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SFIFF Documentaries

Critics' Picks

To make sense of the madness at the festival, SF Station sent our reviewers to report back on some little-hyped hits you may otherwise overlook as well as some misses with interesting titles you may want to think twice about.

Abel Raises Cain (US, 2004)
Alan Abel is known by many as the world's greatest hoax artist (e.g. SINA (The Society for Indecency to Naked Animals), the professional school for panhandling, and the Sex Olympics) and a genius at manipulating the media with his bizarre pranks. Alan's daughter, Jennifer, assembled the documentary Abel Raises Cain in an effort to shed light on her enigmatic father. Scarcely understanding what her father did when she was a child, Jennifer reveals a man who is by turns brilliant, warped, and ultimately, endearing. 4/30, 6:30pm and 5/5, 5:15pm at AMC Kabuki (3 out of 5 stars; MF)

Boxers and Ballerinas (USA, 2005)
This vibrant, beautiful film, directed by Brit Marling and Mike Cahill, profiles four Cuban athletes and dancers -- two in Miami and two in Havana -- who struggle to perfect their craft while weighing obligations to family, homeland, and themselves. Unlike typical documentaries that feature a succession of talking heads, Boxers and Ballerinas chooses a visual approach more reminiscent of fictional dramas; an inventive use of color palettes, sound, framing, and competent, multiple-camera editing. 4/27, 2pm; 5/1, 6:30pm; 5/3, 1pm at AMC Kabuki (5 out of 5 stars; SG).

The Boys of Baraka (USA/Kenya, 2005)
One year and a day after 9/11, twenty preteen African-American boys with severe disciplinary problems at home and school are flown from the mean streets and playgrounds of Baltimore, Maryland, to a remote American boarding school in Kenya called Baraka. There, these kids mature and learn that it is actually possible to act differently than they are used to. Boys of Baraka follows four boys and documents their startling transformations. 4/29, 1pm; 4/30, 12:45pm; 5/4, 9:30pm at AMC Kabuki (4 out of 5 stars; SG)

Cinévardaphoto (France, 2004)
This engaging and poignant short film trilogy by Agnes Varda, the "Grand Mother of the French New Wave", amuses, surprises, and dazzles with every frame as it reflects on the power of still photography and how it can move and excite us in multifarious and unexpected ways. "Ydessa, the Bears, and Etc.," a captivating documentary inspired by Varda's visit to an art exhibit in Munich, focuses on the show's charismatically eccentric and articulate curator, Ydessa Hendeles, and the seemingly innocuous exhibit of some 2000 framed photographs of children and adults posing with teddy bears. The film records the contradictory impressions and emotions the exhibit evokes in visitors and the filmmaker as she explores the two rooms that contain the extraordinary photo collection and a third room that only contains "Him," a sculpture by Maurizio Cattelan that casts a diabolic shadow over the entire exhibit. The subject of Varda's second short, "Ulysse," is a photograph she took in 1954 showing a man, a boy (Ulysse), and a dead goat carefully positioned on a rock-strewn beach. This becomes the point of departure for an amusing and thoughtful meditation on reality and fiction, as Varda probes her subjects' memories about that day on the beach 28-years later. Finally, "Salut Les Cubains," the last short in this touching triptych, is a virtuoso montage of some 1,800 black-and-white photographs taken by Varda during a visit to Cuba in the early 1960s. Set to Cuban folk songs and danzons, this uplifting photo-essay celebrates a country, its music, its culture, and its people brimming with hope and energy four years after Fidel Castro came to power - and it makes Ken Burns documentaries look like stale History Channel fare. 4/22, 5pm; 4/24, 2pm at AMC Kabuki and 4/27, 7pm at Pacific Film Archive (5 out of 5 stars; MK)

Edgar G. Ulmer: The Man Off-screen (Austria, 2004)
If you thought Ed Wood was about a weird director, check out this man whose production company was headquartered in poverty row. Named "King of the B-movies", Edgar G. Ulmer, tried his hand at more film genres than most filmmakers would have bargained for: noir, horror, sci-fi, historical drama, action adventure, Yiddish, "ethnic" etc. This nonconformist led a life of many detours, yet left a trail that touched many in the business. It is these individuals, including Peter Bogdanovich, Roger Corman, Wim Wenders, Ann Savage, and a host of film historians and actors in his films, who appear on-screen in the film to revisit (or reenact) the scenes of the crime in order to complete the puzzle and perhaps explain who this contradictory man was. 4/22, 7:15pm; 4/25, 10am & 6:15pm at AMC Kabuki (3 out of 5 stars; SG)

Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 (England, 2003)
Amos Vogel was a pioneering force in the exhibition and distribution of European and Asian cinema in the United States as well as a champion of the American avant-garde cinema. Cinema 16, the celebrated film society that Vogel created and ran from 1947 to 1963, was the first U.S. venue to show films by Ozu, Varda, Rivette, Resnais, Bresson, Polanski, and Cassavetes, long before they became household names in the art cinema circuit. During its heyday, Cinema 16 became a magnet for thousands of curious movie fans eager to be bombarded and stimulated by Vogel's eclectic brand of film programming. It would not have been uncommon for him to screen an avant-garde classic, a German science film, and a piece of virulent Nazi propaganda one after the other. Paul Cronin's Film as a Subversive Art, filmed in various New York locations that are pertinent to the history of Cinema 16 and showing interviews with Vogel, his wife Marcia, and film historian Scott MacDonald intercut with movie clips, rare documents, and memorabilia from Vogel's personal collection, is an endearing portrait of the legendary film programmer who showed us that film exhibition can be a creative act that, if done properly, has the power to change the world by opening the minds and eyes of diverse audiences. 4/28, 9:15pm; 5/2, 2:45pm at AMC Kabuki (3 out of 5 stars; MK)

Life in a Box (USA, 2005)
Jay and Steven spend five years living together in a 20-foot trailer, driving around the country and playing their brand of queer "alt-country" music to diverse audiences across America's heartland -- in churches, assembly halls, retirement homes, and coffeehouses -- despite Jay wearing his "uncle's lucky green dress". The duo, dubbed Y'all, dream of making it big on TV, like Sonny and Cher. Life in a Box shows how life can veer down its own path. This autobiographical account of life on the road is honest, moving, and entertaining. Too bad they don't introduce us to -- or explain -- their Bible Belt fans. But their loyal following seems to prove their contention that America is ready for an "old-fashioned, cross-dressing, folk-singing duo." 4/30, 9:15pm; 5/5, 8pm at AMC Kabuki (3 out of 5 stars; SG)

Murderball (USA, 2004)
This is the dramatic account of hypercompetitive, wheelchair-bound men who are as passionate about "quad rugby" as professional athletes are about their sport. Because the filmmakers got access to the intimate spaces where these men live, heal, and play, Murderball successfully conveys the strong personalities, playful combativeness, and sincere emotions that run high during and after each game. Animation sequences illustrate the game's rules as well as the players' afflictions -- and even their dreams. Combative, humorous, educational, and inspiring, there's enough in Murderball for several feature films. Whether a rare blood disease, childhood polio, a motocross accident, or drunken driving originally maimed them, these men hold the word "handicapped" in contempt. 4/28, 7:30pm at the Jewish Community Center and 4/29, 7pm at AMC Kabuki (4 out of 5 stars; SG)

Pursuit of Equality (USA, 2004)
On Valentine's Day in 2004 San Francisco made history by issuing same-sex marriage licenses. This documentary shows Mayor Gavin Newsom and his staff's behind-the-scenes strategizing as their "why not?" gambit floored progressives and riled conservatives. By profiling some of the ordinary folks -- as well as some extraordinary people like lesbian movement pioneers (and senior citizens) Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and celebrity Rosie O'Donnell -- who rushed city hall to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Pursuit of Equality shows the human faces fighting the good civil rights fight. By showing the hotheads whose bullhorns drowned out the merrymaking, the film also puts a face on the bigotry and intolerance underscoring the efforts nationwide to legalize discrimination and redefine marriage. At turns romantic and sobering, Pursuit of Equality makes the eyes tear up and the blood boil. 4/24, 6:30 at the Castro Theatre (4 out of 5 stars; SG)

The Search for the Captain (USA, 2004)
Erin McEnery's documentary is a personal journey into the origins of a political fracas that her father, San Jose mayor Tom McEnery, unwittingly unleashes when the city commissions a bronze statue of Captain Thomas Fallon to commemorate the raising of the American flag for the first time in San Jose, as well as celebrate California's entry into the Union. The mayor finds himself pitted against a vocal minority, whose spurious allegations against Fallon serve mostly to cover their earnest frustrations about urban redevelopment and minority invisibility. Through repeated interviews with her father and both supporters and detractors of the statue, McEnery's lighthearted and self-deprecating (sometimes self-centered) approach to the subject matter makes it evident that emotions and warring political agendas trumped rational discourse -- and managed successfully to delay the statue's unveiling for over a decade. 4/27, 7:15pm; 4/29, 12:45p, at AMC Kabuki (2 out of 5 stars; SG)

Shepherds' Journey into the Third Millennium (Switzerland, 2002)
For Swiss filmmaker Erich Langjahr, tending sheep is not just a job; it's a way of life that deals with fundamental issues of human existence, identity, and survival. Following two itinerant shepherds over the course of several years, Shepherds' Journey meticulously documents and reflects on a vanishing way of life that is in tune with the four seasons and full of mystical moments, yet also marked by extreme loneliness, privation, and worries. Why would these young men, who were not born into a shepherds' family, choose to forgo many of the conveniences of modern society and live a life that keeps them away from their loved ones for months on end? One of Langjahr's biggest accomplishments in this mesmerizing film is having his subjects share graciously and freely enough of their innermost feelings and thoughts to help us understand what motivates them to lead a simple life. Beautifully photographed, leisurely paced, and set to an original score, Shepherds' Journey paints in lush detail a moving tableau of the fragile unity between humankind and nature that resonates with viewers everywhere. 4/25, 8:30pm; 4/28, 5pm; 5/4, 7pm at AMC Kabuki (5 out of 5 stars; MK)

Social Genocide (Argentina, 2004)
Few filmmakers paid as dearly for their commitment to a cinema of social change as the Argentine Fernando Solanas. His groundbreaking 1968 documentary, The Hour of the Furnaces, was a passionate call to arms against cultural, economic, and political oppression in Argentina that made him an international superstar of political cinema but persona non grata at home. Following the military coup in 1972, he had to go into exile to escape certain death, effectively putting on hold a career that would not pick up again until the mid-80s and early 90s with the less overtly political features Tango - The Exile of Gardel, Sur, and El Viaje. Social Genocide marks Solanas's return to the documentary format that made him famous. Sincere and angry in tone, the film exposes the systematic despoiling of Argentina by a string of democratically elected governments. As in 1968, Solanas takes his camera into the streets, peeks inside baroque Argentine palaces, travels to the most neglected regions of the country, and interviews workers, leaders, and ordinary citizens, to expose the incompetence and corruption of the Argentine political establishment and to contribute to an urgent debate about the dehumanizing effects of globalization. The result is a shocking, fascinating, albeit at times overwhelming, audio-visual essay that forcibly confronts viewers with the facts of injustice and powerfully communicates the suffering of the Argentine people that culminated in mass protests and riots in the wake of the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001. 4/28, 8:45pm at AMC Kabuki and 5/1, 3:40pm at Pacific Film Archive (4 out of 5 stars; MK)

The White Diamond (Germany, 2004)
Renegade German filmmaker Werner Herzog reaches for new heights in this mesmerizing documentary about a boyish British aeronautic engineer, Dr. Graham Dorrington, who invented a diamond-shaped blimp to gain access to the Amazon canopy. But Dorrington's expedition to the giant Kaieteur Falls in the heart of Guyana is not without risk. As preparations are underway for the blimp's maiden flight, we learn that 12 years earlier, a similar trip to this pristine jungle region with an older prototype ended in tragedy when Dorrington's friend and nature photographer Dieter Plage fell to his death. In its reverence for enigmas, incorrigible dreamers, iconoclasts, mystics, and eloquent noble savages, The White Diamond is vintage Herzog. Set to choral chants and evocative cello music, it revels in the natural beauty of the Amazon jungle while Herzog's dry Germanic narration and keen eye for oddities injects a healthy dose of ironic wit into the mundane tasks of preparing for the blimp's takeoff. 4/30, 6:15pm at the Castro and 5/2, 12:45 at AMC Kabuki (4 out of 5 stars; MK)

Critics: Michael Koch, Stefan Gruenwedel & Matthew Forsman compiled this piece.