Many festival-goers have wondered about the unusually contemplative trailer running before each SBIFF screening. In contrast to the more conventionally splashy, show biz-y trailers, this year’s model is lyrical and spare and features a slowly-tracking camera moving down the pathway to Butterfly Beach. It moves past a painter at his easel on the sand as he muses about the connection between beach-going and movie-going as experiences lined with “desire and discovery.” Only the gentle ambient sound of the ocean hums in the soundtrack.
To clarify, said painter is Hank Pitcher, who supplied this year’s SBIFF poster. It so happens that the filmmaker behind the project is none other than Roger Durling, who shot it on his iPhone. Kudos to all and praise for the rare subtlety of it.
One of the consistent highlights of SBIFF’s live forums has been its Writers Panel, which offers a rare chance for screenwriters to stand in the public spotlight and provide insights for the aspiring writers lurking in the crowd. The Writers Panel moved from the Lobero to the Arlington this year, thus losing some intimacy but no firepower.
Variety’s Anne Thompson, fresh off Friday night’s Kristen Stewart tribute, guided the discussion with the panel of Oscar nominees: Kenneth Branagh (Belfast), Sian Heder (CODA), Adam McKay (Don’t Look Up), Denis Villeneuve (Dune), Zach Baylin (King Richard), Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Lost Daughter), and Eskil Vogt (The Worst Person in the World). From her current quarantine outpost, Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog) video phoned in her part, as she did on Thursday night’s Outstanding Directors panel.
Many of the panelists were involved in screenplays adapted from other sources, including Gyllenhaal’s revision of the novel by the pseudonymous Italian writer Elena Ferrante—who agreed, with the stipulation that Gyllenhaal also direct. As Gyllenhaal noted, “I let the dark part of myself come out in the script. If you can create a simple scaffolding for a script, then in the space created, I could put my tripping-out in there and could be freer.”
Heder’s script for CODA (Children of Deaf Adults) demanded that she learn American Sign Language. “ASL is very different than spoken English,” said Heder. “The order of words moves around, and it’s almost cinematic. ASL started to affect my writing. This script is the most living document I’ve ever worked with. It breathed.”
Asked about the foul-mouthed nature of a central CODA character, Heder admitted she’s an avid cusser herself, adding that “there are many ways to sign ‘fuck.” She then asked the signer on stage to demonstrate, making for a wild comic moment.
Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast took the prize for the most personal screenplay on the panel, as it deals with his childhood experience in the crosshairs of the Irish Catholic-Protestant conflagration of the late ’60s. Penned during the initial COVID lockdown, Branagh said that the script allowed him “permission to be myself, to be vulnerable. I wanted to take bits of broken hearts and put them back together again. I had a psychic load to bear. I wanted to make this beyond a script written for myself and my therapist.”
DOCS OF NOTE
Amidst the dizzying swirl of sensationalist and partisan national news media, the independent documentary form has become a vital corrective and side channel of information. That’s certainly the case with the powerful and eye-opening doc Ricochet, which played to a packed house at the Metro yesterday. For those of us not paying close enough attention to details, the case of Kathryn Steinle’s murder on a San Francisco Pier in 2015, supposedly in a random shooting by an undocumented immigrant, had a much deeper story than mass media sound bites conveyed.
The case became a heated talking point during Trump’s election campaign. He used it to lobby for drastic immigration reform, stoking “build the wall” fever and railing against “sanctuary cities” like San Francisco. It turns out that the shooter, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, happened upon the stashed gun and triggered an “unintentional discharge,” which ricocheted off the ground before striking Steinle in the back. Despite the lack of national media attention to the facts of the case, Garcia Zarate was acquitted of all but one questionable charge in 2017. Famed writer Dave Eggers, who observed the trial and is a frequent commentator in the film, quips about Trump, “you can’t try a case via a tweet.”
The film comprehensively covers the work done by San Francisco public defenders–including Jeff Adachi, originally also the film’s director until he passed away suddenly in 2019. The film’s editor, Chihiro Wimbush, took over directorial duties and cast an illuminating light on the case and its implications for politicians and media. The Q&A featured Zarate’s defense attorneys, who become heroes on screen. Wimbush said that as the story unfolded, the documentary “seemed like a film we couldn’t not make.”
From a more personal corner of the documentary form, we first meet the protagonist of the unusually poignant Danish documentary He’s My Brother (Skyggebarn) in the happy throes of a roller coaster ride. The visceral and purely sensory blast of this opening shot in Cille Hannibal’s documentary quickly gains weight as we learn that Peter has been without sight or hearing from infancy. Cared for by his loving and patient parents and sister Christine (also central to the filmmaking process), Peter lives in a world of tactile sensations, and the power of smell has superpowers for him.
This up-close and personal portrait of Peter, with his simple joys, bouts of frustration, and lashing out, is also a tribute to the sacrifice and dedication of his family. More broadly, it shines a light on the lives and unseen, thankless tasks of caretakers everywhere. It is a testament to the film’s impact, through extensive “insider” documentary footage and home movies, that we quickly grow to love and care for Peter as well.
Ranking highly on the list of US premieres unveiled thus far at the festival are two prized films from very different origins and milieus. Spanish director/co-writer Manuel Martin Cuenca’s La Hija (The Daughter) is a thriller of rare understatement… until it isn’t. Without resorting to spoilers, the plot concerns a young pregnant woman sequestered in a remote mountaintop house, with bloodthirsty dogs in the yard and a stunning landscape all around. Slow and steady pacing leads us to a tour de force of suspense cinema invention in the finale, a deft ballet of sound, implied action, and ambient tension. It’s my favorite 15 minutes of the festival so far.
Part of the allure of another festival highlight, Shawkat Amin Korki’s The Exam (Ezmun), circles back to a strong suit of SBIFF from its earliest days, that of bringing seldom-seen niches of world cinema and cultures to local screens. In this case, the exotic locale is Iraqi-Kurdistan, and the story concerns duplicitous schemes to cheat on university entrance exams. A woman, already fragile and formerly suicidal, becomes enmeshed in the cheating plan with the help of her well-meaning sister. At the same time, societal and gender oppression issues hover in the margins.