SF Indiefest at 10

Michael Fox February 7, 2008

Way back in 1998, Jeff Ross founded the San Francisco Independent Film Festival to showcase iconoclastic, grassroots moviemakers locked out of the standard channels of distribution. As the 10th SF Indiefest kicks off tonight, Ross and his rotating cast of programmers remain as idealistic as ever, but the indie landscape has largely changed for the worse.

Yes, affordable digital video gear has democratized filmmaking, cracking open what used to be the exclusive domain of Hollywood studios, trust-fund babies and a handful of unique talents with name recognition. In theory, those without the dough or temperament for film school can now develop their voices and their chops on their own. But it rarely works that way. The typical aspiring indie filmmaker has a lucrative day job producing commercials, music videos and/or industrials. He — it’s almost always he — leverages a bunch of favors, connections and discounts to make a slick, pseudo-profound flick about attractive twenty-somethings searching for sex, direction and meaning in the big city. Any connection to personal expression, let alone art, is incidental, if not accidental. And yet, despite this wave of shallow narcissism, and the glut of glossy, star-driven “independent” films that have earned the rubric Indiewood, the possibility of a truly alternative American cinema still endures. And we can count on Indiefest to keep a torch burning for those rare but authentic declarations of independence.

The opening night film, “Shotgun Stories,” is emblematic of the kind of movie that the New York and L.A.-based distribution mavens have decided can’t attract arthouse audiences. Set in the rural backwater of southeast Arkansas, and operating on its own rhythms of time and speech, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ feature debut instantly immerses the viewer in a distinctive milieu. (The cast of unknown actors adds immeasurably to the sense of verisimilitude.) A Hatfield & McCoy tale of pent-up resentment and revenge between two clans of half-brothers fathered by the same unseen man, “Shotgun Stories” doesn’t go anywhere particularly unexpected after the battle lines are drawn. But it is true to its characters and the meager lives they’re scrapping over.

As a counterbalance to the low-key neo-realism of “Shotgun Stories,” the festival has scheduled the high-energy import “Ben X” as a nightcap. Belgium’s submission for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film is fueled by the conflict between an introverted video gamer and the teenage bullies who make his life miserable. The film has delighted audiences at every fest it’s screened, just maybe because the meek ultimately inherits the earth.

The most popular experimental filmmaker in America, Gus Van Sant, is ensconced this month in the Castro on the Hollywood-financed set of “Milk.” Two weeks from now, Indiefest wraps with his latest, “Paranoid Park,” a dreamy, nonlinear excursion into a teenage boy’s head in the vein of “Last Days” and “Elephant.” It’s a lovely little movie, although one wonders when, if ever, Van Sant will exhaust his fascination with beautiful young Pacific Northwest innocents sullied by the world.

Indiefest’s gritty, scruffy side is on display in Ronald Bronstein’s “Frownland,” a portrait of a singularly stunted New York character. It arrives with quite the pedigree — a handful of NYC-based awards as well as a spot on the list of Indiewire’s best undistributed films of ’07 — but I didn’t make it past the 15-minute mark. No doubt strangers will harangue me on the bus for missing the next Cassavetes, or at least the next Lodge Kerrigan (“Clean, Shaven”).

The sleeker, slicker side of Manhattan is on display in Michael Knowles’ highly sexed “One Night,” which tracks the nocturnal liaisons of a dozen or so good-looking twenty-somethings along with a handful of middle-aged singles. Knowles employs lots of close-ups and long sequences, which provide the actors (Michelle Leo and Bill Sage among them) with a terrific showcase and also ratchet the (sexual) tension. The scenes are performed and edited so effectively that we’re riveted by what’s ultimately a less-than-earthshaking plotline. Knowles introduces a morning-after gun in the first minute — an instrument of rejection-driven rage or, possibly, an AIDS metaphor — to raise the stakes, but it isn’t necessary.

The documentary lineup includes a chunk of interesting Bay Area work, led by Carl Brown’s inspiring and ultimately touching “2nd Verse: The Rebirth of Poetry.” The S.F. organization Youth Speaks, through its Brave New Voices program, prods teenagers (of color, especially) to write and perform work drawn from the confusion and frustration of their lives. “2nd Verse” introduces us to several local poets, leading up to the electric competition at the 2006 International Youth Poetry Slam Festival. The poetry, as expected, is uneven, but the kids are pretty darn great.

I’ve coined the phrase “vicarious docs” to describe the sub-genre of films whose primary goal is to drop us in the middle of an experience we’d never have otherwise. Luke Wolbach’s “Row Hard No Excuses” puts us on a rowboat with a pair of middle-aged New Englanders, John Ziegler and Ton Mailhot, racing from the Canary Islands to Barbados. Although the film is never less than engrossing, one wishes Wolbach had been more willing to give us the full dose of claustrophobia, exhaustion, soreness and sunburn. Instead, he comes up with various ways to get us out of the boat (video shot by other teams, external interviews) and tiptoes around his subjects’ frosty relationship in the middle of the Atlantic. The journey far exceeds the destination in this case, which Wolbach strains to suggest is a last-ditch effort for Ziegler and Mailhot to make their fathers proud.

If one were to cite the single biggest difference between Indiefest I and Indiefest X, it’s the consistently high level of craft on the documentary side. Chalk it up to the new generation of video cameras, or desktop editing systems, or the number of people who got started making movies (or renting movies) in grammar school. A case in point is “Sliding Liberia,” which somehow manages to combine a surfing travelogue with a post-civil war report without being crass, condescending or obtuse. Stanford students Britton Caillouette and Nicolai Lidow seem to have their hearts in the right place, but maybe they’re just privileged rich kids who figured out a tax write-off for their surfing expeditions to West Africa. Chances are you’ll be so seduced by the beautiful cinematography and the unforced elegance of the narrative, both abetted by a don’t-overplay-your-hand running time of just 45 minutes before credits, that you’ll be too charmed to carp.

Canadian director Bryan Friedman does a whole lot of minor-key carping in “The Bodybuilder and I,” which catalogs his namby-pamby attempt to reconcile with the selfish corporate-lawyer dad who divorced Bryan’s mom years ago. Except for one tense scene at the film’s midpoint, where Bryan confronts an invulnerable and unrepentant Bill, there’s not much juice either to their relationship or the filmmaker’s ostensible “mission.” We’re left with the film’s gimmick, but at least it’s a good one: Now 59, Bill is a competitive bodybuilder. The doc follows his training for another run at the crown in his age bracket, and climaxes (like “Little Miss Sunshine,” if you’ll pardon the comparison) at the championships. Although never less than engaging, “The Bodybuilder and I” doesn’t probe deeply enough to leave its mark — not on Bryan, certainly not on Bill, and not on us, either.

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