Michael Moore may have paved the way for documentary gold, but the most structurally adventurous, ethically demanding nonfictions still reside on the festival block, where they frequently outshine their fictional counterparts for formal rigor and breadth of imagination. If the 2009 SFIFF field doesn't have a marquee attraction like Standard Operating Procedure, all the better a year later, I still haven't lost the bad taste of Errol Morris's hi-def moral confusion.
A corrective to Standard's self-serving auteurism might be gleaned from Avi Mograbi's Z32. In this case the troubling testimony belongs to an Israeli soldier who participated in a senseless revenge killing of Palestinian innocents, but Mograbi handcrafts the layers of remorse that elude Morris's smug "interrotron." We never see the ex-soldier's face, though the digital application of masks produces an uncanny effect in tune with the film's sliding scale of memory and performance, responsibility and displacement. Mograbi's willingness to bring the war home (much of the film is set in his living room) is unusual for an investigative reporter, but then most investigative reporters do not narrate their mediating role in song.
Cameroonian-French filmmaker Jean-Marie Téno's documentary Sacred Places seems more conventional in its blend of interview and ethnographic reflections, but the calm manner in which ideas flow from these encounters makes for a first-rate essay-film. Set in a poor district of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, Sacred Places centers on two eloquent men: Jules Cesar Bamouni, a djembe maker who makes some of the same linkages between film and the traditional storytelling forms that first incited griot-auteurs like Ousmane Sembène; and Nanema Boubacar, a hopeful entrepreneur who runs a neighborhood film club. The scenes in which Boubacar rifles through DVD deliveries offer an overlapping portrait of community-oriented cinephilia ("When there are spots on the DVD, it's not good for the film fans") and the vicissitudes of distribution (even in Burkina Faso, African titles are harder to procure than a Jackie Chan vehicle). Sacred Places is light enough on its feet to pass itself as a slice of life, but Téno's quiet approach constitutes a major revaluation of the aims of African cinema.
Another illuminating interviewer, Heddy Honigmann, returns with Oblivion, her first film set in Lima since 1994's mobile portrait Metal and Melancholy. There's also a double-shot of alternative histories from Lee Anne Schmidt (California Company Town) and Travis Wilkerson (Proving Ground), who are both associated with CalArts, an institutional hotbed for hybridized docs. Wilkerson's An Injury to One (2003) remains one of the great American political films; his live performance of military footage promises more shots from the avant-garde of documentary. Also on SFIFF's doc-centric slate: 2009 Persistence of Vision winner Lourdes Portillo, art-historical conspiracy theories courtesy of Peter Greenway (Rembrandt J'Accuse), and reality-bending fictions like John Cassavetes' still-potent unraveling of the domestic melodrama, A Woman Under the Influence (1974).
Fri/24, 8:40 p.m., PFA
Sun/25, 5 p.m.; April 29, 3:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki
May 3, 9:15 p.m.; May 5, 8:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki
May 4, 8:30 p.m., PFA