SFIFF: Short takes on festival flicks
The Day God Walked Away (Philippe van Leeuw, France/Belgium, 2009) Director Philippe Van Leeuw states in the press materials that he made The Day God Walked Away in an attempt to understand how the assassins of the 1994 Rwandan genocide could do what they did and how others could stand by and watch. I walked away from Day with a better understanding of what might draw a person to choose defeatism over an unlikely survival. The film opens as a Tutsi housekeeper (Ruth Nirere) finds herself trapped in her Belgian employers' house, fearing for her children and surrounded by gun-toting murderers. Light on scripted dialogue and featuring local actors, van Leeuw's nonintrusive filming lends the film an authentic atmosphere that can be slow but is never boring. In lensing the film's horrific scenes in a simple and matter-of-fact fashion, he eerily replicates the emotional separation that survivors of the massacre were forced to adopt in order to live. May 3, 6:45 p.m., Clay; May 4, 4 p.m., Kabuki; May 5, 4:15 p.m., Kabuki. (Galvin)
The Practice of the Wild (John J. Healey, USA, 2009) "The way I want to use 'nature' is to refer to the whole of the physical universe," explains the poet Gary Snyder in John J. Healy's succinct but penetrating documentary on the octogenarian poet, essayist, and environmental activist. Snyder's expansive definition conjoins the two areas to which he has devoted his life and creative practice to better being at peace with: the terrestrial and the existential. Healey provides the back story — covering Snyder's farmstead childhood, his discovery of his love for the outdoors, his association with the Beats and later immersion in Zen Buddhism, and his two marriages — told in part through the obligatory scan-and-pan photography and contextual talking heads. The film's highpoints, however, are the many lively conversations Snyder engages in with his friend and fellow writer Jim Harrison, whose grizzled countenance and chirpy demeanor make him a character in his own right. May 3, 6:45 p.m., Kabuki; May 5, 1:30 p.m., Kabuki. (Sussman)
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, USA, 2010) Whether you're a fan of its subject or not, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg's documentary is an absorbing look at the business of entertainment, a demanding treadmill that fame doesn't really make any easier. At 75, comedian Rivers has four decades in the spotlight behind her. Yet despite a high Q rating she finds it difficult to get the top-ranked gigs, no matter that as a workaholic who'll take anything she could scarcely be more available. Funny onstage (and a lot ruder than on TV), she's very, very focused off-, dismissive of being called a "trailblazer" when she's still actively competing with those whose women comics trail she blazed for today's hot TV guest spot or whatever. Anyone seeking a thorough career overview will have to look elsewhere; this vérité year-in-the-life portrait is, like the lady herself, entertainingly and quite fiercely focused on the here-and-now. May 6, 7 p.m., Castro. (Harvey)
THE 53RD SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL runs April 22–May 6 at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 1881 Post, SF; Clay Theatre, 2261 Fillmore, SF; Castro Theatre, 429 Castro, SF; and the Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, SF. Tickets (most shows $12.50) are available by calling (925) 866-9559 or by visiting www.sffs.org>.