, epic, and oral storytelling into the mainstream,” he ranged over millennia and continents in pursuit of his theme, touching perhaps closest to home with reference to California’s runaway prison industry and draconian immigration policies, which Sellars laid out in the starkest and most chilling of terms. “At this moment,” he argued, “where all over the world governments are the problem not the solution