Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

The power of documentaries


Three to Infinity: Beyond Two Genders filmmaker Lonny Shavelson at a green-screen shoot with Char Crawford. Photo: Courtesy SF DocFest
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The 14th edition of the San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, playing the Roxie, Brava and Vogue Theaters June 4-18, covers the waterfront, from subjects sublime to personalities so bizarre it takes your breath away.

Three to Infinity: Beyond Two Genders Lonny Shavelson's doc explores gender identity from A to Z, providing a perspective much closer to the one that sex pioneer Kinsey understood to be the real human condition. Some of his subjects have stories that are compelling; others seem more like cunning publicity hounds. The sweetest moments come from catching up with Bay Area teen Sasha, the victim of a hate crime when a punk lit Sasha's skirt on fire on an AC Transit bus, whose claims to be beyond gender labels resonate. (Roxie, 6/5, 15)

Salam Kahil with sandwich in director Lewis Bennett’s The Sandwich Nazi.
Photo: Courtesy SF DocFest

The Sandwich Nazi Salam Kahil runs a deli in one of Vancouver, British Columbia's least desirable neighborhoods. Lewis Bennett's doc gets your attention from its first shot of the Lebanon-born Kahil showing off from behind the counter for an audience of appreciative teen boys. Kahil, a one-time male escort, musician, and current sandwich-maker, loves nothing better than evoking his favorite word, blowjob. A hit at Austin's South by Southwest Festival, the film provides an unexpectedly acute look at today's fractured Middle East during Kahil's oddball journey back to visit his bio-family in Beirut. (Roxie, 6/7, 9)

Sympathy for the Devil: The True Story of the Process Church of the Final Judgment Neil Edwards delves into the backstories of a new-age cult associated in the popular imagination with the assassination of presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, and with NYC's terrifying "Son of Sam" rampage. (Roxie, 6/7, 17; Vogue, 6/8)

The Desk What happens when a cocky magazine features writer encounters a TV celebrity blowhard from New Zealand? Andrew Goldman documents his own rise and fall as a leading feature writer for The New York Times Magazine, in the process rattling some skeletons in the closets of the House of Sulzberger. The movie is part spoof and part Seinfeld-like comedy "about nothing." It helps that the laughs are all at the expense of people who seem to have it coming. (Roxie, 6/5, 8)

Scene from filmmaker Jeremy Royce’s 20 Years of Madness. Photo: Courtesy SF DocFest

20 Years of Madness Remember back in the 90s when cable-access TV provided some intrepid show-offs their 15 minutes of fame? Filmmaker Jeremy Royce tags along as a Michigan man returns home for his 20th high school reunion thinking that reviving the show he used to film with his buds might just be a path forward in his up-to-now futile stabs at carving out a movie career. (Roxie, 6/6, 8)

Michael Des Barres: Who Do You Want Me To Be? What would you do if you thought you were descended from royalty? Doc-maker J. Elvis Weinstein zooms in on the career of a renowned 70s-80s actor/glam-rock frontman, discovering in Michael Des Barres a figure as quirky as the title character in Woody Allen's doc-spoof Zelig. A painfully funny trip down memory lane, with some lovely Big Chill moments. (Roxie, 6/11, 12)

Dead When I Got Here This sublime doc begins with a soliloquy from a man who by all rights should be dead. Josue, his unshaven face framed by a hoodie, stares into a fire, trying to explain a lifetime of painful losses. "I used to have a lot of things, you know. My woman, my daughter. And I lost everything, because I was a loser all my life: a coward, a liar, a thief. I asked for them to take me to the desert, and that's where I am right now."

In the years after WWII, Americans with lung ailments found the desert around El Paso, Texas to have miraculous curative powers. Today filmmaker Mark Aitken explores how the Mexican government, perhaps out of desperation, has used the desert surrounding El Paso's sister city, Juarez, to help desperate men like Josue reclaim their lives at an asylum literally run by the inmates. The results aren't pretty, often harrowing, but this is a portrait of how effective tough love can be when every other option has been exhausted. Josue's journey is marked by a visit from an adult daughter who had long considered him dead. (Roxie, 6/12, 13)




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