Friday, July 10, 2015

2015 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival

The 2015 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival (SF DocFest) ran from June 4 to 18 at various locations.  I saw 10 films at the Roxie but they also screened films at the Vogue and Brava Theaters.

Due to various reasons, I wasn't able to attend many films at this year's DocFest although I think I skipped the festival completely last year.  Originally, I had only planned on attending the opening weekend but I was able to clear some time later in the festival.  Still, 10 films in 15 days is not a film viewing pace any self-respecting cinephile should be proud of.

As the name of the festival implies; all the films were documentaries.

The Desk; directed by Andrew Goldman; (2015) - Official Website
20 Years of Madness; directed by Jeremy Royce; (2015) - Official Website
The Barge; directed by Ben Powell; (2015) - Official Website
Pervert Park; directed by Frida Barkfors & Lasse Barkfors; (2014)
The Sandwich Nazi; directed by Lewis Bennett; (2015) - Official Website
GTFO: Get The Fuck Out; directed by Shannon Sun-Higginson; (2015) - Official Website
Top Spin; directed by Sara Newens & Mina T. Son; (2014) - Official Website
Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile; directed by Norah Shapiro; Tibetan & English with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website
For Grace; directed by Mark Helenowski & Kevin Pang; (2015) - Official Website
The Decent One; directed by Vanessa Lapa; German with subtitles; (2014)

I saw five short films during the festival.

The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers; directed by Michael T. Vollmann; (2015) - Official Website
Boxeadora; directed by Meg Smaker; Spanish with subtitles; (2015) - Official Website
Calls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story; directed by Bradley Beesley & Ben Steinbauer; (2015)
Dukha in Summer; directed by Cameo Wood; Mongolian with subtitles; (2014)
Read Chuna; directed by Micro Documentaries; Nepali with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website

The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers preceded GTFO: Get The Fuck Out.  Boxedora preceded Top SpinCalls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story preceded The Sandwich NaziDukha in Summer & Read Chuna preceded Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile.

The 10 films I caught were pretty solid this year.  In roughly the order of my preference:

Miss Tibet: Beauty in Exile - the story of a young Tibetan woman living in Minnesota.  Feeling disconnected from her Tibetan roots, she enters a Tibetan beauty pageant in Dharamsala. Ostensibly about learning Tibetan history and values, she eventually becomes embroiled in a controversy about the crowning of Miss Tibet.  Although, Tenzin Khecheo espoused Buddhist principles throughout the pageant, when the winner was crowned she joined the revolt against the organizer.  The flamboyant organizer, Lobsang Wangyal, is worthy of his own documentary.  Somehow, the film made the mystery of the results of a beauty pageant with six contestants interesting.  You see, there was a secret criteria that judges used to declare the winner.  Also, the judges' ballots went missing the day after the pageant.

The Sandwich Nazi - the life and times of Salam Kahil, a foul mouthed Lebanese sandwich shop owner in Vancouver, BC.  Although he exhibits some similarities to the infamous Soup Nazi from Seinfeld, Kahil talks a lot about his penis, his sexual experiences, his time as a male escort, his brother molesting him, etc.  Oddly sympathetic, during the making of the film, Kahil has two serious car accidents, closes his shop and returns to Lebanon for an emotional family reunion..

GTFO: Get The Fuck Out - a look at the hypermasculinized culture of video gaming.  The film went into some detail about the root causes of the misogyny but I can't recall the potential solutions.  I'm not sure if my latent sexism is being exposed but the stories of sexual harassment and threats of violence were the most memorable parts of the film.

Top Spin - I can't find it on this blog but somewhere I saw a film or short film about Ariel Hsing and/or Lily Zhang.  Hsing & Zhang are female table tennis players from the Bay Area who represented the US at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.  Michael Landers from Long Island was favored to qualify on the men's side for the US but didn't make the cut.  The film treats its subject with kid gloves but two things were clear to me.  The film foreshadowed Landers' failure to qualify.  That may be the result of skillful editing.  The second theme was that Zhang is intimidated by Hsing.  One year younger than Hsing, Zhang is less self-confident.  Perhaps it is because Hsing refers to Warren Buffet and Bill Gates as Uncles Warren  & Bill.  Regardless, there is an unstated but perceptible sense that Zhang chafes in the shadow of Hsing although both seem like perfectly pleasant young women.  There was short but very telling scene where Zhang & Hsing are sitting next to each other.  The voice off camera asks about their previous match.  The voice asks who won.  Hsing lets out some nervous laughter and says she won.  Zhang is silent and looks humiliated.


The Barge - a barebones documentary that follows a barge crew trip down the Mississippi River.  At times, it reminded me of Deadliest Catch on Discovery in that it mixed personal conflict amongst the crew with the operations of the barge.

Pervert Park - an unusual & unique trailer park exists in Florida.  Due to laws in many communities, registered sex offenders are not allowed to live in certain areas.  This trailer park (started by a woman whose son was an RSO and couldn't find a place to live) consists solely of residents who are RSOs.  Many of the residents seems like "normal" people and elicit empathy or even sympathy although there is one chilling scene where a man describes (in a matter-of-fact tone of voice) how he had an argument with his wife/girlfriend, drove to Mexico, abducted a 7 year old girl off the streets and raped her.

For Grace - a surprisingly uninspiring documentary about Curtis Duffy's long struggle to open his own restaurant in his quest for three Michelin stars.  The restaurant (named Grace) eventually opens towards the end of the film but I felt as exhausted as Duffy by the long process.  Some tragedies from Duffy's life are shared.  Duffy seems to cope by being emotionally distant.  There is one memorable scene where Duffy attempts to have a meal at Charlie Trotter's restaurant before it closes but Trotter bars him from entering due to a class action lawsuit Duffy was a part of.  Duffy claims not to remember signing on to the lawsuit.

The Decent One - another surprisingly unengaging film about Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS.  Based on Himmler's letters, diaries and home films which were allegedly captured by Allied soldier but not turned over to authorities.  Much of the film consists of actors reading Himmler's letters.  I seem to recall some of them in English but I cannot be sure.  As a young man, Himmler seems a bit of a whiner.  Later in life, Himmler either has an incredible capacity to deflect responsibility or is intentionally downplaying his activities for the recipient's benefit (frequently his allegedly apolitical wife).


The Desk - not quite a documentary as director and former NY Times columnist Andrew Goldman includes scenes from his short film which features controversial New Zealand television personality Paul Henry and an actor portraying Goldman.  The subject was mildly interesting although Goldman was shocked (absolutely shocked) to learn that the line between advertising and editorial contents is not so distinct at the NYT when he runs afoul of former editor Jill Abramson & fashion designer Diane von Fürstenberg.

20 Years of Madness - the alumni of a public access television show in Detroit reunite 20 years later.  Some of the old rivalries and animosities come to the forefront.  The original show (made when the subjects were teenagers) didn't seem that funny to me so I was hard pressed to get excited about the reunion.  You can view the original shows (called 30 Minutes of Madness) on-line.  Having seen Wayne's World a few weeks earlier, I thought the show was a real world example of what would have happened to Wayne & Garth after the film ends.


As for the short films, The 414s: The Original Teenage Hackers was my favorite.  It tells the story of a group of teenagers and young men in the early 1980s who hacked into Los Alamos National Laboratory among others.  Seemingly inspired by War Games, the hackers were among the first to be targetted by the FBI.  The title refers to the area code in Milwaukee where the hackers lived.

Boxeadora profiled Namibia, a Cuban woman who dreams of representing Cuba in the Olympics.  I didn't know that female boxing was an Olympic sport.  Apparently, neither does the Cuban government whose sexist policies have long denied Namibia and all Cuban female boxers a spot in the Olympics.

Calls to Okies: The Park Grubbs Story is about some glorified prank calls.  If the film is to be believed, a bunch of teenage boys in the 1980s were an underground sensation.  They would prank call people and record the calls onto cassette tapes.  The tapes would get copied and passed around.  That is how the legend of Park Grubbs started.  I wouldn't be surprised if this was a mocumentary as a woman allegedly recalls a prank call she received 30 years previously.

As an aside, the eponymous Park Grubbs (a pseudonym for the prank calls) was based in Bartlesville, OK.  Bartlesville was/is the headquarters for Phillips Petroleum who owned the Phillips 66 gas stations.  I had a job offer to work in Bartlesville in the 1990s but thankfully declined the offer.

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