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Documentary days: 17th SF DocFest opens

by David Lamble

Shar, the subject of director Adam Sekuler's "Tomorrow Never Knows." Photo: Courtesy SF DocFest
Shar, the subject of director Adam Sekuler's "Tomorrow Never Knows." Photo: Courtesy SF DocFest  

IndieFest guru Jeff Ross is back with the 17th edition of the San Francisco Documentary Festival (SF DocFest), a two-week run of 90 films on every imaginable subject unspooling at four venues: the Roxie Theater (3117 16th St. at Valencia), Brava Theater (2781 24th St. at York), New People Cinema (1746 Post at Webster) and 518 Gallery (518 Valencia at 16th St.). As usual, SF DocFest comes packed with parties: "Clueless Bingo," "AHOY! The Yacht Rock Sing-Along Party," "Mission BAG (Bad Art Gallery)" and "Roller Disco Party."

"Brewmaster," the opening-night film, is Douglas Tirola's spotlight on how the number of American breweries has risen to 7,000. (Brava, 5/31)

Intoxicating drinks are also the subject of SF DocFest's closing-night film, "Agave: The Spirit of a Nation," a look at the rise of Tequila and Mezcal as popular alcoholic drinks. (Roxie, 6/14; New People, 6/10)

"Tomorrow Never Knows" Adam Sekuler tackles the story of Shar, a 64-year-old transgender person who is dying from early-onset Alzheimer's Disease. Shar and wife struggle to celebrate their final days together while preparing for Shar's death and cremation. Warning for scenes that may summon widely conflicting emotions. The film is extremely detailed and could serve as a partial guide to these very special end-of-life issues. (Roxie, 6/3, 5)

"Rodents of Unusual Size" I have to hand it to DocFest programmers, this wildly off-the-wall Centerpiece offering is one of the weirdest, wildest, funniest and oddly educational 71 minutes of reality films I've reviewed after more than 30 years on doc patrol. The "Rodents" directorial trio (Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer) have made a little gem that covers the waterfront on sensitive issues from wetlands erosion to animal rights, to fur as a fashion statement, to a cringeworthy source of protein, to a witty update on post-Katrina Louisiana, to a proud lesbian bayou-hunter, to a lovely update on Michael Moore's "Roger and Me" question: "Pets or meat?"

The fantastical subject of "Rodents of Unusual Size" is, depending on your point of view, a beautiful or repulsive water rat that weighs in at 20 lbs. and is presently literally eating away at the land mass and aquatic livelihoods of Southern Louisiana's fabled bayou country. Called nutria, the rodents are an invasive species that has forced authorities to offer a five-dollar bounty as proof that someone has killed one of the critters.

The film gets off to a somewhat off-putting first act as the filmmakers rub our faces in the physical aspects of the "rodent invasion." Later they try and make amends by taking us on a tour of Cajun kitchens where they bake, boil and sauté the creature nine ways to Sunday. Sitting in at the "Rodents" Bay Area premiere (Roxie, 6/9, followed by a post-film party), you may have to substitute your black sense of humor for your gag reflex. But trust me, it's worth the effort to take in a truly spectacular chunk of Americana. This doc cries out to be booked for a longer post-festival commercial run - to say nothing about DVD sales to mine the nutria recipe suggestions. One of the film's odder moments comes from a nutria hunter who displays his long guns for killing the creatures, all the while cuddling his own pet nutria on his lap. Go figure!


Filmmaker John Waters in director Joe Tropeas history of American movie censorship, Sickies Making Films. Photo: Courtesy SF DocFest  

"Sickies Making Films" Joe Tropea's history of American movie censorship is a 2018 DocFest must-see for its insights into the complicated reasons that Americans have tried to keep other citizens from watching movies they personally find distasteful for religious, moral or aesthetic reasons. The film's chats range from an unrepentant Maryland censor to a filmmaker whose career was inspired by prejudices of Baltimore blue noses. John Waters favors us with a snippet of an infamous scene from one of his films: Divine chows down on dog poop.

Director Tropea traces the agonizing history of domestic film censorship right down to the game-changing 1950s Supreme Court decision that ended Hollywood's ongoing attempts to placate local censors as the movies came of age at the beginning of the sound era. (Roxie, 6/2, 4)

"Complicit" Heather White and Lynn Zhang follow the long, tragic history of Mainland Chinese factory workers poisoned by exposure to the toxic chemical Benzene, already banned in most industrial countries. The film details the horrendous obstacles to worker safety erected by bottom-line-obsessed government bureaucrats. Featuring heartbreaking personal stories from young Chinese workers betrayed by the Communist dictatorship. (Roxie, 6/5; New People, 6/9)

"The Organizer" Local filmmaker Nick Taylor follows the now-notorious history of the Arkansas group ACORN as it tried, starting in the Nixon years, to empower a multi-racial coalition of low-income residents throughout the old Confederacy. The star is a tall, blond organizer, Wade Rathke, who combines rock-star good looks with a tenacious desire to allow ordinary citizens to buck efforts by the conservative establishment to evict folks from neighborhoods seen as prime for gentrification. As the story unfolds, Rathke is betrayed by a financial scandal involving his brother. He winds up taking his fight to Africa, in the process recalling the career of the late pioneering openly gay labor organizer Howard Wallace. (Roxie, 6/2, 6)

"Silicone Soul" Melody Gilbert takes a sensitive look at several adults and their practice of having full-sized doll companions. The most poignant quote: "I use the dolls as replacements for the relationships I wish I had." Plays with short "Swan Song." (Roxie, 6/9; New People, 6/10)

"Point of No Return" Quinn Kanaly and Noel Dockstder explore an attempt to circle the globe in a plane fueled only by sunlight. Drawback: an unheated, unpressurized cockpit. On the plus side, the experience recalls flights by 1930s pioneers. (Roxie, 6/9, 13)

"Adios Amor - The Search for Maria Moreno" Bay Area filmmaker Laurie Coyle honors the one-time farm worker/labor organizer who was among the first leaders of the United Farm Workers Union (UFW). (Roxie, 6/8, 9)

"Elephant Path - Njaia Njoku" Todd McGrain visits the Central African Republic, scene of a lonely battle to save the region's majestic elephant population from the ravages of civil war and the attempts by poachers to kill off the remaining 50,000 so-called forest elephants for the valuable ivory extracted from their tusks. The film notes the work by four individuals: two Africans, a white female biologist and a male Israeli security contractor. I was struck by how this beautifully lensed film carried me back to my freshman college anthropology course and books like "The Forest People." (Roxie, 6/10, 12)


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