The oldest film festival in the United States and Canada, the San Francisco International Film Festival reaches its golden anniversary this year. That's half a century of bringing movies from all over the world to one area of America that doesn't assume America is the world.
At this moment a solo videomaker has to kill at least a few dozen people to storm the multinational media palace. Yeah, this thought crashes the SFIFF's party. But it adds context to the fest's contents. One Guardian contributor recently forwarded me a news story that drew specious links between the Virginia Tech tragedy and Park Chan-wook's 2003 movie Old Boy. The presence of The Bridge (a documentary that uses images of death in a problematic manner) at last year's SFIFF proves that film festivals also face ethical dilemmas about what they present. Does increasingly pervasive digital imagery correspond with a decrease, rather than an increase, in imagination? Does it prompt a lazy way of seeing and corrupt the meaning of an image?
The SFIFF offers a chance to enjoy - not just ponder or ignore - such questions. As a major progenitor of the festival model that has come to dominate cinema outside of Hollywood, this event often celebrates and represents the establishment, as Sam Green and Christian Bruno's 2000 short film Pie Fight '69 makes clear. But unlike many younger festivals, the SFIFF's programming favors substance over sensation.
George Lucas, Robin Williams, and Spike Lee will be feted this year, but the Guardian's SFIFF 50 coverage has an eye for diamonds in the rough: great, quiet films such as Heddy Honigmann's Forever; a definitely maddening but possibly classic work of art, Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth; and digital animator Kelly Sears's hilarious short works - in step with hallucinatory digital mind-blowers and eye-blinders such as Paper Rad - which feature in the type of one-time-only SFIFF collaborative event that can yield a memorable night.
I'd like to draw attention to the SFIFF's two entries from the New Crowned Hope series recently curated by Peter Sellars (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Daratt and Garin Nugroho's dazzling Opera Jawa) and to close by freestyling the praises of Veronica Chen's gorgeous Agua. In its regard of two generations of men, of male physicality and psychology, it is a pleasurable, less-austere improvement on Claire Denis's highly acclaimed Beau Travail and part of a possible new wave of cinema - led by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno's Zidane - that trailblazes the cinematic potential of contemporary sports performance and its portraiture. Dive into it and SFIFF 50. *
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