A Festival, a Half Century

B. Ruby Rich April 24, 2007

Is there anyone who doesn’t know that the San Francisco International Film Festival (SFIFF) is turning 50 this month? The drumbeat in the Bay Area has been celebratory, from the Pacific Film Archive tribute program of films drawn from its history to the daily bulletins in the San Francisco Chronicle, where Ruthe Stein has been publishing 50 items over 50 days, all drawn from the festival’s archive. Instead of focusing on the usual festival squibs, forecasts, and must-sees, then, this writer headed over to the fabled Presidio on an unusually sunny day to talk to the festival staff about the past. And of course, as the past always is a lens for the present, to think about what festivals mean in the current moment — and, okay, what this one has that’s special. [Editor’s note: SF360.org is copublished by the SF Film Society and indieWIRE. B. Ruby Rich gave the 2004 State of Cinema address to the SF International Film Festival.]

Graham Leggat, the dapper and instantly-popular SFIFF executive director, raced to close the door to his office for the start of the interview, pausing only when he realized that the journalist this time was toting nothing but a keyboard. He grinned apologetically, cracking the door back open and acknowledging what a treadmill of interviews he’s been on for this 50th anniversary year. This time around, I assured him it would be different. I had no questions about celebrities, no softball pitch about new media or online exhibition. Been there, quoted that already. This is the 50th anniversary of the festival, an edition worthy of some blue-sky thinking, some perspective, and above all, some history. The long view: deep focus, not just close-ups.

"I’ve been in the business for about 17 years," Leggat began, "and it’s changed immensely." I put the change down to the 1980s advance of home video, followed by the Internet and DVD, all stay-at-home technologies that have forced major changes. For Leggat, the explosion of U.S. film festivals was due to the rise of the American independent film as "an identifiable idea" that lifted the festivals out of cottage-industry status into a major cultural phenomenon as well as a popular recreational and industrial project. "They are now more industrialized, more professionalized and function as a much more elaborate de facto distribution and exhibition network than they ever did before."

Before that, film festivals were something different, the domain of cinephiles in some places, tourist boards in others. In Berlin, the festival was the pet project of the occupying military forces; in Venice, it had Mussolini’s blessing; in Cannes, nationalism combined with art to extend the beach-town’s season. Leggat sees the old festivals as "projects for passionate amateurs," back in the day when filmmakers would still come to town to hang around and drink at parties in people’s houses. "A festival wasn’t considered exactly part of the film economy, which it is now. Today, there’s a highly competitive sphere where you need a great deal of capital to compete." Back when the San Francisco International Film Festival started, a few local backers, the goodwill of some socialites, a few international contacts, and the assistance of key consulates were the crucial components. Luckily, San Francisco had that mix.

Downstairs in the rabbit-warren of offices that seem to be the requisite architecture of film festivals world-wide, Director of Programming Linda Blackaby admitted that she "loves timelines" as a way to think about festival history. Our conversation is punctuated by her computer’s constant stream of email-arriving bells and whistles, a breakneck rhythm that makes the pace of work as the festival races to opening night feel more like a factory floor speed-up scene out of Modern Times. "What was the world like in 1957?" Blackaby allowed herself, for a moment, to ignore the emails and be transported. "What were the challenges then?" Prosaically, I find myself thinking about the absence of email, video, DVD, computers, fax machines, Xerox machines … I’m thinking about carbon paper when she clarifies. "How do we honor that impulse, which was intensely progressive and internationalist?" She decided that today’s filmmakers, like those back then, know what’s going on in the world. "And we’re the beneficiaries of all their thinking, their global consciousness, their respect for other cultures and for authenticity." Or else: "Maybe those are just the films we pick."

Consider Blackaby’s question for a moment. What was going on in 1957 when Irving M. Levin teamed up with the Italian consul general to launch the first edition of the festival?

Picture the international festival landscape, with less than a dozen in place: Venice (since 1932), Moscow (1935), Cannes (1939/1946), Karlovy Vary (1946), Locarno (1946), Edinburgh (1947), Berlin (1951), San Sebastien (1953), Mar del Plata (1954), and Sydney (1954). They were almost entirely a postwar phenomenon, shaped by implicit or explicit ideas not only of claiming the cinema as an art but also of linking cultures across national lines and political allegiances through the cinema.

The ’50s was also the era of the Cold War, with the world divided into binary units of East and West, capitalism and communism, the "Free World" and the "Iron Curtain." Film festivals found a way around governmental imperatives, but they were hardly immune. Juries could make ideologically charged decisions, while visas could be denied to filmmakers from the "wrong" countries (in the U.S., that was usually Cuba). The San Francisco festival was inaugurated just one year after the Suez crisis redefined the Middle East. And just one year after the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, which so demoralized the Left in the U.S. And 1957 was the year of the Little Rock Nine, an early landmark of school desegregation and civil rights battles in Arkansas. It was still a full two years before the Nouvelle Vague would hit, though filmmakers everywhere (and especially in Latin America) were already absorbing the lessons of Italian Neo-Realism, the movement that has probably shaped world cinema more than any other. Festival internationalism, though, could cut both ways: at Cannes, a jury headed by Jean Cocteau gave its 1957 grand prize to … William Wyler’s "Friendly Persuasion. " (Bresson had to settle for best Mise en Scene for "A Man Escaped.")

Festival staffer and archivist Miguel Pendas has served the festival and its public well by seizing the occasion of the 50th anniversary to post web accounts of the festival’s history, editing and writing up episodes from the past with period photographs and newspaper articles. One such story concerns the 1959 edition of the festival, when Alvah Bessie came to work as festival publicist. Bessie, of course, was one of the famous Hollywood Ten who were persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early days of the Red Scare that would culminate with Joe McCarthy’s Senate Committee hearings. But Edward Dmytryk, the notorious friendly witness who broke ranks to name names (including Bessie), came to town as a festival juror and showed up in the office, only to be introduced to his victim. "When Levin went through the motions of introducing the two men … Bessie looked at Dmytryk coldly and without a word left the room." Source of that story? Former San Francisco Chronicle writer Paine Knickerbocker, writing in the 1976 festival catalogue. As Blackaby pointed out: "We have a lot of intellectual collateral that we’re trying to leverage."

The festival’s sixth edition coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis, leading to a brief delay while everyone waited to see if the world was going to end. When it didn’t, what better way to celebrate than with a movie? The festival worried that the USSR films would be blocked, then cheered when the shipment landed. Even the Soviet delegation managed to get visas and arrive, if a bit late. Lucky thing. In that delegation was a young filmmaker who attracted the Chronicle’s attention for his fashion sense: a "pair of very pointed, Hollywoodish shoes." His onscreen style soon attracted much more attention when the prize for Best Director was awarded to the young Russian for "his powerful style and the poetry of his images." The film was "My Name Is Ivan" and the unknown director was Andrei Tarkovsky.

What about today, post 9/11? Can invited filmmakers get visas? Generally, yes. With some exceptions (Cuba is still not easy). Leggat, ever the diplomat, ascribes recent visa denials to timing: filmmakers unfamiliar with post-9/11 bureaucratic procedures and processing backlogs don’t do the paperwork early enough. Through decades of turbulent political times, the SFIFF has done what the best festivals do: show films despite their political affiliations, show films because of their political perspectives, but never scrub films because of either.

In the festival world, actually, sex has usually been a bigger problems for curators and boards than ideology. Naturally, San Francisco has had less trouble on that count than, say, Toronto or Sydney. But there are still stories to be told. For a start, check out the oral histories stored in PDF files on the festival website. Ernest Callenbach tells a hilarious story about Shirley Temple Black’s objections to the selection committee’s approval of Mai Zetterling’s "Night Games. " There’s going to be a whole show devoted to stories, actually: titled "The Five-O," it’s a collaboration with Porchlight that’s going to fill a Sundance Kabuki stage with raconteurs of festival lore.

Liveness, in fact, could be the theme of this year’s festival. And continuity. The SFIFF is a sui generis event, a quality that its 50th emphasizes. Another live event is the "On The Road" celebration, "The True Story of the World," with promises of Beats in attendance and surprises to come. What a good year for Guy Maddin to be presenting his first truly "silent" film, "Brand Upon The Brain!" — which of course isn’t silent at all; there are musicians and foley artists live in the theatre, and, in the SFIFF edition, our own Joan Chen (live, of course) as the narrator/muse.

Liveness and continuity coincide with the Directing Award to Spike Lee. And isn’t it about time a festival honored Lee? Bravo to the SFIFF for picking one of his documentaries to show: no contest, Katrina will be front and center with the screening of two parts of "When the Levees Broke." In a further bit of continuity, ex-Chron/Examiner critic Wesley Morris will be flying in from his Boston Globe gig to interview him on stage. In yet another tie-in, the most important one to me, Lee is revisiting the scene of early triumph: his "She’s Gotta Have It" premiered at the SFIFF. He was repped back then by one John Pierson (pre-Fiji, pre-Austin), who thought that San Francisco was just the place to break this unusual film that he wanted to sell. And boy was he right! History started right there, supporting Leggat’s contention that festival moxie has been tied to indie cred.

Kitty Carlisle Hart, whose death this week marks the end of the era of the grande dame and New York City’s glittering society days, was chair of the New York State Council on the Arts when this writer served there as head of its film program. We funded this unknown young NYU grad to make his debut feature, which turned out to be "She’s Gotta Have It." I will never forget taking Kitty to a screening of the film. Midway through the scene of Nola Darling’s rape, Mrs. Hart turned to me and asked, with her impeccable diction carried by a booming stage whisper: "Are we to be spared nothing?" Okay, so that’s not SFIFF history exactly, but the grandest lady I ever knew just passed and deserves mention here. And, oh yes, she defended the film.

Liveness, of course, has always been the hallmark of film festivals: live filmmakers, live and in person, speaking to audiences; one of a kind revivals, live, with music; live premieres and conversations and parties. As Leggat observed: "Any festival has sociability as a byproduct, but we concentrate very hard on making it central."

For more lore on that count, check out the interview with former festival staffer (and former Tricontinental Films staffer, too) Patricia De Larios Peyton in a PDF on the festival’s website, detailing her role in bringing multiculturalism before it had a name to the festival’s programs and parties. And consider the seriousness of the social in a festival setting. As Leggat put it: "The social context is crucial for us, because it’s what distinguishes us from the automation of the multiplex."

Somehow even the festival’s panels look lively. With the collaboration of California Newsreel, one panel takes up the critique of globalization and the World Bank in Abderrahmane Sissako’s "Bamako," one of the festival’s most ingenious and original films. (Say, thanks, Mr. Wolfowitz, for the publicity hook.) Local favorite Danny Glover, who appears in the film and is its executive producer, will take part. Ah, San Francisco, where even the weak-pulse ritual of panels gets revivified!

It is remarkable to me that panels persist as a format in the age of cross-platform synergy, but I guess it’s really a testament to the hunger for liveness. Still, in this hybrid technological moment, the SFIFF seems to be embracing every possible option. Programming associates Sean Uyehara and Rod Armstrong, reviewing their playlists and tech sheets, announce that the festival is showing work in 15 different formats. Blackaby goes them one better, reporting that the Rotterdam Film Festival tried to envision the future by staging an event that claimed it was a film festival without a film or a festival; instead, they offered up a soccer game. Dutch filmmaker Cyrus Frisch broke his wrist playing in that "film festival." But he’ll be on hand here in San Francisco for the festival screening of his "film" "Why Didn’t Anybody Tell Me It Would Become This Bad In Afghanistan" — shot entirely with cell phone.

And that’s not all. There will be Litquake events and music events, the Kinotek, Mighty, indie rock icon Jonathan Richman, online contests and a Yahoo! channel, a multicast conversation streamed live to Europe and Asia, midnight screenings "at all hours of the day," and satellite screenings (and soon, I bet, a screening satellite). It’s all part of what a major film festival is and should be in 2007, but not many are up to the challenge. Here, the festival that triumphed for years by not being afraid of censorship or stylistic risks, that fought for cinema in the age of video and made space for video in the halls of film, gives every sign that it’s not about to be scared by technology or radical shifts in presentation formats. As filmmakers prepare to board their flights and arrive from Paris, Havana, Morocco, Hong Kong, and regions far and wide, the ineffable hope that wafts into the air from film festivals — the hope of new discovery, inspiration, transcendence, and community — can already be felt and seen. At 50 years young, the SFIFF is still pushing the boundaries and hitting its marks.